The Los Angeles Kings‘ run to the Stanley Cup final has been nothing short of dominant. They have won 12 games against only 2 losses, gone 8-0 on the road, and have beaten the top 3 seeds in the Western Conference to earn their spot, just 4 wins away from the franchise’s first Stanley Cup win.
While Eric and I both picked the Kings to upset the heavily favored Vancouver Canucks, Eric stuck with his preseason pick of the Kings winning the Cup. I was swayed by the Blues playing well from in front in the first round – not factoring in that they wouldn’t play well if behind – and also was impressed by the Coyotes’ grit and the stellar goaltending of Mike Smith, again overlooking the fact that Jonathan Quick (1.54 GAA, .946 SV%) was at least as good between the pipes, and was not under constant pressure from the Kings’ opponents, because the Kings were playing very well both with and without the puck.
The New Jersey Devils struggled in the first round, needing Game 7 overtime to slip past the Florida Panthers – a team that very few felt was worthy of a #3 seed, and that very few would consider a prototypical playoff team.
The Devils really seemed to find their game starting in Game 2 of their series against the Flyers – getting in their opponents’ faces and not letting the other team gain any speed. The Devils showed superior quickness in getting to the puck throughout Games 2-5 of the Flyers series and also did the same as their series with the Rangers moved into the later stages.
The Devils might not be 12-2 in the playoffs, but they are 8-2 over their last 10 games. In goal, they may have an aging Martin Brodeur (2.04 GAA, .923 SV%), but he has won 3 Cups (in 4 Finals appearances). Jonathan Quick can’t say that. In fact, no other player or coach from either team can say they’ve won three – with one exception – Devils’ assistant coach Larry Robinson, who won 6 as a player and one as the Devils’ head coach. (Patrik Elias and Petr Sykora have each won 2).
Will all that experience matter? Does it matter that Rob Scuderi (who won a Cup in 2009 with Pittsburgh) and Justin Williams (Carolina, 2006) are the only Kings players to have won the Cup? (Kings’ goaltending coach Bill Ranford won two in Edmonton, one as a backup in 1988 without appearing in a game and then another as Conn Smythe Trophy winner in 1990).
I would say it matters little, since the vast majority of the players on both teams have not even played in a Stanley Cup Final, let alone won the Cup. The handful of players with that type of experience can help the others a bit, but being a champion relies on contributions across the board, especially from unlikely heroes.
For the Kings, while we watch captain Dustin Brown (7G, 9A, +13) continue his Conn Smythe Trophy bid, and are dazzled by players like Anze Kopitar (6G, 9A, +13), Justin Williams (2G, 9A, +6), Jeff Carter (owner of a rare playoff hat trick), Mike Richards (4G, 7A, +3) and defensive stalwart Drew Doughty (2G, 8A, +10) , it’s players like Dustin Penner (3G, 7A, +5), Dwight King (5 goals) and Doughty’s defense partner Willie Mitchell (+8, 25:27 TOI per game) who step up to make the difference.
Similarly with the Devils, everyone knows about Ilya Kovalchuk (7G, 11A, tops in NHL playoff points) and Zach Parise (7G, 7A), and others are learning about David Clarkson (3G, 7A, +7) and Adam Henrique (3G, 8A, +9), but who would have thought we’d be talking about Ryan Carter’s two game-winning goals or the contribution of fellow fourth-liners Stephen Gionta (3G, 4A, +6) and Steve Bernier (2G, 4A, +4)? How about Travis Zajac’s 7 goals and 5 assists in the playoffs after going 2G, 4A in 15 regular season games? Or how about Bryce Salvador’s 3 goals and 8 assists and +10 rating in the playoffs – after a 0G, 9A regular season in which he played in all 82 games?!?
Prediction: The team that gets the most out of its non-stars gets to drink from the Cup. It’s just as likely that a Max Talbot (2009) gets the Cup-winning goal as Patrick Kane (2010). (By the way, I’m still waiting for the Max Talbot Discover Card commercial with Peggy). In 2012, the team that has brought the lunch pails to the rink better than any other has been the New Jersey Devils. It’s also worth noting that the Flyers have lost to the eventual Cup champion (just like the Phillies have lost to the eventual World Series champion) in the playoffs 3 years running. With all that…
Devils in 6
Eric’s analysis: I’ll remove the suspense right off the bat (or would that be right off the stick?): I’m picking the Kings to win the Stanley Cup. The Kings were my preseason pick to win the Cup. They’re still my pick now. Having said that, the Devils have been terrific this postseason. Like last year’s finalists (Bruins and Canucks), the Devils survived a Game 7 overtime in the opening round before advancing to the finals. After being pushed to the limit by the Panthers in the first round, the Devils were extremely impressive in dispatching the Flyers and Rangers. Ilya Kovalchuk is the star, but the Devils’ strength is their team commitment to their system. The no-name defense (led by Bryce Salvador and Marek Zidlicky) is rock solid, Zach Parise (a free agent after this season) has developed into a terrific leader and rookie Adam Henrique has displayed a knack for scoring big goals. Before the playoffs, I wrote that the Devils are “the best team nobody is talking about.” Of all the teams in the Eastern Conference, I thought the Devils had the best chance to defeat the top-seeded Rangers. But beating the Rangers doesn’t mean the Devils will beat the Kings.
The difference between the Kings and Rangers is that the Kings are more adept at scoring goals. Before the trade deadline, the Kings were the lowest-scoring team in the NHL. The trade for former Flyer Jeff Carter seemed to have had a domino effect, increasing scoring across the board and creating more balance on the forward lines. Carter, who had a hat trick during the Western Conference finals, plays on a line with former Flyers teammate Mike Richards and Dustin Penner. That line produced the final two goals, including Penner’s overtime game-winner in the series-clinching triumph over the Coyotes. Anze Kopitar and Justin Williams (another former Flyer) are keys to the Kings’ offense, and rookie Dwight King has blossomed into an important player who has chipped in with key playoff goals. Dustin Brown is a tremendous captain, leading with his heart, head, stick and whatever else he needs to spark his team. The strength of the Kings, however, remains goalie Jonathan Quick and their defense. Drew Doughty is the best defenseman in the finals. Since being recalled from the AHL, rookie Slava Voynov has validated the confidence the Kings showed in him when they traded defenseman Jack Johnson for Carter. With Quick, defense and scoring, the balanced and talented Kings will win the first Stanley Cup in franchise history.
Prediction: Kings in 6