The Los Angeles Kings' return to the Stanley Cup Final after a 19-year absence is both unexpected and expected all at once.
Los Angeles entered the postseason as the eighth seed in the West following an inconsistent regular season that resulted not just in a coaching change, but a daunting first-round matchup with Vancouver, the defending Western Conference champion and winner of the Presidents' Trophy the last two seasons. It is rare that a team wins the Stanley Cup after making a coaching change during the season and rarer still that a Presidents' Trophy-winner goes down in the first round.
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Yet here the Kings are just four wins away from lifting the Cup for the first time in their 45-year history.
While most pundits would have pegged L.A. for a first-round exit against the powerful Canucks, the Kings have instead put together one of the more remarkable and impressive postseason runs in recent memory, needing just 14 games to advance to the Final, and they’ve done it by finally unlocking the potential that had been expected of them all season long. The Kings were a popular preseason Cup pick and there are plenty of reasons why with Jonathan Quick, Drew Doughty and Dustin Brown chief among them.
It was a rocky 2011-12 regular season, but L.A. has shown why so much was expected back in October. Quick has been phenomenal in goal, Doughty has been a two-way force on the blue line and an offense that somehow scored the second-fewest goals in the League during the regular season has finally broken out with an average of 2.93 goals per game in the playoffs. In addition, it has been a team effort from all corners of the roster that has brought the Kings this far. As rookie Dwight King's four goals in the Western Conference Finals show, contributions have come from places both expected and unexpected -- much like the Kings' postseason performance as a whole.
But that postseason isn't done yet. The Kings still have their eyes on the ultimate prize, but New Jersey Devils' own unanticipated playoff run presents yet another challenge. Here are seven things the Kings will need to do to bring Stanley to the City of Angels for the first time.
1. Shake off the rust
The Kings clinched the Western Conference title on May 22. Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final is on May 30.
The math is simple.
By the time the puck drops for Game 1 on Wednesday night, L.A. will have gone eight days without playing a game, and while the Kings have been practicing and doing whatever they can to stay in game shape and maintain their momentum, it is simply impossible to simulate game conditions -- let alone the intensity of the Stanley Cup Playoffs -- in practice.
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After more than a week without playing a real game, it would seem inevitable that the Kings may need a few minutes to get their legs back under them -- and depending on how long it takes them to get back up to speed, the ramifications could be significant. Look no further than the Philadelphia Flyers, who were mightily impressive in their opening-round win over the Penguins but exited the playoffs meekly in five games against New Jersey after waiting through a seven-day break between series.
The Kings have dealt with this scenario before, having waited eight days between their second-round sweep of the Blues and Game 1 against Phoenix in the Western Conference Finals, but that doesn't make the threat of suddenly falling out of sync any less dangerous. If L.A. can manage the opening moments of Game 1 before getting fully back in the swing of playoff hockey, it will bode well for the rest of the series.
2. Be Quick on the draw
L.A.'s offense has been sensational in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, but the Kings wouldn't have even made the postseason were it not for a stellar regular season by their Vezina candidate between the pipes. Quick is the biggest reason the Kings weren't playing golf in April -- and despite their improved offense, he might be the biggest reason they still aren't now.
Hyperbole aside, Quick has been absolutely brilliant in the playoffs, going 12-2 with a .946 save percentage and a microscopic 1.54 goals-against average, both tops among goalies in the 2012 postseason.
As he's crafted a Conn Smythe-caliber run in the playoffs, there's little reason to believe Quick can't continue to be a rock in the crease for L.A. -- and he'll need to be. Much has been made of the Kings' penchant for scoring this postseason, but the Devils aren't far behind. New Jersey has averaged 2.83 goals per game in the playoffs, while Los Angeles has averaged 2.93. In fact, were it not for the wild first-round series between Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, the Stanley Cup Final would likely be featuring the top two scoring teams in the entire postseason field.
That kind of offensive firepower on both sides of the ice makes goaltending all the more important. Quick and his New Jersey counterpart Martin Brodeur have been equal to the task so far, but they may be about to face their biggest challenge of the spring.
Quick will be tested often, and he must continue to prove his mettle against one of the best of all time.
3. Find the power
The Kings have excelled in all facets of the game during the playoffs except one -- the power play.
Given L.A.'s knack for finding the net in its 14 playoff games, it's fairly surprising that the Kings have struggled to score with the extra man -- and yet the Kings are scoring on just 8.1 percent of their power-play opportunities, the second-lowest mark of any of the 16 playoff teams. This is all the more surprising given the team's adequate, if unspectacular, 17 percent power-play percentage during the regular season.
For the Kings to be scoring at such a low rate with the man advantage when they're putting out a first unit with Doughty, Brown, Mike Richards, Anze Kopitar and Justin Williams should be a disappointment, and while coach Darryl Sutter was quick to note during the conference finals that Boston won a Stanley Cup last season with a similarly challenged power play, the Devils have been nearly as good at scoring as the Kings have been and Brodeur has only gotten stronger as the playoffs have worn on. All that means the Kings will need to find whatever advantages they can and the power play is perhaps the only aspect of their game that has not yet reached its potential in the postseason.
Improving the power play will be difficult against the Devils, who had a historically good penalty kill this season, but if the Kings can get any traction on special teams it will be a significant boon to their chances.
4. Match the Devils' fourth line
At times during New Jersey's six-game win against New York in the Eastern Conference Finals, the Devils had a distinct advantage due to the production, intensity and energy provided by their fourth line of Stephen Gionta, Ryan Carter and Steve Bernier. L.A.'s fourth line of Colin Fraser, Brad Richardson and Jordan Nolan has done its job, but it hasn't contributed in the same way New Jersey's has.
Devils coach Peter DeBoer's job became that much easier against the Rangers because he knew he could confidently roll four lines and keep his top forwards fresh without any drop-off in his forecheck. It also didn't hurt that his fourth line contributed several pivotal goals throughout the series.
The Kings' fourth-liners must find a way to match the intensity of New Jersey's and help negate the Devils' top forwards. If L.A. can render Gionta, Carter and Bernier ineffective, it will force DeBoer to play his top nine forwards more often, and while that might give the Devils a little more time with their best offensive players on the ice, it will also put more miles on the odometers of guys like Zach Parise, Ilya Kovalchuk and Patrik Elias. If there is one massive advantage the Kings have heading into this series it's that they've played just 14 games while the Devils played 12 in the first two rounds alone and 18 overall.
L.A. should be the fresher and healthier team by far when the series begins and if the Kings can cancel out New Jersey's fourth line and force the Devils to stretch out their top players, it will only be a positive, particularly considering the exhausting up-tempo styles both teams employ.
5. Clamp down on Kovy
When Kovalchuk signed his free-agent deal with the Devils during the 2010 offseason, there was one other suitor that came close to inking him, and it's the team that now stands in the way of his first Stanley Cup. Over the 17 games he's played this postseason -- Kovalchuk missed one game against the Flyers due to injury -- he has shown why the Kings were so hot on his trail two years ago.
With five points in the last three games against the Rangers -- all New Jersey victories -- Kovalchuk took the lead among playoff scorers with a total of seven goals and 11 assists. He has also been deadly on the power play as five of those goals have come with the man advantage; his 58 shots on goal are the fourth-most in the League in the playoffs and nine more than anyone on L.A. has managed.
Kovalchuk's average of 23:16 ice time per game is second among all forwards in the playoffs and the Devils are 6-1 in games in which he has scored -- further evidence that he’s the linchpin of New Jersey's offense. Stopping him is a difficult task, one that will fall heavily on the shoulders of defensemen Drew Doughty and Rob Scuderi, but its importance can't be overstated.
If the Kings want to keep the Devils off the board, they must shut down Kovalchuk.
6. Quell the forecheck
It used to be that New Jersey was a defensive-minded team that rode the neutral zone trap and Brodeur’s goaltending to victory. These, however, aren't your father's Devils.
When the Kings face New Jersey they will see a team that has built most of its playoff run on a relentless forecheck, one unlike anything the Kings have faced in the postseason. In fact, if L.A. wants to get some idea of what it will need to handle in the Stanley Cup Final, the best idea might be to look in the mirror. Both the Kings and Devils have pressed opposing teams aggressively and forced them to uncomfortably make plays with the puck in their own end.
We should see more of that in the Stanley Cup Final -- and whichever team gets the better of the play and manages to push the puck deeper into the other team's zone figures to have a significant edge.
For the Kings to seize that advantage, they have to overpower New Jersey with their own forecheck and shut down the Devils' rushes before they start. L.A. can ramp up the pressure and push the Devils back in a way the Rangers' game plan didn't allow, and if the Kings win the forecheck battle it should throw New Jersey off balance and potentially create scoring opportunities.
Should the Kings be unable to slow down New Jersey's forecheck with their own, those tables will be completely turned.
7. Fire away
You can't win if you can't score, and you can't score if you don't put the puck on net.
No team that made it out of the first round has done that more than the Kings, who have averaged a healthy 32.9 shots on goal in the playoffs. That figure becomes even more important against New Jersey, which not only has averaged more shots on goal (30.4) during the postseason than any team L.A. has faced so far, but few teams seem as radically dependent on their shot advantage as the Devils.
New Jersey has won 81.8 percent of its playoff games when outshooting its opponent, the best mark among the 16 playoff qualifiers. But when the Devils don't hold the edge in shots, their winning percentage plummets to 42.9. Only one team that won a series in this postseason (Philadelphia) has posted a worse figure.
The Kings on the other hand, thanks in large part to Quick's play, have been comfortable either way. When outshooting opponents L.A. has won 77.8 percent of the time, a rate bettered only by the Devils, but remarkably the Kings have also won all four games they've played in which the opposition had more shots.
While the numbers game of simply getting more pucks on net than the other team doesn't in and of itself guarantee victory, it is often a sign that one team is carrying the play and creating scoring opportunities that could come off rebounds or scrambles in the crease.
Should the Kings consistently have more shots than the Devils, it will be a sign that they have consistently outworked them, and as the playoffs have shown, it will make it that much more difficult for New Jersey to win games. If the Kings put more rubber on Brodeur than New Jersey does on Quick, it just might mean putting their names on the Stanley Cup.