2012 Stanley Cup Final Preview: New Jersey Devils vs. Los Angeles Kings
We saw two dramatic series-winning, Stanley Cup berth-clinching overtime goals by two unsung heroes. We were witnesses to two low-seeded overlooked clubs knocking off their higher-seeded division rivals without even needing a seventh game. The 2012 NHL Conference Finals were well played, surprising physical, and so, so satisfying. So how do you follow that? How can you?
The New Jersey Devils and the Los Angeles Kings are no strangers to the pressure they are about to endure – and they’re rather well acquainted with the doubters too. Respectively the sixth seed and the eighth seed in their conferences, the Devils and Kings have both stunned the hockey world by impressively pushing aside their supposed "competition" three rounds in a row.
Now after a long season, overcoming obstacles and injuries, these two clubs will meet for the first time in the Stanley Cup Final. A series no one – and I mean absolutely no one! – believed we would see, it is bound to be a instant classic, pitting the two hottest and most disciplined teams in the game of hockey against one another on both sides of the rink – and the continent.
But before we dive into the ever intriguing storylines behind this unique final, let’s introduce the clubs – for the bandwagon hockey noobs – and take a look back at how these two clubs improbably made it to the Stanley Cup Final:
New Jersey Devils
First Season: 1982
Arena: Prudential Center, Newark, N.J.
Head Coach: Peter DeBoer (1st season)
Captain: Zach Parise (7th season; 1st as captain)
Alternate Captains: Ilya Kovalchuk (10th season; 3rd as Devil), Patrik Elias (16th season; all with Devils)
Team Regular Season Leaders:
Points: Ilya Kovalchuk – 83; Goals: Ilya Kovalchuk – 37; Assists: Patrik Elias – 52; Plus/Minus: Bryce Salvador – +18; Wins: Martin Brodeur – 31
Team Playoff Leaders:
Points: Ilya Kovalchuk – 18; Goals: Ilya Kovalchuk, Zach Parise, Travis Zajac (tied) – 7; Assists: Ilya Kovalchuk – 11; Plus/Minus: Bryce Salvador – +10; Wins: Martin Brodeur – 12
Previous Stanley Cup Appearances: 1995 (Detroit), 2000 (Dallas), 2001 (Colorado), 2003 (Anaheim)
Stanley Cup Victories: 1995 (4-0), 2000 (4-2), 2003 (4-3)
How They Got Here:
Although the Devils accumulated more points than the Panthers over the regular season, Florida had home-ice advantage throughout the series; and despite the prognosticators’ predictions, New Jersey did not finish off their opponent in five games. In fact, they were down 3-2 going into Game 6. But then a flip switched. Travis Zajac scored an overtime game-winner at home to send the series back to Florida. There, the two clubs battled fiercely to a tie for more than 80 minutes. Then, foreshadowing future heroics, rookie Adam Henrique sniped a winner past Florida goalie Jose Theodore in double overtime, leading New Jersey into a fierce intra-division battle with the Flyers.
Semifinal Round: Beat the fifth-seeded Philadelphia Flyers in five games
In their first round matchup, Philadelphia put a beat-down on their cross-state rival Pittsburgh Penguins, the consensus favorite to come out of the East. Logically, the Flyers were the next in line to play favorite, with the lowly and “overrated” Devils just a minor speed bump on the road to the Cup. Well, quickly and assuredly, New Jersey showed which team was truly overrated, winning four straight after losing Game One.
The Devils, led by solid goaltending and an aggressive forecheck, made mince meat of the lax and lazy Flyers. While Philly goalkeeper Ilya Bryzgalov had more time to fantasize about the solar system and the meaning of life, Devils goalie Martin Brodeur – now 40 years old – kept trucking on into a cross-river Conference Finals with the hated Rangers.
In a battle of star goaltenders and aggressive coaches, the Tri-State area was torn apart across the Hudson River. Through the first three games, the Rangers were clearly not playing their top game – well, everyone except Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist, who stoned the Devils with two shutouts in Games 1 and 3. The Devils struggled offensively mostly because of the Rangers’ annoyingly effective shot blocking and aggressive stick play. However, in Game 4, the Devils started hot early and carried that momentum through the game and, eventually, through the series.
New Jersey’s hot starts put New York in deep holes in Games 5 and 6 and, although New York climbed back to tie in both cases, the Blueshirts were too late. Clutch saves in both third periods by Martin Brodeur kept New York out of the net and New Jersey in the game. An aggressive Devils fourth-line dump-in led to the game-winning goal in Game 5, sending the series back to Newark. In Game 6, the score was tied through 60 minutes of play, but it only took one minute of overtime to rock the Rock. The hero? Adam Henrique – again. But this time he scored on a scrappy put-in past King Henry, dethroning the goalkeeper and the top-seeded Blueshirts from their high perch and guiding the Devils to their fifth trip to the Stanley Cup Finals.
First Season: 1967
Arena: Staples Center, Los Angeles, Calif.
Head Coach: Darryl Sutter (1st season; joined the club on December 24, 2011)
Captain: Dustin Brown (8th season; 4th as captain)
Alternate Captains: Matt Greene (7th season; 4th as King), Anze Kopitar (6th season; all with Kings)
Team Regular Season Leaders:
Points: Anze Kopitar – 76; Goals: Anze Kopitar – 25; Assists: Anze Kopitar – 51; Plus/Minus: Willie Mitchell – +20; Wins: Jonathan Quick – 35
Team Playoff Leaders:
Points: Dustin Brown – 16; Goals: Dustin Brown – 7; Assists: Dustin Brown, Anze Kopitar, Justin Williams (tied) – 9; Plus/Minus: Dustin Brown, Anze Kopitar (tied) – +13; Wins: Jonathan Quick – 12
Previous Stanley Cup Appearances: 1993 (lost to Montreal, 4-1)
Stanley Cup Victories: None
How They Got Here:
The Kings were a solid team all throughout the regular season, holding the #3 seed for most of March before losing the division title to the Phoenix Coyotes – we’ll get to them later – and dropping to the eighth seed in the West. Despite a horrid offense that produced just 2.29 goals per game (next to last in the league), the Kings were confident going into the postseason behind their all-star goalie Jonathan Quick. Facing the President’s Trophy winners and reigning Western Conference champions, Vancouver Canucks, without home ice advantage was a tough task, but Darryl Sutter’s revamped Kings did not shy away from the opportunity.
In Games 1 and 2 at Vancouver, Los Angeles’s offense exploded, sniping four goals past Roberto Luongo both nights. Then, it was Quick’s turn; the 26-year old stalwart keeper shutout Vancouver in Game 3. In Game 5, Quick stood tall again and Jarret Stoll lead the Kings on to St. Louis with a series-winner in overtime past Luongo’s replacement, Cory Schneider. The top seed had fallen and the Los Angeles Kings were sending shockwaves across the Western Conference.
Semifinal Round: Beat the second-seeded St. Louis Blues in four
As quick and surprising as their first round series was, the Kings’ second round bout with the Blues was over and done with within a week. With fast starts (a four-goal period in Game 2) and a ferocious penalty kill (17-17 for the series), Los Angeles blitzkreiged a slow and reactionary St. Louis club that had also quickly disposed of its first round opponent. By the end of Game 4, a 3-1 Kings win, Los Angeles had swept the Blues. I imagine everyone leaving Staples Center that day was thinking the same thing as their arena’s sponsor: That was easy.
Conference Finals: Beat the third-seeded Phoenix Coyotes in five
It wasn’t as pretty as the first two series, but the Kings got the job done quickly, again taking the first two games away from home. The great matchup was supposed to be a head-to-head and crease-to-crease battle between two upstart goalies: Quick and Phoenix keeper Mike Smith. Both had exceedingly low goals-against-averages during the postseason and seemed invincible. But it was clear by Game 3 who the victor would be. Over the first three games, LA outscored Phoenix 10-3, including Quick’s Game 2 shutout in the desert. Behind Anze Kopitar and Dustin Brown, the Kings were having a lot of success in the Coyote zone, moving the puck with precise passes and perfect possession.
Although Phoenix stole one with a Mike Smith shutout in Game 4, LA was ready to settle the score in Game 5. The game headed to overtime tied 3-3 and would stay that way for nearly eighteen extra minutes until the low-scoring Dustin Penner placed the puck up in the upper 90 off a bad Mike Smith rebound. The Kings finished their Western Conference run with only two losses, but none coming on the road, a trend they hope to continue as they move on to the Stanley Cup Final.
The starting goaltenders for both Stanley Cup finalists are all-stars in their own right. Jonathan Quick is the next big thing; ready to replace Ryan Miller as the best American goalie in the game, he has quick lateral movement and stops nearly everything below the belt. His GAA during the regular season was second-best in the league at 1.95 and his postseason performance has solidified his spot amongst the league’s elite.
On the other end of the ice is the tireless Martin Brodeur, 40 years old and still making scorpion saves. What Brodeur lacks in teenage nimbleness, he makes up for in experience and clutchness. This will be Marty’s fifth Stanley Cup appearance, each one as the starting goalkeeper for New Jersey, and he’ll be going for his fourth grail. While his postseason has not been perfect (see: Game 3 against FLA and Game 5 against NYR), he has made the saves when it counts.
Both keepers won their highly publicized matchups with their division counterparts in the Conference Finals, but it is still unclear who will prevail here. The team to hoist the grail will not do so solely because of the goalie play as I had suggested with the Devils-Rangers, Marty-Henry matchup, but the battle between age and athleticism, experience and inexperience will be as telling as any another matchup.
Los Angeles vs. New York Jersey
Most every man, woman, child, and/or hockey-playing being was hoping for a Los Angeles-New York Stanley Cup. It would have been the first time since the 1978 World Series that the two grand and polar metropolises of America would face off in the championship of one of the four major sports. Hockey fans from nearly every state and province would have their eyes glued to the television, spiking NBC’s ratings, making Gary Bettman a happy commish, and possibly launching the NHL into a decade of prosperity and relevance. But one state wouldn’t have it: New Jersey.
Sure, blame the Garden State for everything. Smog. Camden. The Situation. But there is absolutely nothing about the New Jersey Devils that the NHL or its fans should complain about. Although the intrigue between the cities of New York and Los Angeles would have admittedly been fascinating, the matchup between the Devils and the Kings is as tight and entertaining as we have seen in a while, with some name recognition too (Broduer, Parise, Kovalchuk, Brown, Quick, Doughty, etc.). So buckle up America, and Canada, and Europe; the road to the Stanley Cup merges with the Garden State Parkway.
No matter who wins the Cup this year, one record will be broken for sure. With the sixth-seeded Devils facing off against the eighth-seeded Kings, we are guaranteed to see the lowest-seeded Stanley Cup winner in NHL history. The last eighth-seed to make the Cup was the 2006 Edmonton Oilers, who fell just short of breaking the record, falling in seven games to the Carolina Hurricanes. The current record for lowest seed to win belongs to... who else but the New Jersey Devils? In 1995, the fifth-seeded New Jersey club shocked the league by making it to their first Cup, and then proceeded to shock the world by sweeping – SWEEPING – the top-seeded Detroit Red Wings.
Another hockey first! This will be the first Stanley Cup Finals featuring two teams that both boast American-born captains. The LA Kings are led by 27-year old Dustin Brown, while the NJ Devils follow 27-year old Zach Parise. Both skippers figure to be the most important players on the ice when the puck drops. Brown expressed his admiration for Parise, saying, “He has a fourth-line work mentality with first-line skill.” Beating around questions of his impending free agency, Parise responded with similar sentiments, “He’s a great player. He’s physical. He does everything on the ice. We really have to make sure we are aware when he’s out there.”
While Parise is Jersey’s workhorse and does not score as many goals as his wingers, Brown has developed throughout the playoffs into Los Angeles’s most physical and explosive player, leading the team in points, goals, and assists. They are both selfless leaders, despite their different roles on their teams and both Brown and Parise leave everything on the ice. While this may not be a head-to-head matchup, this comparison may be the most intriguing and dynamic in this final.
Typically, on most successful Stanley Cup clubs, the pace and intensity of the game is pushed by the first and second lines, which feature the top scorers and skill players. The same can be said for both teams; the Devils will run with Parise, Dainus Zubrus, and Travis Zajac, fresh off the disabled list, to start while the Kings will boast the high-scoring trio of Brown, Kopitar, and Justin Williams, who have combined for 15 goals this postseason. This type of firepower is expected from a top line.
However, not much is ever demanded from a last line of forwards, aside from the occasional elbow to the clavicle or the sacrificing of the body. New Jersey doesn’t see it that way, boasting one of the strongest and most clutch fourth lines in playoff history. And to think, they’ve only been playing with each other since the playoffs began.
Before the last game of the regular season, brother of former Devil Brian Gionta, little center Stephen Gionta was called up from Albany and was immediately put on the fourth line alongside Steve Bernier and Ryan Carter. Despite their no-name status, the line immediately had a huge impact. Only playing ten minutes in the final test of the season against Ottawa, the fourth line, led by Gionta, put in the game-winning goal, foreshadowing a clutch and prolific postseason.
In the playoffs, the line has combined for 19 points, including the game-winning goal in the ever-important and topsy-turvy Game 5 at the Garden. Not many other lines can hold a candle to their number of points, or their consistency. The fourth line is the only combination of forwards that has gone untinkered with by Peter DeBoer this postseason.
The Kings, on the other hand, don’t really have an answer to New Jersey’s fourth line. While Los Angeles boasts a formidable last unit (Colin Fraser, Brad Richardson, Jordan Nolan), their production pales in comparison to Jersey’s, amounting just three points this entire postseason!
Los Angeles’s Biggest Advantage: Road Warriors
Winning a playoff game in the National Hockey League is a tough task. Winning a playoff game on the road is typically even tougher. Winning every road playoff game on route to a Stanley Cup berth? Nearly impossible! Don’t tell that to the Kings.
Rolling through Vancouver, St. Louis, and Phoenix, LA did not lose one game on the road, going 8-0, including two series-clinching wins in overtime. In those eight games, they outscored their higher-seeded opponents, 30-13, with a lot of help from their hot starts.
Their road record is astonishing and surprising, especially because in the regular season, they played sub-.500 (18-23) hockey on the road. So how is Darryl Sutter keeping his club hot off the road? Well after the Game 2 massacre in St. Louis, Sutter put his team in a Los Angeles hotel instead of allowing them to rest at home, citing that it would keep their momentum strong. Obviously, it worked.
The Devils’ have a strong home record in the postseason (6-2), but that does not mean they are not susceptible to a letdown at the Rock. In Game 3 of the Panthers series, New Jersey jumped out to an early 3-0 lead, only to give up four unanswered goal, pulling Brodeur from goal in the process. It was their first game at home in the series. Then, in Game 3 of the Rangers series, the Devils dominated for two periods but couldn’t get the puck in the net, eventually getting shutout 3-0. It was their first game at home in the series.
See a trend?
This may be the toughest series to call this year. Both clubs are well rested and are the hottest in the game; the Devils have won 18 of their last 24, dating back through the regular season, and Los Angeles has lost just two games in these playoffs. Both captains are selfless and fearless American gladiators, flanked by all-star skill players.
Both coaches, though only in their first years, have calmly guided their clubs through tough terrain with easy communication and crafty strategy. Both fan bases, while not known for their intense regular season support, have become feverish about hockey this summer, coming out in droves to support their clubs and making home games a definite advantage.
On a macro scale of analysis, these teams are too similar to differentiate and call a definitive winner. Let’s dig deeper…
The Devils are great in high-scoring games; in every postseason bout they’ve played, the winner has scored at least three goals. When New Jersey is not shutout, they have only lost three times this postseason. However, Los Angeles has a stone, yet wildly flexible, wall in net and has played very well in close, low-scoring games.
Los Angeles likes fast starts to their series, while New Jersey prefers even faster starts to their games. The Kings have really not faced any adversity this postseason, so we don’t know how they’ll react when they’re down, but we do know, from their three previous series, that the Devils bounce back well, and with a vengeance. They’ve been down 3-2, 2-1 twice, and 1-0 twice in the first three rounds and have come out victorious every time.
Damn, still a push.
Goalies? Push. Experience vs. youth will cancel each other out. Captains? Wash. Coaches? Tomatoes, tomahtoes.
Intangibles? Well, that’s a different story.
It’s my belief that what cannot be seen or felt on the ice will be the deciding factor in this series. Is that a cop-out? Yes, unless you believe in the spirit of sport and the power of effort in spite of performance.
Sorry, Los Angeles, but New Jersey wins here. Jersey’s leadership structure is solid and formidable, established over three decades. Their winning pedigree is second only to the Detroit Red Wings as of late. The Devils have been clutch and resilient all postseason long, while their counterparts have (west-) coasting.
The Kings are young and they will be back to the Finals sooner rather than later, but this is Marty’s last stand. Devils fans, fist pump away! The Cup is returning to – has it ever been more appropriate to say this? – H-E-double hockey stick.
Devils in 7.
Follow me at @JABergman tonight on Twitter! I’ll be live-tweeting from the game as an “impartial observer.”