My Two Cents for May 28th, 2012:
The Stage is Set- When the NHL Season began back on October 2nd, there were a few prognosticators that had picked the Los Angeles Kings to go to the finals. This was before the Kings would fire Head Coach Terry Murray on December 12th and hire Darryl Sutter to replace him a week later. This was before the Kings went though an 11 game stretch in the early part of the season where they only scored two goals or less in each one of those games. This was before the Kings seemingly set a worlds record for most 1-0 losses by a team playing any professional sport that wasn’t soccer. This was before the Kings would be sitting outside of the playoff picture in the Western Conference Standings as late as March 14th. This was also before the Kings finally clinched no worse that the 8th seed in the Western Conference on the seasons final day April 7th, and we’re locked into 8th when the San Jose Sharks beat the Kings 3-2 sending LA to a date with top seeded Vancouver while the Sharks decided to take their chances with St Louis. We all know what happened from there.
Meanwhile, the New Jersey Devils are probably the obvious candidate for the “Team that Flew Under the Radar” award. The Devils were not always spectacular, not always the highlight of the night, and at times played hockey that was almost mundane. However, as far as the Devils were concerned that was just fine with them because it worked. Compared to last season where the Devils missed the playoffs entirely after a horrendous start, this year New Jersey almost very quietly played out it’s season and managed to find it’s way to making the post season as this years Eastern Conference’s 6th seeded team. Not much was expected of the Devils, which they would use to their advantage. The Devils did not sneak up on individual teams, they snuck up to the entire Eastern Conference and just got better as the late season and playoffs began, much like the team they will be facing in the Stanley Cup Finals.
Journey to The Finals- Both the Kings and Devils did not take the path of least resistance. When you are the 8th seed and 6th seed in your respective conferences, you will be playing the majority of games on the road and going up against the best the league has to offer. One thing is for certain, both teams here are not disappointments and are very deserving to be in the Stanley Cup Finals. Los Angeles became the first team, and maybe the only team we will see do this in our lifetimes, to take down the top three seeded teams in their conference. Not only did the Kings beat the Canucks, Blues and Coyotes, the Kings beat each of these teams fairly EASILY and DECISIVELY! There were some hard fought games and hard fought battles to be sure, but LA took three top seeded teams and made each one of them look like they were the 8th seeded team and barely belonged in the playoffs. The Kings went on a 12-2 tear to get here and will give New Jersey a lot to think about.
As for the New Jersey Devils, the road to the Cup Finals was much tougher. The first stop for the Devils was the Florida Panthers who took the third seed in the Eastern Conference. Florida gave the Devils all they could handle before New Jersey finally squeaked out a 3-2 overtime win in Game Seven on the road. If you saw this game, it was probably the one game and series that truly could have gone either way. It was probably also of all the playoff series played in these playoffs the least watched because of both teams limited fan bases. After escaping Florida, the Devils then took care of business rather easily against Philadelphia Flyers team that had surprising little to offer after knocking off Pittsburgh in the first round. The Devils were able to take advantage of the Flyers being apparently more worn down after a hard fought opening round series and hammered Philadelphia in five games. If not for a few bounces that went the Flyers way in Game One, the Devils would have swept the series. New Jersey shut down Flyers offensive attack with a collapsing defense, and a goalie named Martin Brodeur who only gets better the longer the season goes. The Devils had a tougher time against the top seeded New York Rangers getting shutout in Game’s One and Three. However, from Game Four on the Devils took control of the series outscoring the Rangers 12-6 over the next three games and put their cross Hudson rivals away clinching Game Six in overtime.
What the Los Angeles Kings Bring to Lord Stanley’s Table- Kings Captain Dustin Brown and Center Anzi Kopitar have combined for 13 goals and 18 assists in this post season so far. During the regular season this same duo combined for 47 goals and 82 assist to lead the Kings and make the post season a possibility for the NHL’s men in black. Justin Williams and Michael Richards have combined for 11 points while former Anaheim Duck Dustin Penner has 10 points, including the Western Conference Finals clinching goal versus the Coyotes. Drew Doughty has eight assist while Dwight King has five goals in these playoffs after scoring five in 27 regular season games. Jeff Carter is a force to be reckoned with on the ice at any time as well as Jarret Stoll and Matt Greene.
In goal, Jonathan Quick is not only a strong candidate for the Vezina Trophy, if the Kings win the Cup he would be a strong choice for the Conn Smythe Trophy as well. Quick has posted a .946 save percentage in 14 playoff games and has pitched two shutouts in these playoffs, the most recent one being Game Two of the Western Conference Finals at Phoenix. Quick was also a huge reason the Kings made the playoffs as he kept the Kings in a large amount of the 69 regular season games he played in, which is one reason he would have my vote for Kings team MVP. Not to take anything away from the Kings roster, However IMHO without Quick, the Kings are not even here. Period. Quick IS that good, and is that much of a difference maker. A strong team can get to the final. A strong team with a strong goalie, those are the teams that can win in the finals.
What the New Jersey Devils Bring to Lord Stanley’s Table- Devils Captain Zach Parise along with Left Wing Ilya Kovalchuk, and Center Travis Zajac have combined for 16 goals and 21 assist in these playoffs to lead New Jersey to the Stanley Cup Finals. Parise has done what any strong willed Captain does, lead the team. The Devils have bought into Parise and have followed behind him. This team truly has each other’s backside and that is a sign of true comradely. Kovalchuk, who was heavily criticized for not living up to his large contract since being traded over from the late Atlanta Thrashers franchise over two years ago, has made huge contributions to the Devils success this season. He has never played harder or been better, and is now looking like he’s worth every penny he is getting. Kovalchuk’s 18 points in these playoffs are a nice follow up to his 83 in the regular season. Zajac meanwhile, along with Bryce Salvador, Adam Henrique, David Clarkson, Dainius Zubrus, Marek Zidlicky, Stephen Gionta, Ryan Carter and Patrik Elias amongst others lead a very potent Devils attack that when on their game fear no opponent. Even former San Jose Shark Steve Bernier has scored a two goals in these playoffs and has shown a strong ability to roll up his sleeves and get down and dirty with the rest of the team when needed.
Martin Brodeur, even now at Age 40 plus three weeks, has shown that he can still stand on his head with the best of them and still can be one of the top five goalies in the NHL today. Brodeur has been there for all three of New Jersey’s Stanley Cup Championships and certainly would not mind getting a fourth before calling it a career (which may be awhile at the rate he’s going). Brodeur in recent years may have been bent a lot, but as a true professional at his craft never broke. Brodeur along with the rest of the Devils are back in the finals just one season after finishing 11th in the Eastern Conference the year before and having some players with career worst seasons. Many wondered last season if Brodeur would either retire or even ask to be traded to a contender before the February trade deadline. Neither happened, and the Devils franchise and fan base couldn’t be happier. Brodeur in these playoffs has a 12-5-1 record, and a .923 save percentage. Brodeur has had a few tough games and even tough periods, however has never backed down or taken a second off. Brodeur has made several key saves though many moments where the Devils playoff run looked to be in jeopardy (except during the Flyers series which was never in doubt after Game Two). If Brodeur continues to play as if he is 21 and not 40, the Kings will have a tough time getting pucks past this cagey veteran net minder who has three Stanley Cup rings worth of experience.
Kings Keys to Victory- For the Los Angeles Kings, the keys come down to two basically simple things. 1) Continue to have fun and enjoy spending the house’s money. Remember, the Kings are the 8th seeded team out of the West, they are not even supposed to be here. Yet here they are, and they are not only very deserving to here but are also the right team to be here. The Kings are very good stewards of the house money, and have gone out and just decided to have fun and make the most of this opportunity. Since the Kings decided to go out and just have fun, they are 12-2 (and even in the two losses, they made the opponent earn the victory). The Kings have had nothing to lose all along and everything to gain and that is still true now. 2) ‘The KISS Plan: Keep It Simple, Sam”. Don’t change for deviate from the game plan, if it’s not broke do not try to fix it at anytime. Head Coach Darryl Sutter has been around a long time and this is not his first trip to the rodeo, and may not be his last either. Sutter knows what buttons to press and when to press them. Sutter has just let the Kings go out and play hockey, period. He is not known for being the loosest of head coaches, however if he’s pulling any strings or doing any micro-managing, you would not be able to tell based on how well the Kings are doing. The Kings must recognize that New Jersey will be a far different animal than Vancouver, St Louis or Phoenix. I don’t know that the Kings again come away taking the first two games on the road here, however if they get a split of the first two games in Newark they should be just fine and in good position.
Devils Keys to Victory- The Devils success has been predicated more by their ability to play a collapsing style defense which was the reason for much of their successes in these playoffs, especially so against Philadelphia and the NY Rangers. If the Devils can continue to do that against the Kings they will be able to stay in most if not all games. Both the Devils and Kings when they get leads particularly late are the best at the “rope-a-dope” defenses and are able to frustrate their opponents with regularity and at times ease. Brodeur will be called upon to keep the Devils in these games as he will be their last line of defense. Offensively the Devils can either be very potent or just manage a couple of goals before relying on the defense to go on shut down mode in the final period. It’s no secret that the Devils will need to continue to get contributions from their heavy hitters, or even by someone who has yet to dent the score sheet. Of the two teams in this final, the Devils are the team who have less of a margin for error especially when you are taking on a team that hasn’t lost on the road since April 7th. That said, you cannot take New Jersey lightly. They will be a tougher match for the Kings than any other opponent they have played thus far. Keep in mind to that as is with their counterparts in LA, the Devils are not supposed to be here either. Yet here they are, and they truly belong here too. Devils’ Head Coach Peter DeBoer also deserves much of the credit for letting his players do what they do best, just going out there and play to the best of their abilities.
The King Shark’s Prediction- As I told a co-worker Saturday, you can make a very strong case for why either team could win this series and skate away with the Stanley Cup in hand for the summer. Both teams have potent offensive attacks that have hit their strides in the post season, and at the absolute right time. Both teams have tough defenses that will bruise you each and every time you cross their blue line, or even get close to the puck. Both teams have goalies who have carried their teams on their respective backs, one who’s at the final for the first time and the other who has been here three times before, and won three times before. This looks like it will be a classic series in the making if done right by both teams, and should be one of the more entertaining finals we have seen.
That said, I am picking the Los Angeles Kings to win their first Stanley Cup in franchise history and for the Kings to do this in six games. I feel the Kings out of all 16 teams that have played in this post season have brought their best game to the rink in each of the 14 games they have played thus far. This team is uniquely focused and has had the best approach to these playoffs likely because of their seeding. From April 8th on, the Kings realized two things. 1) They are “in”, and 2) They have nothing to lose and everything to gain. No matter what happens here, the Kings will come away from this as the new power in the Western Conference for years to come. The Devils will NOT be easy, however the Kings I feel have a size and quickness advantage (not referring to the Kings goalie). In the end, that may be the one thing New Jersey won’t be able to overcome. No disrespect to the Devils whatsoever, because both teams have a good argument for the Cup. To me, the Kings are the team who will be most likely the one who comes away with the Cup. Whomever wins out however, that team will certainly have earned it albeit the Devils or Kings.
*Kings over the Devils 4 games to 2…
….just my two cents…
The King Shark
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**PS: To All of Our Armed Forces around the world past and present who have fought to keep us free, making this The Land of the Free and The Home of the Brave, Thank You!!! Please keep them in mind this Memorial Day Holiday…