By Stu Hackel
So here's the Stanley Cup Final no one could have anticipated in early April. Kirk Penton of The Winnipeg Sun figured out that this is the "worst" match-up in 20 years: "New Jersey was ninth overall and the sixth seed in the Eastern Conference, while the Kings were 13th overall and eighth in the Western Conference," he wrote. "Their regular-season placings total 22. The only higher sum was in 1991, when the No. 7 Pittsburgh Penguins beat the No. 16 Minnesota North Stars. In fact, not since the playoffs expanded to 16 teams in 1980 has the better seed among the finalists been as low as No. 9 overall." But he was quick to say that this was just a technicality, insisting "New Jersey and Los Angeles should be solid entertainment." True that.
As low as their seeds may have been, the Devils and Kings belong in this series. The Kings were underachievers for most of the regular season, in part due to not having Mike Richards at full strength after he was concussed in December. The Devils were without their top center, Travis Zajac, for 67 games. And both teams had to adjust to new systems brought in by new coaches -- one at the start of the season, one during it -- that emphasized aggressive forechecking. The saying goes that "It's not the best teams that get to play for the Cup but the teams playing the best." Now that they're healthy and comfortable playing a style that fits their personnel, it's hard to argue that these two currently aren't the best teams in hockey.
The Kings and Devils are similar in many ways: Both have great skill up front, are strong on the forecheck, they play four lines and three sets of defensemen who don't get overtaxed, are excellent on the penalty kill, strong in goal and well-coached. There are nuanced differences, of course, and how the differences manifest themselves will be fascinating as the teams duke it out for Lord Stanley's big ol' mug. One of those nuances can be found in net as TSN's Jamie McLennan, a former NHL goalie, explained here.
At the center ice position, where each team has four impressive players, the subtle differences could matter. The Kings' Anze Kopitar and the Devils' Travis Zajac are similar big centers with top skills as first-liners and they may cancel out each other; LA's Mike Richards is smart, more experienced and more physical than Jersey's Adam Henrique, but Henrique is a better skater; Jarret Stoll and Jacob Josefson are roughly equal as skaters, but Stoll is more physical while Josefson may be headier; Colin Fraser is more experienced, bigger and more physical than Stephen Gionta, but Gionta is a better skater. How these guys go at each other may have much to do with the way the series goes.
These teams have no playoff history against each other, not even when the Devils were the Kansas City Scouts and the Colorado Rockies, who played just one postseason series, two whole playoff games, in the preliminary round against the Flyers in 1978. The two teams met only twice this season, in October, and while the Devils won both games (one in a shootout), it was so long ago that we can discount them as having much relevance to this series. Everything here will be new history in the making.
NEW JERSEY DEVILS (6-East) vs. LOS ANGELES KINGS (8 - West)
Devils - What they did right in the third round: Against the Rangers' fortress defense, the Devils' approach to manufacturing offense was to get it down low, ground, pound, get it back to the point and then jam the net. With a forecheck game that gave them gobs of possession time in the Rangers' end -- the same strategy that consistently frustrated the Panthers and Flyers -- they were able to grind down New York and wear them out. They got contributions from all four lines and their depth forwards contributed mightily. The in-series renovations that coach Pete DeBoer made paid off. After losing Game 3, he put Ilya Kovalchuk and Zach Parise on different lines, making a defensive match-up more difficult. Parise and center Travis Zajac kept their excellent chemistry and got physical support from Dainius Zubrus, while Kovalchuk and Henrique clicked with Patrik Elias. That second line was made possible by the return of center Josefson, which allowed Henrique to move up on the depth chart while Elias returned to wing (his preferred position) from second-line center. A good two-way pivot, Josefson teamed with Alex Ponikarovski and David Clarkson. The pesky fourth line of Ryan Carter, Stephan Gionta and Steve Bernier play their roles, don't extend their shifts and keep their energy level high. The Devs won three straight, and the series, after DeBoer made those changes.
The Rangers had a fairly good forechecking game going until they ran into New Jersey's still-unheralded defense. Jersey figured out the Rangers' tendencies and broke them down, not allowing them to get any sustained pressure and turning the play the other way, moving the puck quickly up ice. Goalie Marty Brodeur was also at his puckhandling best and he acted like a third defenseman, thwarting the Rangers' shoot-ins. That's a big part of the Devils defending against the forecheck.
What they have to improve: The temptation is to say "not much", not after they knocked off their top-seeded and bitter rival -- their second big rival in succession after the Flyers. But their power play was only 3-for-23 against New York and could use some improvement. They'll need it against the Kings' PK, which is at 91.2 percent for the postseason. And while Brodeur got stronger as the series went on, he did surrender some strange goals. That's something neither he nor the Devils want in this round.
What they have to do to win the Cup: Breaking down the Kings' powerful forecheck will be critical. That starts with the defense, but it's a team concept involving all six players working to get the puck and move it out of danger. Additionally, the Kings'major area of dominance has been in the offensive and defensive slot,so New Jersey will have to battle in those areas against a big, strong opponent. Like the Kings, the Devils prefer to play in the other team's end, but it's going to be much harder in s round than it was earlier. Establishing their game is going to require a higher level of committment. Needless to say, Brodeur will have to continue the solid play that has seen him improve his save percentage from .908 in the regular season to .923 in the playoffs. It seems rather unlikely that New Jersey may have an emotional letdown after their highly charged win over the Rangers -- this is the final, after all. But should it happen, and should any adversity occur, the team's veteran leaders will need to kick in, and a coach as experienced as Larry Robinson (DeBoer's assistant and a nine-time Cup champion) can help them get refocused.
Kings - What they did right in the third round: As we've mentioned, under coach Darryl Sutter it was keep it simple: Win the battles in front of your net and the other team’s, win the battles along the boards, and play with pace. Those have been the keys to L.A.'s dominant spring and they worked them to perfection against Phoenix in their five-game series. The Kings are big everywhere in their lineup and their forecheck is even more physical than what New Jersey has experienced, and bigger than the Devils' forecheck. They come fast and hard and every line does it well. Like the Devils, the Kings' depth lines were also effective in the last round with third-liner Dwight King leading his team with four goals, while the reborn Dustin Penner won the series with his first career OT score. As in every round, they've been flawless on the road, and winning the first two games in the enemy's building gives them powerful momentum, putting them in control coming home for Game 3. Their penalty kill remained outstanding against the Coyotes, killing 17 of 19 situations and adding their fifth shorthanded goal of the playoffs.
The Kings' D combined top-notch mobility and a physical edge to keep the Coyotes away from the goal. The Devils don't have a defenseman as dominant as Drew Doughty has been this spring. And while he wasn't tested as severely by Phoenix (or St. Louis for that matter) as he was in the first round by the Canucks, there is probably no more athletic goalie anywhere than Jonathan Quick. He gets very low to the ice and his lateral mobility is terrific.
What they have to improve: Not very much, although their power play is not very good. They're only clicking at an 8.1 percent clip. Now, we saw Boston win the Cup last spring with a pretty poor power play, so that's not fatal in and of itself. But it is something that LA worked on during its break between series and the Kings would like to be able to cash in a few more of those opportunities.
What they have to do to win the Cup: Los Angeles has dominated the slot at both ends of the ice in each of their three previous series. That's critical to the way they play and how they win. They'll have to do that again. They'll also have to get their forecheck engaged and keep the puck away from Brodeur so they can pound on the Devils' defensemen. They've been able to neutralize three other good forechecking teams along the way, thanks to the physical play of their defenders, but the Devils' may be the best at it of any club they've faced, so physically disrupting that part of New Jersey's game is a must. They'll also have to play with speed.
Some have called the Kings the fastest team in hockey, but that may not be true, especially -- as we noted earlier -- at the critical center ice position. If the Devils are faster here, the Kings will have to figure out how to combat them. Quick will have to demonstrate that this big stage isn't too big for him; he doesn't have Brodeur's experience and he let in a few bizarre goals of his own last round. If the Kings can replicate their road success, especially early in the round, that would be a huge bonus, but if the Devils can win on home ice, it will put the Kings in a situation they've yet to experience this spring. We wrote last week about their not having faced any adversity yet in these playoffs, so if it does come, they'll have to navigate some uncharted waters.
While these teams are relative strangers, but not entirely, they're going to get to know each other pretty well in the next little while. Chances are, this series is going to be fast and it's going to be hard. Hopefully, both teams raise their game higher, making this final the best hockey of the year.
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