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SCF Preview: Kings, Devils ready for unexpected Final

by Shawn P. Roarke and Dan Rosen

New Jersey Devils

Seed: 648-28-6 102 Pts.

Los Angeles Kings

Seed: 840-27-15 95 Pts.
In two weeks or less, the National Hockey League will have an unexpected Stanley Cup champion.

When the toughest tournament in sports started almost two months ago, nobody expected the new Jersey Devils or Los Angeles Kings to reach the Final.

New Jersey, seeded sixth in the East, was in a draw with Boston, the defending champions; the top-seeded New York Rangers; and the Pittsburgh Penguins and Philadelphia Flyers, two of the game's hottest teams heading into the postseason. None of those teams are left in the East, though, with New Jersey ushering the Flyers and Rangers out of the playoffs. In the first round, New Jersey outlasted the third-seeded Florida Panthers, winning in double overtime in Game 7.

The Devils are in their fifth Final since 1995 and will be looking for their fourth championship and first since 2003.

The march of the Kings, in the Final for the first time since 1993, has been even more unexpected and, perhaps, more impressive. Los Angeles did not secure its postseason spot until the penultimate day of the season and lost its final two games to fall to the No. 8 seed. No matter, the Kings marched through the Presidents' Trophy-winning Vancouver Canucks, the second-seeded St. Louis Blues and the third-seeded Phoenix Coyotes -- amazingly losing just twice during their perilous journey. They are a perfect 8-0 on the road this postseason, and dating back to last year's playoffs, have won 10 straight road playoff games.

Now, one of these teams will continue its incredible journey to the Stanley Cup. The other, sadly, will see its magical quest fall just short.

There is little to be gleaned from the regular season as to which team will prevail. The clubs met twice in October and New Jersey won both games, 3-0  shootout and 2-1 in a shootout. The 3-0 game featured backup goalies Johan Hedberg and Jonathan Bernier -- 3-0.
Much like Kings coach Darryl Sutter, Devils coach Peter DeBoer has had the luxury in the postseason of rolling four lines that are all aggressive on the forecheck. DeBoer has juggled his lines after losses, but the only major lineup change he made was after Game 3 against the Rangers, when he inserted a healthy Jacob Josefson to center the third line.

The Devils' attack starts with Zach Parise and Ilya Kovalchuk, who are playing on separate lines after spending most of the season together. Kovalchuk leads the Devils with 18 points in the playoffs, while Parise has 14.

Travis Zajac, the top-line center between Parise and Dainius Zubrus, looks fresh and is playing probably better than expected considering he skated in only 15 regular-season games due to an Achilles injury.

Patrik Elias has struggled to find his scoring touch in the playoffs after putting up 78 points in the regular season, but he has been effective as a center and left wing on the second line.

DeBoer is able to roll his lines because of the atypical play of his fourth line. Stephen Gionta, Ryan Carter and Steve Bernier made up a big piece of the Devils' puzzle in their series win against the Rangers because they were able to keep up the attack and the pressure. Carter had a goal in Game 5 and another in Game 6.
For a team that struggled to score goals so much during the regular season, the Kings have run remarkably deep in the playoffs. They have had 15 different players score at least one goal and another 15 players register at least one assist.

With that said, the Kings' offense is driven by its top-six forwards.

Dustin Brown and Anze Kopitar hold the key to the first line and each is having a Conn Smythe-worthy playoff run. Brown, who has a team-high 16 points, has scored big goals, delivered big hits and played air-tight defense for his club.

Dustin Penner, who won a Stanley Cup with Anaheim in 2007, scored the overtime goal that delivered the Kings into the Final. His linemates, Mike Richards and Jeff Carter, each has four goals.

The Kings also are getting depth scoring. Minor-league call-up Dwight King has been a revelation, scoring five goals. Jarrett Stoll, meanwhile, gives the Kings a three-headed center model that almost is impossible to scheme against for most teams.

Just like the Kings, the Devils have balance on their blue-line with three pairs of equal parts offense and defense, righty and lefty.

Bryce Salvador and Marek Zidlicky make up the top pair. Zidlicky is the one expected to provide offense, but Salvador has discovered an offensive bent to his game with three goals and eight assists in the playoffs. Zidlicky leads the Devils in average ice time per game.

DeBoer uses his second pair of Andy Greene and Mark Fayne for more than 20 minutes a game, and they've stayed true to their defensive roots. Greene has the ability to give more in the offensive end.

The third pair of Anton Volchenkov and Peter Harrold is very much like the top two, only it plays less. Volchenkov leads the Devils in shorthanded ice time per game.
The Kings don't get a lot of offensive production from defensemen not named Drew Doughty.

Doughty has 10 points in 14 games, while the other five defensemen have combined for just 11 points in those same 14 games.

The Kings' defense prides itself on being sound in its own end. Each of the six defensemen boasts a plus rating, led by Doughty's plus-10. He leads the team in ice time, averaging 25:52 per game. Veteran Willie Mitchell, making his first Cup Final appearance at 35, is second, just 25 seconds behind Doughty. Rob Scuderi, who won a Cup with Pittsburgh in 2009, is the only other defenseman logging more than 20 minutes per game.

Martin Brodeur enters his fifth Stanley Cup Final as the record-holder in just about every major goaltending category, but also as the underdog to Jonathan Quick. Regardless, Brodeur has been good enough to get the Devils here by playing the way he did when they last won the Cup in 2003.

Brodeur celebrated his 40th birthday May 6 with a win in Game 4 of the conference semifinals against the Flyers. It was one of 13 games in the playoffs in which he allowed two goals or fewer.

To many, Jonathan Quick has been the best goaltender in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. His 1.54 goals-against average and .946 save percentage certainly are impressive credentials in that argument.

But for Quick, it's about more than that. Eight of his 12 wins have come on the road this postseason, and he has allowed one or fewer goals In six of his 14 games. Even more impressive is how good Quick has been after he has lost this postseason. Despite it being a small two-game sample, Quick has recorded a .941 save percentage in outings following a loss, stopping 64 of 68 shots in those two games.

Simply, Quick gives his Kings teammates the belief that they can win any game.

Peter DeBoer has preached an aggressive forecheck since he was hired July 19, 2011. New Jersey is reaping the rewards of it now as a heavy team that plays fast and strong on the walls.

DeBoer has made all the right moves in the playoffs.

After losing Game 1 against the Flyers, DeBoer felt rookie defenseman Adam Larsson would be a better fit than Peter Harrold. Larsson scored in Game 2 and the Devils won the game and the series. After losing Game 1 to the Rangers, DeBoer went back to Harrold, who was a plus player for the rest of the series.

When DeBoer felt the Devils needed fresh legs after losing Game 3 to the Rangers, he put Josefson in for Petr Sykora, and that worked, as well.

Darryl Sutter has been quite the talisman for the Kings. Since he joined the team in mid-December, the Kings have gone 37-19-7, including a 12-2 run in the postseason.

Sutter has demanded much from his team, but also has rewarded the players that have responded. Dustin Brown is Exhibit A of this process, as he found a grove with Sutter and has played his best hockey since the Trade Deadline in late February.

Tactically, Sutter's biggest contribution has been to implement a far more aggressive forecheck. Not only has that forecheck pinned opponents in the defensive zone, but it's created numerous turnovers. As a result, the Kings are getting far more offensive opportunities and capitalizing on a far more frequent basis.
Special Teams

The Devils are fortunate their power play and penalty kill have not burned them this spring because they have not been a special-teams dynamo.

They had the NHL's best PK in the regular season at 89.6 percent, but it is just XXX in the playoffs. Their power play, which was 17.2 percent in the regular season, is at 18.2 percent in the playoffs. They are 9-for-43 on the power play in the first two rounds, but scored just three times on 23 chances against the Rangers.

They've survived by being a plus-13 in five-on-five situations this spring.

The Kings' power play has been an utter disaster in the postseason. It is clicking at 8.1 percent for the postseason, scoring just six times in 74 opportunities. More damning is the fact that half of those power-play goals have come during five-on-three play. Richards and Carter each has two power-play goals.

So how have the Kings survived such an ineffective power play? Their penalty kill simply has been impenetrable. Not only have they killed 52 of 57 man-disadvantage situations, but they also have struck for five shorthanded goals, with Brown and Kopitar scoring two each.

Series Changer

Patrik Elias -- Elias is a two-time Cup winner and the Devils' all-time leader in points. He hasn't been producing at his usual rate this spring, but if he finds his touch the Devils probably will find themselves in a great position. He's a dangerous forward that the Kings have to pay attention to. He had 78 points in the regular season, including a goal and an assist in New Jersey's 3-0 win at L.A. on Oct. 25. He can light it up

Dustin Penner -- If Penner comes to play, like he did against Phoenix, there are few teams that have an answer for him. The 6-foot-4, 242-pound left wing opens a ton of space for his linemates, while his ability to work the boards keeps the cycle going. Most importantly, though, he is impossible to keep away from the slot, the very place from which he shoveled home the series-deciding goal against Phoenix in overtime of Game 5.

What If ...

The Devils will if…: They roll four lines and stay aggressive with the forecheck. The Kings want to play aggressive. They want to forecheck and use their size to win puck battles. The Devils are built the same way, which means they're capable of shoving the Kings' game right back in their faces. If the Devils get stuck in the zone and lose puck battles, this could be a short series.

Kings will win if ...: They receive scoring from unlikely sources, including the power play. Right now, the Kings are being carried by their top-six forwards, but that may not be possible in the Final when they will face the biggest defensive test of the tournament. But if the Kings can get some special-teams scoring and some contributions from third- and fourth-line skaters, goalie Jonathan Quick should be able to make those goals stand up.

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