Monday, May 28, 2012

Devils-Kings Stanley Cup Final preview

After basking in the glow of one of the Devils' most memorable triumphs ever, beating out the hated Rangers to win the Eastern Conference Finals in overtime of Game 6 at the Prudential Center, I'm finally ready to look ahead to what will be a Cinderella Finals. Make no mistake about it, both teams are better than their #6 and #8 seeds respectively, even if one of them will become the lowest seed ever to win a title. In our case, we had a 102-point season and finished fourth in a brutal Atlantic Division, yet wound up beating our two biggest division rivals to advance to the Stanley Cup Finals (after splitting with each during the regular season). With the Kings, they've been strong defensively in net all year with Johnathan Quick having a Vezina-caliber season, but an underachieving offense had them on the playoff bubble until mid-season coaching replacement Darryl Sutter calmed the waters and late-season acquisition Jeff Carter fortified the offense. I don't remember the exact record, but the Kings are something like 25-9-3 since acquiring the one-time Flyer star close to the deadline, including an insane 12-2 playoff record - with the Kings' only two defeats coming after they'd taken a 3-0 lead against Vancouver and Phoenix.

Through the playoffs, the Kings have an insane goals-against average of 1.57 in fourteen games, while the Devils come in at a reasonable 2.33. Offensively the Kings have scored 41 goals in 14 games, while the Devils have put home 51 in 18, as both offenses have pushed the pace during the postseason. Special teams have been a lot better for LA in the postseason than us, despite having a sub-10% power play (8.1%), the Kings' PK is operating at over 90% efficiency (91.2%) with a handful of shorthanded goals, to boot. Our power play is at a respectable 18.2% but we've killed off just 74.2% of penalties in the postseason, with none of the shorthanded goals that made our regular-season PK such a menace. And while we navigated a tough road to get to the Finals with our share of turbulence, the Kings rolled through President's Trophy winner Vancouver, second-seed St. Louis and third-seed Phoenix with ease.

In goal, once again you have a hungry goalie looking to make his mark among the elite of the league in Quick, and the old warhorse in Martin Brodeur - who put up his best playoff series in seven years turning aside one of the two leading Vezina candidates in Henrik Lundqvist ...and will now have to outduel the other one in this round to win his fourth Stanley Cup. Unlike Lundqvist however, Quick is more of a reflex goalie, giving us a different kind of a challenge in this round. Plus, we were more familiar with Lundqvist having played him six or more times every season for the last several years, as opposed to Quick who we've only seen once this year - way back in the third game of the season where the Devils beat the Kings 3-2 in a shootout. We did play the Kings again in October but backups Johan Hedberg and Johnathan Bernier were both in net for an impressive 3-0 Devils win out in LA. We'll have to succeed where three teams have already failed, finding a way to put goals past the Conn Smythe favorite.

Offensively the Kings have two deadly lines with the best player that nobody pays attention to in pivot Anze Kopitar, hard-nosed captain Dustin Brown and Cup-winning vet Justin Williams (from the Canes in '06) on one line, and former Flyer buddies and leaders Carter and Mike Richards heading up their other big line with Dustin Penner - finally living up to his talent in this postseason. Admittedly, I know very little about the Kings' other two lines other than the fact they have ex-Oiler Jarret Stoll and faceoff specialist Brad Richardson giving LA depth down the middle, and rookie Dwight King's also given them some big goals in the postseason. Ironically, Devils coach Pete DeBoer scratched our own rookie pivot Adam Henrique and told him to watch Richardson play when we were in LA for that early-season matchup. LA may also get another former Flyer - injury-prone Simon Gagne - back for this series, which would help them but I'll believe it when I see it.

While most of the Kings' offense has come from the top six and King, the Devils have exhibited amazing depth in this postseason, getting multiple goals from eleven forwards (and defenseman Bryce Salvador). Yes, top-line forwards Ilya Kovalchuk, Zach Parise and Travis Zajac all have seven goals, tied for the team lead in the postseason. However, role players like Henrique - and his two series-clinching goals - and David Clarkson are right behind them in points. All-time Devils leading scorer Patrik Elias has had a down postseason after a couple of early goals against Florida, but with a five-day break between the Conference Finals and Game 1, hopefully he finds his second wind against LA. And you can't overstate Danius Zubrus's contribution despite the fact he only has three goals in the postseason, he's set up several with his outstanding board work, and two of the three goals came in a pivotal Game 4 win against the Flyers.

Not to mention our revelation of a fourth line with Ryan Carter, Steve Bernier and Steven Gionta. After an entire regular season where our fourth line was hard-pressed to even get one goal, putting those three together has been like winning the lottery. Carter has four goals in the postseason, with three big ones against the Rangers, Gionta has three and Bernier has two. Yet, their nine goals don't tell the whole story as this trio plays in all situations and has been able to take up some valuable minutes. They've been our best fourth line easily since the fabled crash line of the mid '90's (Bobby Holik, Randy McKay and Mike Peluso). Holik and McKay would eventually graduate from fourth-line duty and make bigger contributions in years to come, but the Carter-Gionta-Bernier line has literally come out of nowhere. Gionta was an AHL nobody, other than being Brian's little brother, Bernier was a high-pick washout and Carter was waived by the Panthers earlier this season. Yet, here they are playing a pivotal role on a Stanley Cup Finalist.

Defensively, LA has the most talented player among the top twelve of both teams' defensive cores in Drew Doughty, who has ten points in fourteen postseason games and averages almost twenty-six minutes per game playing in all situations. He and vet Willie Mitchell combine for a formidable top-defensive pairing. In another lifetime, Mitchell was a failed Devils prospect but he's carved out a solid career as a stay-at-home type. Rob Scuderi and Matt Greene also provide the Kings with vet leadership in their defensive core. Young defensemen Alex Martinez and Slava Voynov round out the defensive core, with Voynov stepping in to fill the void of the traded Jack Johnson (dealt as part of the Carter trade). They make it tough just to get good opportunities on Quick, but won't really scare you offensively, other than Doughty. Voynov mans the point on the second power play, a unit that's struggled in the postseason.

While the Kings have Doughty to lead their offensive attack from the blueline, we have...Salvador. Yes, the career 35-year old stay-at-home defenseman is our leading point-getter from the blueline in the playoffs with three goals and eleven points, to go along with a team-leading +10 in 22:36 of icetime per game. Trade-deadline acquisition Marek Zidlicky was supposed to be the guy who led the attack from the blueline, but he struggled against the Rangers after being injured late in the Flyer series. He still has eight points and a team-leading 24:08 of icetime per game but is another guy that will probably benefit from the Devils' break. Young Mark Fayne - only his second full season - and vet Andy Greene form a solid second pairing that have been shutting down teams' top lines at even strength all postseason. Amazingly, our highest-paid defenseman (Anton Volchenkov) plays on the third pairing and has struggled at times in the playoffs, with our second highest-paid (Henrik Tallinder) having been sidelined since the All-Star break with a blood clot in his leg. Former LA castoff Peter Harrold rounds out the top six with prized rookie Adam Larsson also ready to step in should someone get hurt or falter, the way he did in the second round when he scored a huge goal in Game 2 against Philly to turn that series around.

Coachingwise, DeBoer is in his first full season with the Devils and has pushed all the right buttons in leading this team to the Stanley Cup Finals in his first postseason ever, after three non-playoff seasons in Florida. Kings coach Sutter hasn't even been there that long, taking over in midseason and proving once again he's a much better coach than GM (after he succeeded as a coach and failed spectacularly as a GM in Calgary). Interestingly there's a bit of a subplot there as Sutter, in his previous role as Flames GM played a part in the departure of then-Devils coach Brent Sutter three offseasons ago. Even more coincidentally, DeBoer and Sutter - Brent, not brother Darryl - are good friends, but thankfully things worked out better for us over time than they did for the Sutters in Calgary.

Although the GM's play no part in this final series, it is interesting to note that Devils GM Lou Lamoriello went out of his way to help current Kings GM Dean Lombardi out when Lombardi was starting his career in the late '90's with a rebuilding Sharks team, and Lombardi repeatedly goes out of his way to mention Lou's generosity. In another spectacular coincidence, both found themselves in the crosshairs of the Kovalchuk contreversy two summers ago when each made a big push to try to sign the star Russian winger. Eventually it was the Devils who would retain the services of Kovy, at considerable cost but one that has been worth it to this point. Of course the fans in LA have let Kovy hear their displeasure in our two trips there since that wild summer and I'm sure it'll be rabid again for Games 3, 4 and possibly 6 there.

Given the fact the teams haven't played each other since October and there've been many changes since then - the Devils have gotten Zajac back from injury and added Zidlicky, forward Alexei Ponikarovsky and the entire fourth line to their roster this season, while the Kings have added Carter, promoted Voynov and changed coaches - makes it extremely hard to forecast this series. In addition, Quick only played one game against us, while Brodeur played one period, injuring his shoulder diving for a shot in the teams' first game against each other and missing the final two periods of that game and a couple of weeks after that. While you have to give the Kings respect for their talent and the way they've rolled to the Finals, as a Devil fan I can't really pick against us at this point after doubting them throughout the postseason.

I know the Kings can win, I wouldn't be crushed if they did at this point after all the Devils have accomplished in this postseason - more than anyone could have dreamed of before the playoffs started. Despite being the lower seed, the Kings are the betting favorite after the way they've dominated the postseason to this point. That said, at this point I have the confidence that's rare among fans who should know better and I believe the Devils can do almost anything. Why wouldn't I, after winning a tightrope first series against Florida, crushing the Flyers in four straight after a Game 1 loss in Round 2 and then finally staring down the ghost of playoffs past and beating a tough Ranger team to get this far? That, plus our superior depth I believe will have us finish off our most meaningful triumph yet, in the full seven games as Brodeur caps a storybook finish by taking home the Conn Smythe with the Cup this time.

1 comment:

Derek Felix said...

Good preview. I'm sure it'll be a fun series between two high tempo forechecking teams. A contrast in style with LA more physical and a bit more like us. The Kovalchuk angle is intriguing. So too is the Flyers and of course the 2 goalies. 14 year age gap. Wonder where that ranks?

Keep an eye on Dwight King. The big rookie gets things done.

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