In Sports Cornucopia, Hockey Holding Its Own

You can trek to the World Cup in Brazil, where full body armor is recommended for the global futbol and armed-robbery festival. You can hit the NBA Finals, where history will happen whether LeBron James three-peats or Gregg Popovich wins a fifth championship over three decades. You can venture to Wimbledon, where you won’t be proud to be an American if you’re following the men’s draw, or go to the U.S. Open golf tournament at Pinehurst No. 2, where Tiger Woods won’t be there but the FBI and Securities Exchange Commission probably will be in search of answers to Phil Mickelson’s insider-trading issues. You can check out the NBA draft, where the Cleveland Cavaliers must know insiders to have had the No. 1 pick three times in four years. You can spend a Saturday at Belmont Park, where California Chrome will try to rise from a humble upbringing and become not only the most cost-efficient champion in sports history but thoroughbred racing’s first Triple Crown winner in 36 years.

Or, you can pay between $480 and $2,490 in New York or between $349 and $629 in Los Angeles — face value — to watch the Rangers and Kings play for the Stanley Cup.

Price gouging? if you’ve been watching the NHL postseason, you’ll realize, somehow, that those sums might constitute a bargain.

In a month that will launch a full-frontal attack on our sporting senses, no one with a taste for great theater is forgetting hockey. The Kings and Chicago Blackhawks just produced one of the most dramatic and best-played postseason series ever, and as a reward, the forever-embattled league commissioner, Gary Bettman, now presents the first Cup Finals ever played between America’s two largest media markets. Hockey never will be dominant in either metropolis, but the massive numbers of frontrunners and money people will join puck purists in pushing the hockey ticket market to unprecedented heights — and TV ratings to considerably higher levels than, say, the numbers for the Carolina-Edmonton Finals not too long ago.

Not only is this series good for hockey, it’s good for the two cities. Except for a fluky Super Bowl win by the Giants 2 1/2 years ago, New York hasn’t won much lately for a place that demands annual glory. Instead, they’ve had to deal with butt-fumbles and bow-wows — hello, Knicks and Mets — and a shocking postseason absence by the Yankees while the blood-rival Red Sox were winning their third World Series in 10 years. L.A.? Maybe folks don’t depend on local sports for their self-identities — the sun and beach await every day, and it’s 69 and sunny as I write this overlooking the ocean — but they are a little cranky with the Lakers being oddly irrelevant, Donald Sterling dominating headlines and the Dodgers taking $8 billion for a cable TV deal when the broadcasts are accessible for only 30 percent of the market. The Kings, of all teams, have become the pride of L.A., gunning for their second Cup in three years. And Wayne Gretzky is nowhere near the scene.

“The past few years we’ve tried to earn the respect of the league,” winger Justin Williams said. “L.A. is not just a place to play a hockey game and work on your tan … It’s a tough loop.”

Not that anyone would know Drew Doughty, best defenseman in the world, if he walked down Venice Beach. But local knowledge has improved since Mike Richards was traded to the Kings from Philadelphia, where, as team captain, he’d have been spotted wearing five layers of shirts and three beanies. Who can forget when Richards showed up at an L.A. sports radio station for a show interview two years ago, only to be asked by the the front-desk receptionist, “What’s your last name?’’

Henrik Lundquist has no such problems. He’s the King of New York, best goalie in the sport, and his presence alone gives the Rangers a chance in a series the Kings should rule because of their physical play, newfound goal potency, traditional defensive web and, of course, a world-class goalie in his own right in Jonathan Quick. The deadpanning coach, Darryl Sutter, always likes to downplay his team’s chances. Asked about the Rangers, he said, “Great goaltending. Great defense. Great forwards. Great special teams.”

So, the Kings don’t have a shot?

“I’d say it’s against us,” said Sutter, agreeing. “We’re up against it again.”

Right. The Kings have scored 73 goals in the playoffs with numerous weapons, including former Ranger Marian Gaborik. They overcome an 0-3 series hole to make history against San Jose. They overcame a 2-3 series hole to beat freeway rival Anaheim. They took a 3-1 series lead against Chicago, played sluggishly in letting the Hawks tie the series, fell behind by two goals in Game 7, tied the game and fell behind again before tying it and winning in overtime. They’re 3-0 in Game 7s on the road and have won seven of their 12 playoff road games. They’re 7-0 in elimination games.

Notice the trend? The Kings are teasing you.

“They find a way, L.A. They’re never out of a hockey game, out of a series,’’ said Joel Quenneville, the shellshocked Chicago coach. “They’re … dangerous.”

Still, the Rangers cling to advantages. They are more rested than the Kings, having clinched their series over Montreal days earlier. And they’re a team inspired by larger causes, such as the passing of the mother of their emotional leader, Martin St. Louis, and the continued mourning of winger Dominic Moore, who lost his wife, Katie, to liver cancer last year. “There have been quite a few story lines this year, and those two are obviously big ones,” assistant captain Brad Richards said. “That’s just the way things go with teams that go through runs. There always seem to be little things that you can grab and build on. The stars have to align, and it’s great that those guys have the feeling that someone is watching over them and helping them out.”

“Even though a lot of people aren’t going to give us a chance, I like our chances,” coach Alain Vigneault said before the flight to L.A. “I like our group. I like our focus. I like the way we compete. I know L.A. has been there before. I know they’ve won before. I know they’ve gone to three Game 7s and won them, and they just beat the defending Stanley Cup champions (the Blackhawks). I get that.

“But we’ve really rallied around ourselves and the opportunity.’’

The last time teams from New York and L.A. played for major championships in this country was back in the early ‘80s and late ‘70s, when the Yankees and Dodgers were on stage and Reggie Jackson was Mr. October.

Who’s going to be Mr. June? Imagine us even debating that about hockey.

If this series also goes seven games, plan on spending $2,000 in downtown L.A. just to get in the building. Hockey, the niche sport, has gone Broadway AND Hollywood.