Monday, May 28, 2012

Stanley Cup Finals PREVIEW: NJ Devils vs. LA Kings

Read on for my Devils-Flyers Kings Stanley Cup Finals preview.

Well, here we are, seven weeks into the NHL playoffs.  It's Memorial Day weekend and the Devils are still playing hockey.  I don't think either team's fan base truly expected to be here right now, but hey, I'm not complaining.

How they got there:

If you're a Devils fan, you know the story by now.  Peter DeBoer was hired by Lou Lamoriello to help the Devils "evolve" into a more aggressive offensive team and have a chance to win the franchise's fourth Stanley Cup championship.  There were growing pains early on, and the team battled several key injuries throughout the season, but the Devils surged out of the All-Star break and finished the regular season on a six-game winning streak.

The Devils battled hard and squeezed out of the first round against Florida in the second overtime of the series' seventh game.  After few thought the Devils would stand any chance against the "mighty" Flyers, they simply destroyed the Flyers in every part of the game and knocked them out in five games.  The Rangers presented a more difficult task, but the Devils eventually got to Henrik Lundqvist and the shot-blocking Rangers' defensemen and eliminated the East's top seeded team 63 seconds into overtime in Game 6.

With heroics from Adam Henrique in rounds one and three, the Devils advance to their fifth Stanley Cup Final in franchise history and first since 2003, when they beat Anaheim in seven games.  Four more wins would give the Devils their fourth Stanley Cup championship since the spring of 1995.

By the way, have I mentioned how awesome this moment is yet?


The Los Angeles Kings had a very bumpy season.  They were one of, if not the worst offensive team throughout the regular season.  Head coach Terry Murray was gone in mid-December, and after a brief interim stint by John Stevens, L.A. hired Darryl Sutter to run the show.  Their late-season acquisition of Jeff Carter sparked the Kings and allowed them to creep into the playoffs as the 8th and final seed in the Western Conference.

Darryl Sutter expressing an abundance of joy.
The Kings simply cruised through the first three rounds of the playoffs.  They played more like a #1 seed than an 8th seed.  Jonathan Quick's heroics in the first round led the Kings over the President's Trophy-winning Canucks in five games, followed by a sweep of the St. Louis Blues.  The Kings knocked off the Phoenix Coyotes in five games to advance to the franchise's second Stanley Cup Final.  They were last in the Finals in the spring of 1993, when the Montreal Canadiens eliminated them in five games.

Matchup at-a-glance:

There isn't much to review between these two teams in this past regular season, although they did meet twice in the regular season.  Jonathan Quick stopped 36 shots in a 2-1 shootout loss to the Devils on October 13th.  Jonathan Bernier was in net for the second meeting on October 25th, a 3-0 Devils win.  Johan Hedberg got both wins for the Devils.  Martin Brodeur was injured in the first period of the October 13th meeting.

Both teams are coming off series wins over defensive-minded teams in their respective Conference Finals.  Both teams outplayed their opponents for most of their series, and both teams managed to beat elite goaltenders to reach the Finals.

The Devils battled a Rangers team that played very physical, tough hockey.  They were able to beat the Rangers' shot-blocking game by forechecking them to death, similar to how they rolled over the Flyers in the second round.  The Devils have benefited from four quality lines of forwards, highlighted by their dynamic top line, steady play from all six (and at times, seventh) defensemen and "the 40-year old," Martin Brodeur, has channeled his vintage self again.  The Devils will also have home ice advantage for the first time in the playoffs.

The Kings make a lot of opposing goaltenders sad.  :(
The only two losses by the Kings in this postseason have come when they were previously leading the series, 3-0.  They lost Game 4 against Vancouver and Game 4 against Phoenix.  They simply dominated each of their first three opponents.  Their forwards have been extremely physical, led by captain Dustin Brown, they've gotten world-class play from the skilled Anze Kopitar, a strong performance from Mr. Pancakes himself, Dustin Penner and excellent play from Vezina finalist Jonathan Quick.  Finally, their perfect record on the road so far has sparked their run to the Finals.

Both teams love to play at even strength.  Both teams excelled playing five-on-five throughout the playoffs so far.  Both teams forecheck and generate their offense at even strength off their forecheck.  Both teams play solid two-way games (although you could say that about almost anyone once Pittsburgh and Philly were knocked out) and both teams have red-hot goaltenders.  That should make this series pretty even, then, right?

Devils vs. Kings, by position:



In my opinion, the play of the Devils' forwards has been one of the stories of the 2012 playoffs.  All 12 of them have been contributing to their playoff run.  Perhaps the Devils' weakest link in the regular season was their fourth line.  That weakness has now become a strength for this team.  The line of Ryan Carter-Stephen Gionta-Steve Bernier has produced nine goals in this postseason.  Those three players combined for six goals in 98 combined regular season games.

If you leave Ilya Kovalchuk this wide open, he might
score twice on the same shift.
But as good as the fourth line has been, the Devils wouldn't be in the Cup Finals without the terrific play of their top forwards: Ilya Kovalchuk, Zach Parise and Travis Zajac.  The three of them, who have often combined to make up a line, have scored seven goals in this postseason.  They scored seven goals in the Rangers series and have simply been dominant throughout the playoffs.  As Patrik Elias, David Clarkson and Petr Sykora have faded in the playoffs, the top line has risen to the occasion.

There's also Adam Henrique, Dainius Zubrus and the ex-King, Alexei Ponikarovsky.  Why do I mention these three forwards in particular?  First of all, Zubrus has been one of the Devils' best two-way forwards in the playoffs.  He's chipped in with three goals and nine points, but it's his play in his own end that warrants further attention.  Ponikarovsky has only managed six points in these playoffs, but half of them have come in overtime.  He set up the series winning goals in rounds 1 and 3, and he scored the overtime winner in Game 3 against the Flyers.  Who did Ponikarovsky set up in rounds 1 and 3 for the series clinchers?  That would be rookie Adam Henrique.  Henrique has five points in the Devils' three series clinchers thus far, including the overtime goals in Game 7 against Florida and Game 6 against the Rangers.


Dustin Brown mid-air.  
The L.A. Kings have a nice Flyers alumni club group of forwards as well.  In this postseason so far, most of the attention has gone to captain Dustin Brown and Anze Kopitar.  They're 1-2 in points on their team, but they score in the most difficult ways.  They have a pair of shorthanded goals each, and Brown has three game-winning goals this postseason.  These two forwards are the pulse of the Kings, similar to Kovalchuk and Parise of the Devils, despite different styles of play.  Brown is always at the top of the league in hits, and he'll be hitting everything in sight in this series as well.

Carter and Richards when they were with the Flyers.
If you're a Devils fan, you shouldn't like them at all.
Then there's the ex-Flyers that are on the Kings.  Simon Gagne may or may not play in the Finals, but Mike Richards and Jeff Carter will be, for sure.  Neither has been dominant in the playoffs, but they've provided secondary scoring to Brown and Kopitar.  Carter had the Kings' first playoff hat trick since a guy named Gretzky in 1993 in the Kings' Game 2 win over Phoenix in the Conference Finals.  Carter and Richards know the Devils pretty well, and let's just say there was some bad blood with them from their Philly days.  In addition, Justin Williams is also an ex-Flyer, and he's put up 2 goals and 11 points in the playoffs.

The Kings' top two lines provide a majority of their offense, but Dwight King has 5 goals this postseason, as he provides the "where the hell did he come from?" story in the 2012 playoffs (similar to the Devils' fourth line?).  The Kings' fourth line doesn't score nearly as much as their Devils counterpart does, but it's still a physical line that can swing momentum at any given shift.

When comparing the two teams' forwards, the Devils simply have more talent up front and consist of the deeper lineup.  Their forwards play an excellent two-way game, they've gotten scoring from so many different sources and have the dynamic top-end players as well.  L.A.'s forwards are more physical, but the Devils win this department.

Advantage - Devils



In case you didn't know by now, Stevens, Daneyko, Niedermayer and Rafalski are all gone.  They've retired. ... Seriously, you did know that by now, right??  There aren't any brand names on this Devils blue line, but I've been arguing all season, especially post-Zidlicky trade, that this is the best group of Devils defensemen since the lockout.

You cannot stop Bryce Salvador.
You can only hope to contain him.
Bryce Salvador has led the way for the Devils in the playoffs.  He's averaged 22:36 of ice-time per game (second to Marek Zidlicky's 24:09 per game), and he's been matched up against guys like Versteeg, Weiss, Giroux, Jagr, Gaborik and Richards thus far.  There's a good chance he and Zidlicky will see a lot of Brown and Kopitar in this series coming up.  Salvador has also been quite the offensive wizard, with his 11 points (yes, he had just 9 assists in the regular season).

Anton Volchenkov, who has bounced back from a terrible series against Florida, Andy Greene and Mark Fayne continue to provide steady shutdown defense for the Devils, and Peter Harrold has played most games in the playoffs as Adam Larsson sits.  Harrold (another ex-King) isn't a brand name, but he's done a pretty decent job for the Devils.  He's been solid in his own end and also chipped in with four assists, including some time on the second power play unit.  (I believe people hate on Harrold mainly because he's not Adam Larsson.)


The L.A. defense starts with Drew Doughty and Willie Mitchell.  The Kings invested a lot of money in Doughty before this season started, and while his regular season numbers were below his past few seasons, he's found another gear in the playoffs.  He does trail Bryce Salvador in points, but he's still put up 10 in the playoffs.  He and Mitchell have been averaging over 25 minutes per night each.

Other than Doughty, though, the Kings are a defense-by-committee group.  They have three solid pairings, (sadly, Stu Bickel and Andreas Lilja will not be participating in this series for the Kings) as all of their defensemen average close to at least 15 minutes of ice time per game.  It's a balanced group that doesn't have elite talent.  Doughty is their biggest offensive threat from the back end.

So basically, both teams have good defensemen, but neither team's defense are full of superstars.  I'd give the Kings a very slight edge in this category, simply because Doughty does have the ability to score on a regular basis.  He's the only true game-breaker from either blue line.

Advantage - Kings



This might be Martin Brodeur's final Stanley Cup run (although he is coming back next season, according to RDS), but he's made it count so far.  He wasn't great early in the Florida series, but from Game 7 in the first round through the Rangers series, Brodeur was simply excellent.  He allowed 7 goals in the final four games, all wins, against Philadelphia, and allowed 12 goals in the 6-game win over the Rangers.  His only "bad game" since Game 3 against Florida was Game 5 against the Rangers, when he gave up three goals, and he probably should have stopped all of them.

Marty has simply been spectacular for much of these playoffs.  He hasn't necessarily faced the quantity of quality scoring chances against, for the simple reason that the Devils have outplayed their opponents since the end of the Florida series, but when he has been tested, he's been great.  He might have turned 40 during the Flyers series, but if he keeps playing like he's 27, Lou Lamoriello might offer him a 15-year deal this summer.


From the Kings' side, Jonathan Quick was the main reason that the Kings knocked out the Canucks in the first round.  Quick was brilliant against Vancouver, showing athleticism that perhaps only Tim Thomas could match.  The Kings faced a pair of defensive teams after the Vancouver series, in St. Louis and Phoenix, and as a result, Quick didn't have as much work to do, but he was still fantastic.  He has yet to truly have a bad game in these playoffs, despite allowing a goal from center ice early in Game 1 against Phoenix.  Other than that, he's stopped everything that he's seen.

If there's a goalie better than Henrik Lundqvist right now, it's Jonathan Quick.  He'll be a huge challenge for the Devils in the Finals.

Basically, the Devils can't count on scoring from these areas on Quick:

So yes, Marty has been awesome in the playoffs, and although the Kings haven't faced a quality offensive team since the first round, Quick has been amazing.  He and Brown are the main reasons why the Kings are still going right now.

Advantage - Kings

Special teams:


Entering the postseason, the Devils felt pretty good about their power play, and their penalty kill had just set a league record in terms of effectiveness.  Three series later, both special teams units have been up and down.  The Devils' power play surged late in the regular season and it carried into the playoffs.  It's produced at least one goal in 11 different playoff games for the Devils.  Perhaps their prettiest goal of the playoffs was Ilya Kovalchuk's tally in the first period of Game 6 against the Rangers, where every Devils skater touched the puck within one passing sequence.  They have the ability to move the puck well and score goals on the man advantage, but they haven't been consistent about it throughout the season.

Speaking on consistency, the Devils' penalty kill has been anything but that in these playoffs.  It really hasn't had an extended stretch of success in the playoffs yet.  After failing nine times in the first round against Florida, the Devils got their PK back on a track a bit against the Flyers, as they killed 16 of Philly's 19 power plays in the second round.  The Rangers scored four power play goals in the first three games of the Eastern Conference Finals before the Devils killed all six chances against in the final three games, all Devils wins.  Basically, when the Devils have success in the playoffs, they're not taking penalties altogether.


The Kings' power play was mediocre at best in the regular season, and it's gotten considerably worse in the playoffs so far.  They're just 6-for-74 this postseason (8.1%), but consider that three of their six power play goals came in the first two games in their first round series against Vancouver.  Like the 2011 Bruins, the 2012 Kings are trying to win with a terrible power play.  The Kings have also scored just once on their power play when their opponent holds them to under five opportunities per game (the Devils have given up 3.44 power plays against per game in the playoffs).

Dustin Brown scoring one of his 800 shorthanded goals this season.
To compensate for a lack of power play goals for, the Kings have made sure that their opponents aren't scoring on their power plays either.  The Kings have allowed just five power play goals against on 57 opportunities (91.2%).  In their 10 regulation wins this postseason, they have not allowed a power play goal against.  Their only hiccups were twice in Game 4 against Vancouver (a loss), once in their Game 5 overtime win over the Canucks, once in Game 4 against Phoenix (a loss) and once in their Game 5 overtime win over the Coyotes.  In addition, Los Angeles has managed to score five shorthanded goals (led by Dustin Brown's three) in the playoffs.

If the Kings' power play had even been decent to this point, I'd give them the edge, but both special teams units of the Devils have been good of late, so the edge goes to the Devils here.

Advantage - Devils


I didn't do this for my last preview, but I feel that it's very relevant in this series.


"Maybe I'll be coaching in the Cup Finals next year..."
Peter DeBoer was named head coach of the Devils entering the 2011-12 season.  Many people (yes, including myself) were confused as to why Lou Lamoriello picked DeBoer out of all the possible choices.  The John MacLean experiment failed miserably last season, so why would another young coach with no track record of NHL success and an attempted up-tempo system work this time?  There were many growing pains along the way, but DeBoer has been phenomenal for the Devils, and it seems like every single player, if not a severe majority of them, genuinely love playing for him.  Alexei Ponikarovsky and Marek Zidlicky actually said they were looking forward to playing the Devils system.  That's not something players would have said under Jacques Lemaire.


This is Darryl Sutter's first season behind the Kings' bench, and it wasn't even a full season.  After Terry Murray got fired and John Stevens subbed for four games, general manager Dean Lombardi named Sutter his head coach, after Sutter was previously Calgary's general manager with brother and ex-Devils coach Brent Sutter coaching the Flames.  Darryl managed to help one of the league's most anemic offenses pick up the slack (Jeff Carter helped too) and sneak into the playoffs, where the Kings simply got hot at the right time.  The Kings have averaged almost three goals per game in the playoffs, and are as far as they've ever been in their franchise history already as far as playoff success is concerned.  L.A. has also yet to lose a one-goal game in this postseason.


Now you know there's absolutely no way I'd pick against the Devils in this series, but despite the Kings' 12-2 record in the playoffs, I think the Devils have a great chance to win this series and with it, the Stanley Cup.  I'm not going to go into past history and how teams that start out so well in the playoffs usually don't win the Cup, because that would be hypocritical of me after complaining about the Rangers' comparisons to 1994.  At the same time, I won't go into how similar the 2012 Kings and 2003 Mighty Ducks have been to this point.

This series will come down to special teams.  Both teams play very well 5-on-5, both teams love to forecheck and both teams have great goaltending.  The Kings have gotten this far with little production from their power play, but their penalty kill has been that much better.  If the Devils can get production from their own power play and not give up shorthanded goals to the Kings, that would be a massive advantage for them.

I do think the Devils will come out on top in this series.  Although Jonathan Quick stole their series against the Canucks, the Kings haven't faced a team that plays the style that the Devils do yet.  The Devils have a lot more offensive firepower than St. Louis or Phoenix.  They're a much deeper team than the Kings' last two opponents as well.  The Kings have two good lines that can produce offensively, but the Devils have four.  The Devils just beat Henrik Lundqvist four times, so they won't be intimidated by Jonathan Quick.  The Kings haven't been threatened at all in these playoffs yet, and that's about to change.

For the third straight series, I'll pick the Devils in 7 games.