Los Angeles Kings vs. New Jersey Devils
After about a month long hiatus, I am back and will hopefully make up for lost time. I started this blog while waiting for my final university exams to begin, and soon after I endured a month long roller coaster which started with 3 exams in 3 days. I was then living in limbo for 3 weeks as my landlord failed to keep his promise and my house was not ready to move in for May 1st. I guess bad things do really come in threes. Needless to say the blog was low on my priority list. But enough about me, let's get to the hockey.
How They Got Here
The L.A. Kings have set numerous records on their run to the Stanley Cup Finals; one of the most impressive being that they are the first team ever to defeat every division champion on the way. I have liked the Kings chances from the beginning, but thought they would have to go through either Nashville or Chicago in the second round and did not like that match up for L.A. But these playoffs have been very peculiar, and here we have the L.A. Kings as favorites in their first final since 1993. The Kings sent the President Trophy winning Canucks packing in 5 games, swept the second place Blues and dominated an unlikely Phoenix Coyotes team in 5 to advance to the final. They continue to be undefeated on the road an have undoubtedly looked like the best team in these playoffs; showing no chink in their armor.
So what is propelling the Kings to new heights? It's simple - their best players are being their best players. Kopitar, Brown, Richards, Doughty and Quick are all on top of their game right now, making L.A. strong at every position. An important part of this is that each of these players are trusted in any situation and L.A. has been a threat to score even when shorthanded. Dustin Brown's play makes him a favorite for the Conn Smythe, but what impresses me more is how Anze Kopitar has stepped up and been a horse for the Kings. His size and puck protection has been wreaking havoc for the opposing defense and when you combine that with his soft hands and ability to finish it shows why no one has been able to slow him down. I think these playoffs have been a coming out party for Kopitar and we should see him solidify his spot among the league's elite starting next season.
New Jersey Devils
People may comment that the King's 8th seed makes them more of an unlikely candidate in the final, but for me this New Jersey team has been the surprise of the playoffs. I had the Devils facing either the Bruins or Flyers in the second round and did not think they would make it through either of those teams. When it was determined that they would be facing the Rangers in the Conference Final, I thought they stood little chance to make it through. This New Jersey team has made me eat my words every time. Of any Atlantic Division team in the Eastern Conference playoff picture, most people would have said the Devils had the least chance of making it to this stage. With their "no-name" defense, lack of experience up front and behind the bench, and an aging goalie seemingly on the decline it didn't seem like the Devils had a chance at hockey's holy grail. What have they done? Played hard, stuck to their game, and silenced all the critics.
Led by a hobbling Ilya Kovalchuk, captain Zach Parise, and Calder Trophy Finalist Adam Henrique, the Devils have scored goals at clutch times to vault themselves into the finals. The defense has benefited from a stingy system and has been led by the hard hitting Anton Volchenkov. Volchenkov is the closest thing the Devils have to a #1 defenseman (until rookie Adam Larsson is ready) and his ability to stay healthy has added a much needed combination of physical play and playoff experience on the back end. There are endless story lines to draw from when discussing a surprise team like New Jersey. For me, their most important players are the two that may not be back next fall. Zach Parise is a forechecking machine that is full of hustle, grit and skill. Like his counterpart Dustin Brown, he is doing everything asked from a captain and is my pick as the Conn Smythe winner from the Devils. Martin Brodeur's continued stability in the goal crease has been an integral part of the Devil's success after years of shaky play. Even Brodeur's biggest fans must have had their doubts after the 2010 Olympics and a tough year last year. But the most winningest goalie of all time has reminded everyone of why he is a legend. Although there have been some nervous moments and it isn't always pretty, Brodeur has been great when he needed to be and his heel kick save on Gaborik might have been the best I have ever witnessed.
So, who is going to be crowned the 2012 Stanley Cup Champion? You would think that betting against New Jersey all playoffs would make me give them more respect - and it has - but the L.A. Kings just seem too impenetrable. They have too much talent up front, a superior defense, and a goaltender who has been a brick wall all season. If the offense isn't getting it done one night, Quick will shut the door to a 1-0 victory. If it is going to be a run-and-gun style of game, L.A. can outscore New Jersey easily. The team has only lost 2 playoff games for a reason. My new found respect for the Devils is making me say that the Kings will win in 6, but it would not surprise me if the series is over before that. This is not to discount what New Jersey has done or their talent level. It will be an exciting series - as it always is with the Cup on the line - but in the end the physicality and forecheck of the Kings will wear out the Devils' players and their similar style of play. Dustin Brown will hoist the Conn Smythe because of his work through the first 3 rounds, but Anze Kopitar will be the difference maker in the final series.