The 2012 Stanley Cup is set to begin Wednesday May 30th between the eighth seeded Los Angeles Kings and the sixth seeded New Jersey Devils.
It is one of the most unlikely matchups in years.
If you were the guy/girl who predicted this one, kudos to you my friend. I hope you parlayed it on a ticket and bet your life savings because you can now retire.
I myself am not surprised the Devils will be representing the Eastern Conference and did in fact see them making a deep run. They have elite-level scoring, solid defense, and a goaltender, albeit one past his prime, who can steal games and could go down as the best to ever play the position.
The Kings, on the other hand, struggled with mediocrity all season long. Unable to score goals and seeing three different bench bosses, they appeared destined for disappointment yet again after many had them projected to win the Pacific division after key signings of Mike Richards and Simon Gagne in the offseason.
After a 12-12-5 start Terry Murray was sent packing, and after a brief four game stint by John Stevens, Darryl Sutter took over the reigns and steered the team in the right direction. They finished the season 9-2-3, crept into the final playoff spot and are currently on a record-setting playoff tear:
- They have defeated, in sequence, the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd ranked teams in the West.
- They haven’t lost on the road in a league record 10 playoff games dating back to last season.
- They have only dropped two contests out of 14.
In playoff hockey there are a number of key factors that lead to a team’s success:
- Your stars need to be your stars.
- You need balanced scoring.
- You need a goalie that can steal a game.
Both teams have excelled in these key areas and that’s why they’re each four wins away from carving their names into Lord Stanley’s Mug.
New Jersey Devils
The Devils have been led by Ilya Kovalchuk, who is inarguably one of the most talented players in the world. Kovalchuk has a league-best 18 points (7G, 11A) in 17 games and has been ruthless on the power play, netting five of his goals with the man advantage.
Zach Parise has also had a solid playoffs with 7 goals and 7 assists, while Travis Zajac has been a pleasant surprise after missing most of the season due to injury. He has 12 points (7G, 5A).
The Devils’ success has had a lot to do with all four lines contributing at key times. The 4th line has seen Ryan Carter light the lamp four times, including two game winners. He only had four goals in 72 games this season.
Stephen Gionta has three goals, Dainus Zubrous has three, David Clarkson has 3 goals, all game winners, and rookie of the year candidate Adam Henrique has 3 including two game winners.
One of the biggest surprises has been Bryce Salvador who has 11 points (3G, 8A) despite only tallying 9 assists in 82 games during the regular season.
And then there’s Martin Brodeur. He turned 40 during these playoffs but continues to make outstanding saves, keeping his team in games and shifting momentum in the Devils’ favor. He has a GAA of 2.04 and a Save % of 0.923 while tallying 1 shutout during the postseason.
Los Angeles Kings
The Kings have had very similar numbers with respect to those key factors.
Their stars have most certainly been their stars. Dustin Brown, a likely Conn Smythe candidate, has 16 points (7G, 9A) in 14 games, is a +13 with three game winners, and has two shorthanded goals. Anze Kopitar has 15 points (6G, 9A), is a +13 and also has two shorties. Drew Doughty supplies the offense from the blue-line with 10 points in 14 games and a +10 rating.
In these playoffs the Kings have had some help in scoring form their bottom lines, something they didn’t have in the regular season. They ranked 2nd to last in the NHL in goals, scoring only 2.29 goals/game. In the playoffs they are 3rd best with 2.93 behind only the Penguins and Flyers, who decided not to play defense in their series.
Dwight King has scored five goals despite averaging only 12 minutes/game. Dustin Penner has three including the overtime winner that iced the Coyotes, and Jarrett Stoll had two goals, both game winners. That balanced scoring has enabled the Kings to be a dominant force in the playoffs.
A great deal of credit has to go to Jonathan Quick. In just his third full season Quick has vaulted into the NHL’s elite. In the playoffs he has a GAA of 1.54, a Save% of 0.946, and two shutouts. If it weren’t for Quick, the Kings wouldn’t even be in playoffs to begin with.
Both teams have had very similar patterns of success that got them this far. They rank 1st and 2nd in 5-on-5 play, have had production from all four line,s and have a goalie between the pipes who can win games even when the offense dries up.
Keys to Success for New Jersey
1) Special Teams
The Devils need to find their stride on the PK that enabled them to lead the league during the regular season. They had an 89.6% success rate during the season, but that number has fallen drastically to 74.2% in the playoffs.
The Kings’ Power Play isn’t anything to brag about, but if Jersey lets them get those goals it’s going to be tough for them to win four games. They also need to watch the counter-attack while on the PP. The Kings have five shorthanded goals these playoffs compared to six by the rest of the league.
2) Score First and Outshoot Opponent
During the postseason the Devils have won 80% of games when they score the first goal, compared to 50% when they allow the first goal. Considering how stingy the Kings are, this stat becomes increasingly important.
During the regular season, the Devils won 72.7% of the time when they scored first, compared to 42.1% when they trailed. They also win 81.8% of the time when they outshoot their opponents in the playoffs, compared to 42.9% when they were outshot.
3) Production from all 4 lines
The Kings’ defense is tough and their goalie is even tougher. They keep everything to the outside limiting scoring chances. Balanced scoring will be key to penetrate the Kings defense as the best defenders will be out against the Kovalchuk and Parise lines.
Keys to Success for Los Angeles
1) Win the 5-0n-5 battle
Considering how dismal their Power Play has been these playoffs (8.1%), it puts far more emphasis on even-strength play. The Devils are the top team this playoffs 5-on-5, but the Kings will have to take that away if they have any chance to bring the Cup back to California.
2) Production from top lines
They have been blessed with balanced scoring thus far in the playoffs, but that could dry up all too quickly and return to regular season levels. Mike Richards and Jeff Carter will be heavily relied on to contribute as will the top line of Brown, Kopitar, and Justin Williams.
3) Score 1st goal
It’s not as important for L.A., considering they’ve won all games this postseason when allowing the first goal, but it’s extremely important for Jersey and has been all year. However, in the regular season the Kings only won 21.6% of games when the opponent scored first.
4) Quick needs to outplay Brodeur
This kid appears to have nerves of steel, and he’s going to need them since this is the biggest moment of his career and might be his only chance to win one. Quick needs to continue to put up Conn Smythe-candidate numbers if the Kings have any chance at winning.
Stanley Cup Finals Prediction
These teams faced off twice during the regular season, with the Devils taking both games. However, Quick only played in one while Brodeur only took the ice once against the Kings for a period before tweaking his shoulder.
But this a different Kings team than they met in October, with a different coach, a few different players, and loads more confidence.
Nevertheless I feel that the Kings’ Cinderella playoff run will come to an end against the Devils.
New Jersey has balanced enough defense that they will be able to shut down, to a degree, L.A’s top two lines. I have very little faith that a team that was 2nd to last in the league in scoring has made such a swift and dynamic turnaround.
The Kings’ top-level talent is about at par, but Jersey is more balanced and experienced up front. Not to mention Martin Brodeur knows what it takes to win a Stanley Cup having won three already in his Hall of Fame career. You’ve got to give the edge to the guy who has been there before.
What an exclamation point it would be for Marty, who will could possibly retire after this season since he’s now in his 40s.
New Jersey Devils in 6
Sidenote: If the Kings do win, they will be the 2nd team in North American professional sports to win a championship having three coaches in one year. That other team: the 1978 New York Yankees.