The quest for the Stanley Cup, the best trophy in all of professional sports, begins in earnest on Wednesday when the eighth seeded Los Angeles Kings visit the sixth seeded New Jersey Devils. Neither of these teams were supposed to be here, but deservedly escaped their Conference battle royal.
The Kings have looked nothing like a team that struggled to score all season, pouring in 2.93 goals per game (a lot better than the 2.29 during the regular season). They haven't even needed this scoring surge, as the greatness of their team defense and the goaltending of Jonathan Quick have held opponents to 1.57 goals against per game. I'm not John Nash, but that sure looks like the Kings are almost doubling their opponents.
Those two numbers don't even scratch the surface of the dominance the Kings have displayed in the playoffs. They are 12-2, including 8-0 on the road, and have defeated the 1, 2, and 3 seeds in the West. Of all teams that made it past the first round, they are averaging the most shots on goal (32.9), fewest goals against, the best penalty killing (91.2%) and most short-handed goals (5).
The greatness of the team is both within the play of their stars and their depth. Their top-2 lines are dominating opponents five-on-five, registering 18 goals and 33 assists. Six players have at least 10 points, including defenseman Drew Doughty (who is finally earning that $7M salary after spending six months to get his conditioning up to par), and nine players have scored more than once, including third-liner Dwight King who notched four goals against Phoenix alone (five in total).
Another aspect of their domination so far has been their physical play. Their hit total (509) may only register fourth, but on a per-game basis (36.4) they averaged more than the rough-and-tumble Rangers (33.3). Their physical play is led by their captain Dustin Brown (67), who also masquerades as their goal and point leader (7-6-13) while being tied for the plus/minus lead with plus-13.
On the other hand, New Jersey has proven to be just as deep if not deeper up front. With Ilya Kovalchuk (playoff leader with 18 points), Zach Parise and Patrik Elias, they can match the star power of Brown, Anze Kopitar and Mike Richards, but they cannot match the two-way excellence of those three; all three of those Devils are minus players in the playoffs so far.
The Devils too have six players with 10+ points, and that list somehow includes Bryce Salvador (3-8-11), the guy who has averaged less than 10 points per season in his career. They have received pivotal goals and great play from fourth-liners Stephen Gionta (7 points, plus-6) and Ryan Carter (4 goals, plus-6). The team has three players with as many goals as the Kings' leader Brown (Kovalchuk, Parise, Travis Zajac).
While they equal the depth of the Kings' forwards, I don't believe the defense to be an even match. L.A. has formed a great six-man group, with each of the three pairings boasting one offensive threat and one defensive mastermind. Apart from Marek Zidlicky, the Devils' defensemen are all defensive specialists (again, completely ignoring Salvador's output). Take nothing away from them though, as they have helped to allow a league-low 27.6 shots against per game.
One decided advantage in the Devils' favor is the power play, where they convert at 18.2% vs. the Kings conversion rate of 8.1%. As deep as the Kings' forward group is, and the success of their top-six during even strength play, they don't feature the dynamic talents and shot of Kovalchuk, who's five power play markers are one less than the entire Kings team.
The 68-year-old Martin Brodeur (OK fine, 40-year-old) is having a playoff run to remember, posting a 2.04 GAA and .923 SV% with a shutout, and even displaying a never-eroding stick handling ability that has allowed him to earn four assists. His numbers have been good, but they haven't been Quick-good (1.54 GAA, .946 SV%).
The coaches behind the bench give us an interesting match-up as well. Devils' coach Peter DeBoer didn't do a whole lot of winning in the NHL prior to this season, posting two losing records in three years with Florida, missing the playoffs all three years. (He did have 12 winning seasons as an OHL head coach, including the 2008 OHL Championship.) He has without a doubt gotten the most out of his veterans and youth alike, while getting the team to buy into a non-trapping version of defense along with a relentless forecheck. He is widely regarded as a players' coach, one whom many former players still respect and miss.
Darryl Sutter is a different story altogether. He was hired shortly after Terry Murray was fired, and coached the team to a 25-13-11 record in 49 games. This is his 12th season as a head coach in the NHL, and his 10th appearance in the playoffs, and second trip to the Finals (he lost with Calgary in 2004). He wouldn't be defined as a players' coach, but he certainly demands and receives the respect out of the guys in his locker room, and deserves full credit for Drew Doughty's ascension back into elite status. He too instilled a relentless forecheck and continues to make sure his players are not satisfied with where they are, despite the long odds facing an eighth seed.
As a prediction, I will take the Kings to be the first ever eighth seed to win a Stanley Cup, winning in six games. Their ability to have a total of 18 off days by winning all of their series' early will prove to be the difference as L.A.'s forwards will wear down the New Jersey defense faster than the opposite can happen.
Quick will be just enough better than Brodeur, without the one or two silly gambles. Brodeur will play his final NHL game on June 11th, choosing to bow out as an Eastern Conference Champion rather than come back for another season.
The Conn Smythe will go to Quick, as Brown's early dominance gets lost in the total team effort. If New Jersey somehow finds a way to win, it won't be the goalie taking home MVP honors, it will be Kovalchuk.
Nick is RealGM's NHL Feature Writer. You can reach him by email email@example.com or on twitter @NickObergan
Via Nick Obergan/RealGM
Los Angeles Kings, New Jersey Devils
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