Cup finals preview: Devils-Kings
They might not have been the popular choices when Stanley Cup finalists were picked in September, but make no mistake, the Los Angeles Kings and the New Jersey Devils have proved that they are the best. Never mind the eighth-seed label that the Kings effectively shrugged off while plowing under the Presidents' Trophy champs from Vancouver in five games in the first round. Similarly, the sixth-seeded Devils have emerged as the best-coached, deepest and most committed Eastern Conference team and proved that in spades in dispatching the top-seed New York Rangers in six games. Many will like the Darryl Sutter-coached Kings because they are well-rested (they played just 14 games compared to the Devils' 18) and because they were so dominant against the Canucks, the second-seed St. Louis Blues, whom they swept, and the pesky Phoenix Coyotes. But it would be a mistake to underestimate the Devils' offensive depth, which matches up quite nicely against that of the Kings and the commitment they have shown to first-year head coach Pete DeBoer's systems. In fact, the two represented similar offenses in terms of average goals per game through the first three rounds. Should be a good one, even if it's the final series few anticipated.
1. Kings of the road: The Kings, as the eighth seed and having gathered fewer points than the Devils during the regular season, will open the Stanley Cup finals on Wednesday in Newark, their fourth straight series as opening-game visitors. Guess what? They don't care. They are the first team in league history to go a perfect 8-0 on the road en route to the Cup finals. They stunned the West's top three seeds by taking the opening two games of each series in their respective buildings. By the time those teams recovered from that blow and pushed back, the series was next to over, the Kings have gone up 3-0 in all three rounds. How are they doing it? For one, line matchups on the road don't overly concern Sutter. He knows he can't have the last line change, so he's confident whoever the other team puts out there will have their hands full with lines centered by Anze Kopitar, Mike Richards or Jarret Stoll. All three top Kings lines have had big moments in these playoffs. And as a team, the Kings stay within their system incredibly well on the road, pushing on the forecheck while at the same time playing airtight defense. It's a recipe for road success. The Devils, not to be outdone, are comfortable away from The Rock in Newark as well. They won twice at Madison Square Garden in the Eastern Conference finals and closed out both Florida and Philadelphia on the road en route to a 6-4 road record this spring.
2. Four-line push: While Zach Parise and Ilya Kovalchuk are the undisputed offensive leaders, combining for 14 goals and 32 points, the Devils' success truly begins and ends with the ability of DeBoer to not just roll four lines but get production from up and down the lineup. If it sounds like the same recipe for success the Kings have used, it's because it is a mirror image. The difference with the Devils is that they've done it with less star power than a Kings team that features Kopitar, Jeff Carter, Richards and even famous Pancake Man Dustin Penner. Instead there are guys like veteran Dainius Zubrus, who has discovered the fountain of youth as he returns to his first Stanley Cup finals since he was a rookie with Philadelphia in 1997. David Clarkson has followed up a 30-goal regular season from the third line with three goals this spring, all game winners, and seven assists. But the heart and soul and indeed the identity of this Devils team comes from its fourth line, a group that came together at the very end of the regular season when Jacob Josefson went down with injury. The team called up Stephen Gionta from its AHL affiliate and he gelled with Ryan Carter, the former Anaheim Duck who won a Cup in California in 2007, and journeyman forward Steve Bernier, who was once a first-round draft pick of the San Jose Sharks. That foursome has been relentless on the forecheck, has drawn penalties and scored big-time goals. Carter's winner in Game 5 off a lovely pass from Gionta after the Devils had blown a 3-0 first-period lead at Madison Square Garden was a series-changer, and the unit was at it again in Game 6 with Carter scoring the opening goal of the series finale, the assists going to both linemates. Naturally.
3. Kings are special: It's a drastically different tale at both ends of the special-teams spectrum for a Kings team that has very few blemishes on its remarkable postseason record. But the power play? Oy. Let's put it this way: the Kings have five goals playing 4-on-5 this spring, while only three goals playing 5-on-4. The other three power-play goals they have were 5-on-3. Sitting at an 8.1 percent success rate, 15th out of the 16 playoff teams, the Kings' power play actually seemed to regress in the Western Conference finals. There's just no flow to it, not enough movement. Will it cost them in the Cup finals or can they overcome that one weak spot just like the Bruins did last spring? On the flip side, the Kings' PK has been tremendous, a 91.2 percent kill rate second only to St. Louis'. Their team-leading five short-handed goals also makes them a dangerous outfit down one man, with the likes of Dustin Brown, Kopitar, Richards, Carter and Stoll all potential goal-scorers while killing penalties. The bottom line: Yes, the Kings have scored only six power-play goals on 74 chances this spring, but they've scored 11 goals overall on special teams if you include their five shorties, and allowing only five power-play goals against and none short-handed. In other words, the Kings are plus-6 on the special-teams chart despite their poor power play. Something to keep in mind.
The Devils, meanwhile, have struggled on the penalty kill this spring after establishing a modern-day record for efficiency during the regular season. They allowed the Rangers four goals in the conference finals but did deny them on all three chances in the series finale and went 6-for-6 on the penalty kill in the final three games of the series against the Rangers. The Devils' power play seemed to gain more confidence as the conference finals went along, producing a goal in two of the last three games.
4. The old man and the kid: And we say "old man" with the greatest respect for Martin Brodeur but, well, he's 40 now, which is only about 14 years older than his counterpart for the Los Angeles Kings, standout Jonathan Quick. A native of Milford, Conn., Quick has followed up a Vezina-worthy regular season with a Conn Smythe turn during the playoffs, having compiled a 12-2 record with an eye-popping 1.54 GAA and .946 save percentage, both tops in the league. Only twice this spring has Quick given up more than two goals and he has not allowed more than three in any one game. Brodeur? His numbers are solid and he did outduel another Vezina Trophy nominee (and a Hart Trophy candidate, too) in Henrik Lundqvist in helping the Devils to their most successful playoff run since 2003. But there have been moments like in Game 5 when he mishandled the puck near the trapezoid and allowed Marian Gaborik to tie the game with a bad-angle shot. Still, when he's been asked to reprise the Martin Brodeur of old, he has been able to do that. His turn in Game 7 against Florida in the first round was a difference-maker and he was solid in closing out the Rangers in Game 6, stacking the pads to make a game-saving stop on Brad Richards during a Ranger power play. His biggest challenge, however, is to somehow saw off Quick. If he can, it will be one of the great performances of his career and will give the Devils a great shot at winning their first Cup since 2003. If he can't, if he gives up the odd stinker, the Devils will be in a world of trouble.
5. Coaches' world: More than a few eyebrows were raised when GM Dean Lombardi reached out to his old pal Darryl Sutter on the family farm in Alberta to replace Terry Murray midseason, and it took plenty of time for Sutter to get the Kings to where he wanted them to be. Heck, they looked like they might even miss the playoffs altogether. But even after defeating favored Vancouver in five games in the opening round, Sutter decided he wanted a different look against St. Louis and so shuffled Penner from the third line to the second in place of Dwight King. Both players responded to the move and the Kings have gone 8-1 since. He's been here, before, as well, having coached the Calgary Flames to the seventh game of the 2004 Stanley Cup finals, losing to the Tampa Bay Lightning. His counterpart, Pete DeBoer, has had the magic touch throughout the playoffs as well as he has juggled his forward lines at times when he's felt he hasn't had enough jump. To start the Eastern Conference finals, he separated Kovalchuk and Parise, then moved them back together. but for the past few games has kept them apart with the return of Josefson to the lineup. He has also been cautious about overworking his troops, taking off-days completely off as opposed to skating them as most of his counterparts have done. For a guy coaching in his first Stanley Cup playoff tournament, DeBoer has shown no signs of the yips.
• Devils centers vs. Kings' dynamic depth down the middle: The Kings have won the center battle throughout the playoffs against Vancouver, St. Louis and Phoenix, and it's a big reason for their success. Kopitar and Richards are a dynamic 1-2 punch down the middle but don't forget the veteran Stoll, who has provided clutch two-way hockey as the team's No. 3 center. The Devils will counter with a group of lesser-known pivots but let's not underestimate the work done by Travis Zajac this spring. He lost most of the regular season to injury but his seven goals are one off the playoff lead. He will center the Devils' top line and could see a lot of Richards as a result. Adam Henrique, the overtime hero in Game 6 of the conference finals, might be the key to this matchup. A Calder Trophy nominee as rookie of the year, he played the last part of the conference finals with Kovalchuk and Patrik Elias, and DeBoer said the only time he has seen Henrique nervous was playing cards with Kovalchuk. And then there's Josefson, whose return to the lineup in Game 4 of the conference finals coincided with a Devils revival. Speaking of centers, the Devils rank last of all 16 postseason teams in faceoff percentage.
• Jeff Carter, Kings: The trade deadline pickup has his best series in the Western Conference finals, scoring a hat trick in Game 2, but for our money playing his best game of the playoffs in the series-clinching win in Game 5 when he had two assists. He had only one goal and three assists in the opening two rounds before stepping up in the conference finals with five points. He's coming on, and that's a dangerous weapon to the Kings to have on their second line.
• Ilya Kovalchuk, Devils: Kovalchuk's goal-and-an-assist performance in Game 6 against the Rangers moved him into the playoff point lead with 18. He leads all players in assists and power-play goals and has embraced what is the longest playoff run of his career. We can certainly put the question of whether he's a team player -- DeBoer has repeatedly sung Kovalchuk's praises as a consummate team player and a leader -- to rest but now can he be that guy with a Stanley Cup on the line? He's still prone to the odd errant pass but his defensive game is far superior to what it was in the past and he's thriving in the playoff limelight -- something many observers wondered would ever happen.
• LeBrun: The West is best. Kings in 6
• Burnside: The Devils might not have the profile but they'll end up with the big silver prize. Devils in 7
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