There are all sorts of storylines bouncing around the web, the printed page, and the airwaves as professional hockey’s marquee event gets underway on Wednesday at the Prudential Center in Newark, NJ. The teams have been set, the battle lines have been drawn, and all that is left is for the Stanley Cup Final series to get started between the Los Angeles Kings and the New Jersey Devils.
Both teams have been to the Stanley Cup Final before. The Kings are here for the second time in their 45 years of history, and the Devils are here for the fifth time in their 38 years of existence as an NHL team. The Devils have three Stanley Cup championships so far, and the Kings have yet to sip champagne instead of beer after the Final series concludes. Both teams are playing an aggressive, hard-skating, well-defended style of hockey with a level of consistency that is certainly envied in other cities.
There are ironies and interesting side stories in this series, as is the case every year. For instance, the last time that the Devils won the Stanley Cup in 2003, they also faced a team from California in the Anaheim Ducks, and it took them a full seven games to bring the trophy to the Garden State.
Anaheim’s leading scorer in that playoff run was Adam Oates, who has changed coasts to become a valued member of the New Jersey coaching staff. Oates, the Sir Stanley Matthews of hockey, took a page out of that great soccer player’s playbook by making others around him better throughout his 19 NHL seasons, and he’s doing the same thing today from his spot behind the bench.
New Jersey’s assistant coach Larry Robinson, one of the great defensemen of his era, is primarily known for his Stanley Cup winning years with the Montreal Canadiens, but his last three NHL seasons were spent with the Kings in Los Angeles. Robinson joined the Devils as assistant coach after his playing career ended, but became the Kings head coach for four seasons before rejoining New Jersey in 1999.
Robinson took over the head job late that season and promptly directed the Devils to the Stanley Cup in 2000 and a trip to the Final in 2001. Since then, he has been on and off the Devils coaching staff and has had an integral role in working with the Devils defense.
Peter DeBoer, the head coach of the Devils, must be really enjoying himself this season after a couple of tough years in Florida out of the playoffs. His Devils defeated the Panthers in the first round, then notched revenge for 1994 in defeating the Rangers in the Eastern Conference Final. On the ice, he’s coaching some familiar faces: David Clarkson of New Jersey and Mike Richards of Los Angeles were integral pieces of his 2003 Memorial Cup championship club in Kitchener.
On the other side of the ice, it certainly has been interesting to see the Dean Lombardi-Darryl Sutter partnership working well at the right time. The Kings and their fans have been through lots of agony since that 1993 trip to the Final against Montreal, missing the playoffs in 11 of 15 years from 1994 to 2009. They have a very dedicated fan base in Los Angeles, and they have had a tremendous run to this point.
The Lombardi-Sutter axis brings the Sharks into the mix, of course, because of the many years that each of them bled Teal. But in terms of the players themselves, the only Sharks connections are on the Devils side: right wing Steve Bernier has played in 22 playoff games wearing a San Jose uniform, and backup goaltender Johan Hedberg was a member of the Sharks Organization from 1999 to 2001.
Overall, I really like the way that both of these teams are playing. They have a combination of great goaltending, solid defensive team play, opportunistic scoring, and special teams that are working when it matters most.
TOP SIX FORWARDS
Both teams have excellent depth in their top six forward groups. The Kings have been getting tremendous leadership from their captain Dustin Brown, who also leads the club in scoring. The Devils have been mining the ample talents of Ilya Kovalchuk and Zach Parise to near optimum levels, with Kovalchuk leading all scorers in the series with 18 points. The one thing that seems to favor the Kings is that their top players have been absolutely devastating when playing at even strength. Brown and Anze Kopitar are each +13 in 14 playoff games, which is remarkable. Kovalchuk has five power play goals, which is one less than the Kings have as a team.
Mike Richards – Jeff Carter – Dustin Penner has been on the ice for some big goals, none bigger than Penner’s series decider in the Conference Final. Ditto for players like Adam Henrique, David Clarkson, and Patrick Elias, among others.Edge: Kings (but not by much)
BOTTOM SIX FORWARDS
The Devils’ so-called fourth line of Ryan Carter – Steve Bernier – Stephen Gionta has combined for nine goals, 10 assists, and 19 points. That’s the sort of balanced, opportunistic offense that is an outgrowth of the New Jersey work ethic, systemic devotion, and history that could be the difference in this series. The Kings, to their credit, have been getting great play from the likes of Jordan Nolan, Dwight King, Trevor Lewis, and Brad Richardson, and King’s five goals are enough to give L.A. some of that difference-making opportunism as well.Edge: Devils (ever so slightly)
Credit has to go to former Kings coach Terry Murray for setting up the foundation for what Darryl Sutter is maximizing with all of his expertise in this area. Drew Doughty has upped his considerable level of play and has been showing the entire hockey world what fans in California have seen all the time for the last few years. Slava Voynov is providing good value in his first post-season, and Matt Greene is utilizing the experience he gained with Edmonton in 2006, when he played in 18 playoff games, including in the Final vs. Carolina.
It isn’t the Scott Stevens – Ken Daneyko defense, but the Devils have done a great job in getting the whole to be greater than the sum of its parts. Bryce Salvador, he of the overtime playoff goal after a fluke faceoff drop bounced the puck off the shaft of Mike Ricci’s stick, is leading New Jersey defensemen in playoff scoring, and has more points than Doughty. Players like Marek Zidlicky, Mark Fayne, Anton Volchenkov, and Andy Greene have been airtight in the New Jersey end.Edge: Kings (very slightly)
This matchup is one for the ages, and I’m not only referring to the fact that Martin Brodeur is 40 years old. Brodeur has been in net for every New Jersey trip to the Stanley Cup Final, and he’s here to win. He still handles the puck with confidence, and he still makes the big saves that his team needs, but most importantly, the Devils can rely on his ability to calm the team down when it is needed.
Jonathan Quick is going through this experience for the very first time, but the Vezina Trophy finalist is learning, ahem, quickly. He’s stopped an incredible 94.6% of his shots, and if he does that in this Final series, the Kings will be tough to beat. But he doesn’t have Brodeur’s experience.Edge: Devils (only because of that experience)
The Kings have three players who are +10 or better. Two are forwards. The Devils have only one player (Bryce Salvador) who is +10 or better.Edge: Kings
The Devils have the top power play among teams in the final four. The Kings have the top penalty killing team (an amazing 91.2%). A standard indicator is to add up the power play and penalty killing numbers, and hopefully get a total that is above 100. This year, the Kings’ total is 99.3, and the Devils total is 92.4.Edge: Since I value penalty killing above power play in the playoffs, I’m going to agree with the math and give the Kings a slight edge here (just my luck, the Devils will prove me wrong)
The Kings are rested, but they shouldn’t be rusty. Had the Rangers beaten the Devils in seven, this state would have been a greater advantage, but it isn’t here.
New Jersey is an Eastern Conference team that hasn’t been traveling much in the post-season. Like the Sharks, the Kings travel many miles as a way of life, and aren’t too tired out because of the way they’ve dominated the Western Conference in the post-season.
Los Angeles has led 3-games-to-0 in each of their series, but what would happen if they lose Game One of the Final? Would they take some time to recover? Would the Devils rely on the elan of Brodeur to hold them off after taking a 1-game-to-0 lead? Time will tell, of course, but if New Jersey wins Game One, it provides the Devils with a more challenging advantage than if L.A. takes a 1-0 series lead.Edge: Even. Time will tell. Check back with me after Game One!