This is an article I am proud to write.
A preview of the Stanley Cup Finals.
An observation, speculation and evaluation of the two teams to have toppled their Conference. Two teams that have proven better than the rest. Two teams who will bare their hockey hearts and souls to each other, leave blood oxidized, sweat glistening and tears either joyous or sorrowful, embedded within Staples’ ice and that of the Prudential Center.
As the two lowest ranked teams to combine for a Stanley Cup Final, one thing is certain – when this is over, hockey history will never be the same.
As we dive into the obligatory but far from perfunctory breakdown of this series, those familiar with us will know this will not be an analysis of numbers. If you want percentages and rankings, may I recommend Rich Hammond’s Tale of The Tape as a starting point. I prefer to look at those who will suit up for the teams – who they are and how they play the game.
Their Line: Zach Parise – Travis Zajac – Dainus Zubrus
The Breakdown: The Devils’ top line is an onslaught of forechecking with top flight skill. Zajac is a big center with hands and Parise possesses a book of offensive tricks. Zubrus is a big body and while his skill level doesn’t match that of his line mates, he can give a defense fits. This line is the heart and soul of the Devils and is leaned upon heavily for offense. Fortunately for the Kings, it is average defensively.
The Matchup: This series may see top line against top line more often than not. This benefits the Kings as, 5-on-5, the line of Brown-Kopitar-Williams is better than the Devils’ top line. No other center in the Devils’ lineup has the size to match Kopitar and none will be able to contain him. Zajac and the forechecking that his line brings will hope to contain the L.A. Kings’ top line by keeping possession away from them, especially Kopitar who often seems to have his stick magnetized to the puck.
Their Line: Patrick Elias – Adam Henrique – Ilya Kovalchuk
The Breakdown: Looked to for secondary scoring, the aging Elias has been a weak link on an otherwise strong line. Henrique is the Devils’ playoff hero and has scored clutch and clinching goals. He is an even strength performer and a relentless worker. Kovalchuk is a known commodity. Left unchecked, he is as dangerous as they come.
The Matchup: The Kings will want the line of Dwight King, Jarrett Stoll and Trevor Lewis against the Devils’ 2nd line. Kovalchuk needs to be contained by defensemen as he is at his best off the rush. Lewis is solid defensively and this line works the boards well. If the Kings are able to get the puck deep against this line, the Devils’ wingers will be hard pressed to gain back possession. The Devils will want to matchup the Kovalchuk line with the Kings’ fourth of Jordan Nolan, Colin Fraser and Brad Richardson. Only Richardson has speed to rival Kovalchuk’s and is much more susceptible to neutral zone turnovers.
Their Line: Alexei Ponikoravsky – Jacob Josefson – David Clarkson
The Breakdown: The Devils’ third and fourth lines are similar. This line is the bigger of the two and can hit you hard and often. Clarkson has been a surprise playoff scorer, not unlike Los Angeles’ Dwight King. He is also perhaps the Devils’ most physical player. Josefson is a young player with strong defensive instincts, but one New Jersey hopes can unleash the latent playmaking ability he has shown in the Swedish Elite League. Ponikoravsky is a mountain with a shot, but his performance is rarely consistent. He is hard to knock off the puck. If kept to the outside and not allowed to make his way to the front of the net, he is an ineffective player. Still, his defensive instincts are strong and despite the lack of goals, he, along with his line, rank among New Jersey’s best 5-on-5 performers.
The Matchup: This can only be the Kings’ second line. The Devils will want to use their size against that of Jeff Carter and Dustin Penner and bank on Josefson being able to keep up with Mike Richards. Though Kopitar and Brown are the Kings’ top performers, this is the line the Devils must be most worried about. The Devils can match the Kings in terms of the 3rd and 4th line depth, but it is this secondary scoring line of Penner-Richards-Carter with which the Kings can overwhelm the Devils. The CPR line (as Bobby and I have coined it) have fabulous chemistry together and, when they get on a roll, can bring a blend of physicality and skill that no line on the Devils, except their top line, can match.
Their Line: Ryan Carter – Stephen Gionta – Steve Bernier
The Breakdown: The Devils’ fourth line has surprisingly been the heart of their secondary offense. They have been counted on for almost a goal every other game. This line’s ability to bury a puck has given their opponents fits. Gionta is a tiny man who spent his career in the minors until he found a home on this line in the playoffs. Carter and Bernier are physical and both are solid all around hockey players. Though none possess a scoring touch that stands out, together this line has produced through the sheer force of playoff will. So far, matched up against top lines, once this line has received the puck, it has been remiss to give it back.
The Matchup: I doubt that Peter DeBoer reuses the same strategy as he did against New York by having his fourth line play against the Rangers’ top line. None of the teams the Devils have played as of yet had top players dominating the ice even strength, as the Kings’ top players have. He may want to use this line to contain the Richards line while the Kings will want a fourth line for fourth line battle. Jordan Nolan and Steve Bernier are perhaps the most likely pair to fight, should one occur. Colin Fraser and Brad Richardson can throttle this line’s forecheck with their own.
Let us now look beyond mere combinations of even strength forwards. There are tendrils of story lines that dangle and yearn to play out.
One of several similarities we find between the Kings and the Devils is that their top players have earned every last bit of their exorbitant paychecks. It is a difficult task with either club to point directly at a best player. Any which way your finger waggles, at minimum, 3 faces appear.
Leading the way on the ice and off it for both teams are American born Captains who, though they play very different styles, both lead by example and put work ethic at the forefront of every shift. Neither Dustin Brown nor Zach Parise will be caught coasting for a second of precious ice time. Hockey fans around the world will be mesmerized by two skaters who have never played for the sport’s greatest prize, but have played every game these playoffs as if the Cup awaits them at the final buzzer.
The skill of Parise versus the brute strength of Brown. Titans of modern American hockey.
The Kings’ Anze Kopitar has been the embodiment of a top flight center. He has brought better than a point per game scoring touch to accent an elite defensive game. His back-checking and ability to read his opponents’ intended offensive schemes is unmatched.
Ilya Kovalchuk was able to write his own paycheck two years ago by pushing the limits of the NHL’s collective bargaining agreement, much to the chagrin of the Kings. This is a subplot to the series that should be saved for the irrelevant but interesting need to break up a broadcast. Far more pertinent is that while Kovalchuck rose to stardom on the back of uncanny goal scoring talent, Devils’ coach Peter DeBoer has managed to indoctrinate Ilya’s game with a commitment to defense that, while not at the level of his scoring touch, is beyond anything previous tutors were able to command. Kovalchuk is at home on the power play and will attempt to stretch the Kings’ dominant penalty kill to its limits.
The goalies, Jonathan Quick and Martin Brodeur, should perhaps headline any section that describes star power.
This contest makes Brodeur vs. Lundqvist and Quick vs. Smith look like David vs Goliath’s pet dog. We now have Goliath vs. Goliath. Young skill vs. veteran experience. History vs. Future.
Neither goalie has managed to steal a series, but both are capable. Neither has been immune to giving up an embarrassing goal against, but both have proven immune to the viral infection of the mind that may follow. It is mostly safe to say that while either can become to story of the Finals, neither may be responsible if his team loses. In Quick’s case, this must be taken on a shorter career to date and partially on faith. He has not danced this number before. Brodeur has practically choreographed it but he has done so in the long past.
This is Brodeur’s last stand. Regardless of the outcome, Marty’s ticket to the Hall of Fame was punched long ago. Quick looks to use this series as a springboard for his preliminary application. Both netminders play behind solid defenses, though they achieve success in this area in very different ways.
No team reaches the Cup finals without a coach who exercises tactical brilliance and manipulates a psychological tether over his team. Darryl Sutter of the Kings has only had his group of players for little more than 60 games, DeBoer for 100. Though both men possess an arsenal of talent, they have each achieved success in the post season by institutionalizing a rigorous system that demands each player and each line to pull its own weight. Although star players are leaned upon for results, neither coach is hesitant to match up his depth skaters with the other team’s best. I expect we will see four lines rolled consistently. When Jordan Nolan stares into the eyes of Zach Parise, when Anze Kopitar feels David Clarkson’s breath on his neck, these will not automatically be mistakes by the away team or the triumph of the home club’s last change. Balance and resilience are crucial and Sutter and DeBoer will utilize their depth with precision.
Mental preparedness and fortitude are paramount. Herein lies the most interesting question to be asked of this series; can the Devils withstand the Kings psychological attack?
Dustin Brown has been in the spotlight several times these playoffs, often for big goals and big hits. His debated but ruled legal blow to Phoenix Coyotes’ defenseman Michal Rozsival in game 5 of the Western Conference Finals and the outrage (often displaced and feigned) that followed, is indicative of what Brown and the Kings have done to each team they have faced. Through crushing checks and what is sometimes deemed exaggeration to gain power plays, Brown frustrated the Phoenix Coyotes, St. Louis Blues and Vancouver Canucks to the point where the latter three teams’ philosophies and player synergy was undermined. Kings fans watched as each team they played fell victim to emotions that interrupted chemistry. Will a similar story of angst be written of the New Jersey Devils?
And what of the other side to this coin? If pushed, can the Kings maintain their own composure? We saw Drew Doughty calm and cool but, in the last series, prone to agitation with phantom calls against him. Colin Fraser is sometimes over exuberant. Jarret Stoll’s favorite penalties have, in the past, occurred when his team has the puck. The Kings have been the more penalized team of the two. Fortunately, despite their own proclivity towards infractions, the Kings have found success by goading opponents into bad penalties. Though the powerplay has been absent of power, it managed to siphon momentum into its coffers every time an opponent marched to the sin bin. A frustrated, angry team is a team prone to make mistakes and it is on these mistakes that the Kings have capitalized time and again.
Kill Or Be Killed
The Kings show no signs of improving with the man advantage and the Devils have been the victim of playing teams who, not unlike themselves, garnered success predominately from fearsome powerplays. The Kings have scored almost as many goals shorthanded as they have on the powerplay. The Devils have already given up two shorthanded goals. New Jersey’s penalty kill has been atrocious during the playoffs while their powerplay, strong. Specialty teams have pundits scratching their heads. What prevails between a strong powerplay and a dominant penalty kill? What comes of a lame powerplay facing off against a crippled penalty kill? They surely can’t both fail.
The Devils are a wing-heavy team. The Kings are bursting with centers. Two natural centers play on each line but the first. The Devils’ defense gets the job done with an assortment of journeymen. The Kings’ defense has a collection of young puck movers mixed with battle tested stay-at-home blueliners.
The defense is where this series truly splits the two teams.
The Kings defense has been offensively quiet. Drew Doughty is capable of taking over a game in a way that no Devils’ defensemen can. Marek Zidlicky and Andy Green are talented, but do not possess Doughty’s natural and Hockey God given ability. Defensively, Anton Volchenkov is a shot blocker machine and a train. Peter Harrold is a solid skater with no particular talents, but a better than average hockey sense. He can play a system but he cannot contain elite-level talent. Mark Fayne is a big body stay-at-home, much like the Kings’ Matt Greene. Bryce Salvador has had an uncharacteristic post season, registering consistent points for the first time in his career.
The Devils have a slight edge in experience as all but Fayne and Harrold have extensive playoff backgrounds. Volchenkov has been to the Cup finals with Ottawa. The Kings however sport a Cup winner on defense in Rob Scuderi. Alec Martinez and Slava Voynov are on the flip side, highly inexperienced. Both have demonstrated this in recent games against Phoenix with lapses that cost the Kings. The Devils will look to isolate them from their veteran partners and expose them individually. Easier said than done but still a small area of concern for the Kings.
Overall, the Kings sport the more talented and more resilient defense. The Devils have leaned on Brodeur more than the Kings have on Quick. Brodeur’s legendary puck handling skills allows his defenseman to recover pucks more easily and once the Devils have the puck, their ability to play defense kicks in by maintaining possession.
The Kings on the other hand must sometimes atone for Quick’s mistakes with the puck. The puck handling ability of Doughty and the precise stick work of Willie Mitchell and Rob Scuderi allow the Kings to recover pucks effectively. Quick is not tested often because the Kings’ opponents have a tough time of hanging onto the puck and a harder time of finding lanes to the middle of the ice when they do manage extended possession.
Of all the match-ups in the series, this is the one where the most glaring contrast is made and the advantage is to the Kings.
One could say that the Kings have not yet had to face an opponent that was playing as together and with as much of that special playoff juice that flows through only a handful of teams each year. One could just as easily argue that the Kings have simply made shorter work of their opponents than the Devils, who struggled at times against two other teams.
This may be the toughest match of the post season for both teams.
One factor that I have not seen otherwise discussed is one I’d like to finish with, as it applies partially to myself as well.
The Road More Traveled
Much is made of the Kings’ now historic road record, but what has not been considered is that New Jersey has not had to yet contend with long flights or a time change. Their road record is slightly above average at 6-4 and that is with having two series that required a bus ride and another that demanded no more than a 3 hour flight directly south. The Kings have flown to every road game and those against St. Louis constituted a trip not too dissimilar from the one they are about to make to New Jersey. Granted, the Kings benefited from extended breaks between games on the second round, but this team is more used to a long, exhausting schedule than New Jersey. This is true in general during the regular season as the West Coast team’s brutal schedule is well documented, and it is also true, specifically of this year.
I cannot say how the need to change time zones and take 5+ hour flights will affect the Devils. However with their away record only precariously hovering above .500, one must likely add in one last advantage for the Kings.
Now I say it affects me as well, because after the Kings leave for the East Coast on Monday, I will not be far behind. Tuesday I leave for New York City and then to New Jersey to see game 1 and possibly game 2. This is going to be a magnificent series of hockey and I plan to see every second of it.
Oh, you wanted a prediction? Kings in 6.
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