Few predicted the 2012 Stanley Cup Final would feature the oldest team in the league, the 6th seeded New Jersey Devils, or the offensively inept 8th seeded Los Angeles Kings. But that is what we have when the puck drops in Newark, Wednesday Night to kick off the 85th Stanley Cup Finals.
Here are 10 things to know about this years match-up, ending with MVP and Champion Predictions.
1. An Unlikely Final: In the history of the Stanley Cup Finals, only one 8th seed has ever made the Finals, the 2006 Edmonton Oilers, and they lost. In fact, no team seeded lower than 5th had ever won the Cup. That trend will be broken this year. And to highlight how unlikely this match up is even more, Vegas oddsmakers had the Kings and Devils each at 40-1 to win the Cup. But here we are.
2. Road to the Finals: The Devils needed 7 games to dispatch the feisty Panthers and did so in overtime. They then eliminated the Flyers and Rangers in 6 games. They were the lower seed in every matchup, yet will host the 8th seeded Kings. The Kings meanwhile had seed wise the hardest possible route to the Finals, needing to beat the top seeded Canucks, then the 2nd seeded Blues and finally the 3rd seeded Coyotes. And they did not let any series go more than 5 games.
3. Top Guns: To win the Cup your best players need to be at their best. Ilya Kovalchuk led the Devils in the Regular Season and is leading the way in the Playoffs with 18 points. Zach Parise and Adam Henrique also have produced like they did in the Regular Season, with Henrique scoring 2 overtime series winning goals. Anze Kopitar, Justin Williams, and Dustin Brown led the ways for the Kings throughout the season and have been the top producers in their Cinderella Run as well.
4. Unlikely Heroes: While the Kings and Devils have both been led by their Top Guns, no run can be accomplished without some Grinders chipping in. The Devils have been led lately by their impressive 4th line of Ryan Carter-Brian Gionta-Steve Bernier. Carter and Gionta both scored in the deciding Game 6 v the Rangers and have played big minutes of late for a 4th line. The Kings have seen players such as Dwight King double their regular season goal total in only 14 game. The Kings PK has also been the best in the playoffs thanks in large part to the play of little known players like Willie Mitchell and Trevor Lewis.
5. Similar Styles and Not Your Dad’s Devils: In many ways, the Kings and the Devils are almost identical teams in terms of style. Both teams feature an aggressive forecheck that leads to a very physical style. Look for this series to feature a lot of turnovers in the defensive zone and not a lot of fancy offense. Both teams also activate their defenseman well, as the statistics of Drew Doughty and Bryce Salvador show. Those who have not watched the Devils this year will be very surprised to see that Peter DeBoer has abandoned the conservative style of past runs to the Cup and that the Devils are now a very high scoring team, led by Kovalchuk and Parise. Look for the best matchup of the series to be the Kovalchuk line v the Mike Richards line and the defense pairing of Drew Doughty and Willie Mitchell.
6. Movers and Shakers: Fans, experts, and even GM’s always want to trade the star when things are tough or the money is tight. The Devils and Kings chose to acquire those stars and they are the ones still playing. Three years ago the Devils made a blockbuster trade with the Atlanta Thrashers to acquire Russian sniper Ilya Kovalchuk and then signed him to a lucrative contract extension with a big cap hit. Many questioned the move, but he is now the leading scorer for the team. The Kings this past summer moved multiple players and picks, including young stars like Brayden Schenn and Jack Johnson, to add former Flyers Mike Richards and Jeff Carter to the line up, adding a needed two-way center and scoring punch on the wing. Many could argue those three moves were the biggest in the salary cap era and you can bet each would do it again.
7. Captain America and Co.: Derian Hatcher of the Dallas Stars is the only American born Captain to lift the Stanley Cup. That too will change this year as both Zach Parise and Dustin Brown are American born. Not only are they Captains, but they are among the top 3 in-goal scoring for their teams. While the Kings are mostly Canadian and the Devils are a mixed bag, Americans are making big contributions all over the ice. Goaltender Jonathan Quick and defenseman Rod Scuderi have been key to the defensive effort of the Kings and the Ryan Carter and Brian Gionta have both scored big from their 4th line spot for New Jersey.
8. Quick v Broduer & the “No Names”: Jonathan Quick’s numbers and performance has been well chronicled thus far in the playoffs (see LA Kings-History Might (Will) Be Made) and if the Kings win could well win the Conn Smythe. The bigger story might be the play of his elder on the other end of the ice. Martin Broduer is suddenly 40 years old and is about to appear in his 200th NHL Playoff game, trailing only the great Patrick Roy. Brodeur seemed to be slipping over the past few seasons, but was sensation against the Rangers in the Eastern Conference Finals and his 2.07 GAA and .923 S% is solid, despite being well off the pace of Quick. Brodeur no doubt has been helped by the famed “No Name” Devil defense that features few stars, but plenty of solid defenders looking to make an impact, led by the likes of Mark Fayne and Anton Volchekov.
9. Special Teams: The Special Teams battle will be an interesting story to watch in this series. The Devils have been very good on the power play in the playoffs as five of Kovalchuk’s seven goals have come man up. The Kings meanwhile have been the best penalty kill team in the playoffs and have even scored quite a few shorthanded. With the aggressiveness of the Kings 5 on 5 will mean the Devils will need to solve the Kings PK to have a chance to win the series. The Devils were the best penalty kill team in the regular season but have been less than stellar this postseason. Lucky for them, the King’s power play has been as bad as their penalty kill is good, operating at 8.1% effective, worst in the playoffs.
10. Kings in six: This series will not be as easy as other for the Kings, but ultimately the Kings will add a banner to the Staples Center to offset all the Lakers titles a bit. The difference in the series will be Quick. The Devils were held scoreless by Lundqvist twice in the ECF and really benefitted from Lundqvist being overworked late in the series. Quick and his defenders meanwhile are well rested and have been nearly unbeatable and the Kings aggressiveness and forecheck will help to negate the Devils attack. Look for Mike Richards to pay huge dividends in this series as he will be key in stopping Kovalchuk and Parise. The Devils on the other hand simply do not have a line or defense pairing that will be able to successfully shutdown Kopitar-Williams-Brown. Every game will be close, but the Devils will make more mistakes than the Kings. The Devils will win the series if they can win both in New Jersey to open the series as the Kings have not faced much adversity this postseason and could stumble.
The Kings will win both games in New Jersey, like they have all playoffs, and will drop Game 3 in LA before winning Game 4. The Devils will stave off elimination on home ice with a big goal in OT by David Clarkson in Game 5. But the Kings get it down on home ice with a 2-0 win with Jeff Carter scoring the winner and Dustin Brown icing the Cup with an empty net goal. Brown takes the Cup, Quick takes the Conn Smythe.
Matt Ragghianti is an NHL writer for The Sports Blitz Network and can be contacted at MRagghianti@TheSportsBlitz.com