Stanley Cup Preview: Kings vs. Devils
Oh, it will be fun. (Photo courtesy of Andy Marlin/Getty Images)
It’s a Stanley Cup Final no one saw coming—unless of course one watched the last month and a half of playoff hockey unfold. Two teams that admirably underperformed over the course of an eighty-two game regular season have quickly and loudly transformed into two of the most solid Cup contenders of the last few years.
On one side sits the Eastern Conference Champion Devils, fresh off a vanquishing of heated rival New York Rangers. I know I used the word “loudly” in just the previous paragraph, but the Rangers’ eventual undoing was not as immediately attributed to the work of their opponent. Many pundits claimed those road-weary Rangers were simply too tired to play good hockey any more. They expressed shock at the fashion in which Henrik Lundqvist slowed down and confusion when the squad’s super-physical style of play began to show cracks. But it was the Devils all along—despite the infinitesimal amount of credit which was being given.
Led by a rejuvenated Martin Brodeur (playing like he’s 26, not 40! [cliché] [reporter-speak] [more clichés]) and a seemingly ragtag group of soon-to-be unrestricted free agents, the Devils simply outplayed New York in almost every facet of the game. It was the same relentlessness that saw them dispatching Philadelphia and Florida as well to get to this point. And yes, to echo the statements of any hockey fan of the last fifteen years, it is very ironic to point out the Devils are the most exciting offensive team remaining and could very well have “saved” these finals from being rather hum-drum.
Los Angeles represents the Western Conference, and they did so by marching to the final round in the fewest games (14) ever. They also have yet to lose on the road, amassing eight of those wins in Vancouver, St. Louis, and Phoenix. Jonathan Quick currently leads the unofficial Conn Smythe power rankings thanks to repeated stellar showings in net. In doing so, he reminds us that it’s not implausible the Kings could have missed the playoffs entirely without his netminding during the season.
But that is not to underscore the support he has received from his players up front as of late. Captain Dustin Brown, playoff veteran Mike Richards, suddenly clutch Dustin Penner and the remarkable rookie Dwight King have tallied a large portion of the goals scored to the surprise of probably everyone outside the organization. It’s pretty funny to think how quickly the calls for Dean Lombardi’s head have grown from quiet to almost nonexistent over the past few weeks. This is a team that played below their potential for so long, got a kick in the pants close to the February trade deadline, found their stride during round one’s thrashing of Vancouver and haven’t looked back since. The Kings have a knack for grabbing an opposing team’s momentum from a game or period or shift and emphatically squashing any trace of it. They can play physical, suffering defense as well and for the first time all spring will be facing a team that’s firing on all cylinders much in the same way they are.
History is on the side of New Jersey, winners of three Stanley Cups in the last seventeen years. The Kings have never gotten the opportunity to lift hockey’s Holy Grail. They have made the Finals once but are cup-less in their forty-three years of existence. But we live in the now. Let us now look at three reasons why each of these teams will win.
Why the Los Angeles Kings Will Win
1. Jonathan Quick
This almost goes without saying, but the dude has been playing out of his mind. Half the reason the Kings can be so creative and dynamic up front is the overwhelming confidence they have in their Connecticut-born goaltender to stop and shot that comes his way. He leads the league in postseason goals-against-average (1.54) and save percentage (.946). Quick also has earned two shutouts, one more than his counterpart Brodeur has since round one. If his team goes on to win it all and he remains a brick wall in net, presenters of the Conn Smythe podium (not to mention the Vezina as well, although that will come later) may as well start photographing him with it now.
2. Roster Depth
Go ahead, peruse the Kings’ twelve forwards and six defensemen and find the holes. Locate the players whom the opposition would be wise to attack because he would surely crack. What lines are prone to turnovers and dumb penalties? Still looking? Good, you won’t find any. With the addition of Jeff Carter and the aforementioned emergence of King, nearly every individual is contributing quality minutes and generating scoring chances. One of Darryl Sutter’s first changes to take shape after accepting the head coaching gig in December was to get the defensemen more involved on the offensive side of the ice. Willie Mitchell’s career-high twenty-four regular season points are no accident. Slava Voynov’s maturation into a defensive stalwart and playoff scorer was certainly aided by Sutter. Finally, Drew Doughty’s imposing physical play has become an extraordinary factor in the Kings’ success. No one is weighed down by long shifts because everyone and anyone else can carry the load when asked to. It’s uncanny, yet effective. It just might be the clearest advantage L.A. has over their opponent.
3. Sweet, Sweet Rest
As previously mentioned; the Kings advance to this year’s finals in the fewest amount of games ever. It bears repeating because it could reap generous benefits for the Western Conference champs. After dispatching Phoenix in five games, Kings’ players and coaches have sat with their feet propped up for the past seven days, two of which were spent watching the Devils and Rangers mercilessly pummel one another into submission. Prior to the end of the conference finals, the Kings had a total of eleven days off in between series. Compare that to New Jersey’s seven and coming off the heels of an especially brutal Rangers series…you might say Los Angeles has the upper hand in this category. Of course, there’s no telling if it will continue to lead to success—many, many other teams have waited out their Stanley Cup opponent only to get beaten handily by the more game-ready squad. One that comes to mind is the 2007 Ottawa Senators, who had nearly a week and a half off before the Final and were quickly trounced in five games by Anaheim. Needless to say, it will be a factor, and I’m counting on it being a plus for the Kings.
Why the New Jersey Devils Will Win
There is no doubt that these New Jersey Devils will be the fastest team that the Kings will play this postseason. Both skate speed and rate of play are decidedly in New Jersey’s favor, it’s simply the result of the coaching philosophy of Pete DeBoer—quick passes to create odd-man rushes complimented by an especially aggressive forecheck. Ilya Kovalchuk’s injury will be worth watching (most stay mum of the subject, but the one-hundred million dollar man has been lacking the explosion in his stride for some time now), but even without their all-star the team has plenty of other weapons to let fly.
2. Martin Brodeur
Goalies are important, and to say that either of these teams would be lost in the snowy wilderness without their net-minders would be a grand understatement. The ageless wonder has revamped his playing style, most likely to compensate for his advanced age, and come up with one big save after another to keep his team in the thick of things. He has even gone largely without the soft goals, a symptom that plagued his play for the better part of the last decade. In the handful of periods which saw the Rangers outplay New Jersey, Brodeur was the calming force in between the pipes that undeniably frustrated New York to the point of no return. He is most likely named playoff MVP if his team emerges victorious and in doing so will perhaps avenge his Conn Smythe-less campaign of 2003.
3. Secondary Scoring
Kovalchuk has been impressive. Zach Parise has supplied a number of critical goals at even more critical junctures. But its rookie Adam Henrique, Travis Zajac, and defenseman Bryce Salvador who have all reached double digits in post season points as well. Henrique, the twenty-two year old and Windsor Spitfire alumnus, has scored two overtime series clinching goals along the way. In other words, he’s been unflappable. The Devils offensive style allows quite a few other players to get in on the action, something that, to this point, has led to a number of viable scoring threats out on the ice each and every shift. Los Angeles will have their hands full keeping everyone in check. And oh, if a particular game goes to overtime, you might want to keep the puck iced if #14 is quietly minding his own business north of the crease.
But Really, Who’s Going to Win?
Los Angeles in six.
Enjoy the games, everybody.