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The West is best – but don’t count out these Rangers

It has been a lopsided fight now for years, one that's ended with a predictable result.

The Western Conference has pummelled the East during the regular season and, when it's come to the Stanley Cup final, that dominance has continued. The West has won five of the last seven Cups, going 26-17 in the finals and allowing less than 2.4 goals per game in doing so.

There have been some great, memorable series mixed in, and it hasn't always been a romp, but that general trend from the season – where the West has clearly been the best – has held for the last series of the year.

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It's tempting to look at what's happening this year and predict the same.

In the first year under the new alignment, the West ran over the East to the tune of a 246-150-52 record – the equivalent of a 100-point pace – this season, making 2013-14 one of the conference setup's most uneven years.

Western teams that made the playoffs were even more dominant, winning 60 per cent of the time against the other conference, for a 108-point pace.

Fast forward through three rounds of the playoffs, and the only team that fared well against the West – the Boston Bruins – is long gone. In Boston's place is a 96-point team that, at one point midway through the year, had one of the worst records in the league.

On paper, the New York Rangers certainly don't look like a juggernaut.

And yet, while they may not have home ice and they may be a decided underdog, they've also got a reasonable chance here in this final – far better than some of the Eastern teams that have come before.

That goes beyond Henrik Lundqvist's ability to stand on his head, too – even if that'll be a must.

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If you look back at the last time the East won the Cup, goaltending was a huge factor. Vancouver scored only eight goals in seven games in large part due to the heroics of Bruins netminder Tim Thomas, who faced more than 35 shots a game in the final, posted a .967 save percentage and won the Conn Smythe Trophy.

Canucks goalie Roberto Luongo, meanwhile, was a bit of a basket case, alternating between good games and disastrous ones in allowing 20 goals in the series.

That rarely wins you a Cup – and it's not that farfetched to imagine the Rangers benefiting from a similar advantage this year.

But they have others as well.

Health is one. Other than Derek Stepan playing (pretty well) through his broken jaw, the Rangers are remarkably uninjured for a team that's already been through 20 games.

New York also benefits from having three extra days of rest while the West gauntlet ran the distance to Game 7, giving the East finalists almost a full week off between eliminating the Montreal Canadiens and Game 1 on Wednesday.

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More importantly, the Rangers are a far more dangerous team than their record shows. After pulling out of a tailspin in the opening couple of months under new coach Alain Vigneault, they closed the season 29-13-4, picking up more points (62) in that span than all but two teams.

That's cherry picking dates a little but the fact was they were basically a 110-point team for a huge portion of the year, something made possible by not only Lundqvist's return to form but the team adapting to Vigneault's aggressive, puck pressure system.

Since Christmas, the Rangers have been a better than 55-per-cent possession team, which puts them up there with the West's best and should give them a chance if they can regain that form.

That was what was on display when they manhandled the Habs in the third period of Game 6, penning them in the defensive zone even when their season was on the line.

Unlike some of the other East finalists of late, this isn't an average group that got hot for six weeks, relying on a goaltender or outrageous shooting percentage to sneak through three rounds. These Rangers have not only some admirable depth but also high end scoring talent (beginning with Marty St. Louis and Rick Nash) and probably the most underrated blueline in the league (led by Ryan McDonagh).

Out of the weaker conference, they're a deserving challenger and have the potential to surprise people in the hockey world.

"It's going to have to be our best hockey of the year," Vigneault said on Sunday.

And it probably will. But the Rangers best is more than enough to make this one of the more compelling finals in a while.

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About the Author
Hockey Reporter

James joined The Globe as an editor and reporter in the sports department in 2005 and now covers the NHL and the Toronto Maple Leafs. More

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