By Jason Karnosky, AllPuck.com
Since the NHL lockout in 2004-05, several unlikely foes have faced off in the Stanley Cup Finals. But all of those prior match-ups pale in comparison to this year’s duo, which pits the sixth-seeded New Jersey Devils (48-28-6) from the Eastern Conference against the eighth-seeded Los Angeles Kings (40-27-15) from the West.
When either team is crowned champion, that squad will be the lowest-ranked ever to hoist the Stanley Cup, surpassing the 1995 Devils, who entered the postseason seeded fifth before sweeping Detroit to capture the franchise’s first Stanley Cup.
The only player New Jersey has left from its 1995 team is goaltender Martin Brodeur, now a 40-year-old veteran with three NHL rings and a pair of gold medals to his credit.
However, like the 1995 Devils, New Jersey hardly feels like a bottom four-seeded team. During the regular season the Devils finished with 102 points. Though New Jersey finished fourth in the Atlantic Division behind New York, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, the Devils tied for the seventh-best record in the entire NHL.
Despite its higher seed, New Jersey will not enter the Stanley Cup finals as the favorite. That mantle belongs to Los Angeles, which returns to the NHL’s championship showdown for the first time since 1993.
En route to the franchise’s second Final berth, the Kings knocked off the Vancouver Canucks (winner of the Northwest Division and the Presidents’ Trophy), the St. Louis Blues (which won the Central Division), and the Phoenix Coyotes (winners of the Pacific) in a grand total of 14 games — only two more than the minimum 12 necessary to advance. In the process Los Angeles became just the second team ever to eliminate three division winners on its path to the Stanley Cup Finals.
The only other squad to accomplish that feat was 2004 Calgary Flames, which lost the Stanley Cup to the Tampa Bay Lightning in an epic seven-game series. This year’s Kings share one thing in common with those Flames — a head coach in Darryl Sutter who is still eyeing his first NHL championship.
But Los Angeles also shares something vital with its Eastern Conference counterpart: It’s a bottom four-seeded squad in label only. The Kings finished just two points out of the Pacific Division lead, which would have earned them home ice in the first round. Los Angeles allowed just 179 goals during the regular season, the second-fewest in the NHL.
“We’re here to win and I think we deserve to be here, and so does L.A.” Devils forward Ilya Kovalchuk recently told reporters. “I think it will be a great final. It’s the best two teams in the league facing each other.”
Scouting Los Angeles
Earlier this week Devils coach Peter DeBoer told reporters that the Kings, which have yet to lose a road game in the postseason, are “a three- or four-headed monster.” The monster starts with standout goaltender Jonathan Quick.
After a regular season which earned him a nomination for the Vezina Trophy, Quick’s been virtually unbeatable in the playoffs, allowing just 22 goals while posting a .946 save percentage. One of the league’s emerging stars, defenseman Drew Doughty, makes life a little easier for Quick, logging the top minutes per game of any player in the finals with 25:52.
Up front Los Angeles carries an elite pair of centers in Anze Kopitar (six goals, 15 points) and Mike Richards (11 points), but captain Dustin Brown (team-leading seven goals, 16 points) has emerged as the team’s most dangerous two-way threat.
Scouting New Jersey
For the past 18 years conversations about the Devils revolve around the play of the future Hall of Famer Martin Brodeur. In this year’s playoffs Brodeur continues to be the backbone, posting 12 wins, a 2.04 goals-against average and .923 save percentage.
Brodeur gets plenty of help from an offense led by one of the game’s greatest threats, forward Ilya Kovalchuk (team-leading seven goals, 18 points), who is coming off a two-point effort in New Jersey’s 3-2 overtime victory over New York in Game 6. Captain Zach Parise and center Travis Zajac, two former stars at the University of North Dakota with seven postseason goals each, provide significant offensive support.
“They (the Devils) have lots of skill up front, big wingers,” Sutter told reporters. “Many people say they have the greatest goalie of all time.”
If New Jersey has one weakness, it’s on defense. Minnesota castaway Marek Zidlicky (team leading 24:09 minutes per game) and Bryce Salvador lead an unheralded corps of six that allowed just 14 goals to the Rangers in the Eastern Conference Finals.
The Kings and Devils met just twice in the regular season, both within the first month of the season where New Jersey claimed a pair of tight victories. A lot has changed since October — including coaches in Los Angeles — and Sutter has the Kings on a roll that’s hard to stop. If Quick can match or outplay Brodeur, Los Angeles’ superior strength and depth at center should be enough to allow the Kings to prevail in six games.