Three rounds down, one to go. The New Jersey Devils are four wins away from bucking the trend that has followed them around like a clingy snot-nosed sibling since the clubs inception nearly 30 years ago.
It’s the same trend that had them picked to miss the playoffs for a second consecutive season. The same trend that had them losing to the Florida Panthers, Philadelphia Flyers and New York Rangers and it’s the same trend that has them pegged by some as underdogs to the eighth-seeded Los Angeles Kings.
What’s that trend exactly? I can’t really put my finger on it, but it may have something to do with large contingencies of so-called experts predicting the inevitable demise of the Devils – again.
While New Jersey’s current playoff run has converted many non-believers to believers, there are those that still contend that what the Devils have accomplished this spring is mostly smoke and mirrors. For those of us that watch, study, analyze and critique New Jersey on a nightly basis, we know that nothing could be farther from the truth.
Led by Ilya Kovalchuk, Zach Parise, Travis Zajac, Adam Henrique, Patrik Elias, David Clarkson, Dainus Zubrus, Marek Zidlicky, Bryce Salvador and Martin Brodeur the Devils have emerged as a truly dynamic and well-rounded hockey team, a Stanley Cup worthy team.
The Kings on the other hand have made their Quest for the Cup seem more like a clinic for teams pretending to be true contenders. They bowled over the top three teams in the Western Conference… easily and in order.
The (1) Vancouver Canucks, (2) St. Louis Blues and (3) Phoenix Coyotes all fell victim to a relentless Kings attack spear-headed by Dustin Brown and Anze Kopitar and back-stopped by the phenomenally talented Jonathan Quick in net.
The 26-year-old Quick leads playoff goalies in goals-against average (1.54) and save percentage (.946). He won all eight of his road starts, posting a 1.55 goals-against average and .948 save percentage in those games.
The Kings have gone 12-2 and as I mentioned above – they are perfect on the road. They open the first two games of the finals away from Staples Center again because the Devils are the higher seed.
Quick and the Kings stingy defense has allowed just 22 goals in 14 playoff games, 13 in winning the eight road games.
Meanwhile, the Devils lead all teams in scoring with 51 goals in 18 games and are 5-2 at the Prudential Center. Something has to give in this series and my money is on the Kings cracking first.
Especially with the unflappable Martin Brodeur on the other side. The future Hall-of-Famer is a four-time Vezina Trophy winner. He is making his fifth appearance in the Stanley Cup Final, posting a 15-9 record with a 1.91 goals-against, losing only a series to Colorado in seven games in 2001. At the age of 40, Brodeur can still compete with the best of them – just ask Henrik Lundqvist.
But, enough about the star players. This series comes down to the role players, these down and dirty guys that don’t earn the big paychecks but often turn in the biggest performances when they matter the most.
Both of these teams will roll four lines as part of their offensive arsenal. They don’t get all caught up in match-ups. What you see is what you get. I believe the roll players will ultimately determine the outcome of this series.
For New Jersey, the line of Steve Bernier, Stephen Gionta and Ryan Carter have become the Devils best group of forwards at 5 on 5. They have collected 19 point in 18 playoff games rivaling the famed “Crash line” of the 1995 Cup run.
Dwight King and Dustin Penner have stepped up big time for the Kings in the playoffs. King has five goals, two of them are of the game-winning variety in 14 playoff games after having just five goals total in the regular season. Two of Penner’s three goals are game-winners, including the conference clincher in OT against Phoenix in game 5 of that series.
If New Jersey can win game 1 it will force LA to approach the game very differently. To say the Kings haven’t really faced any adversity is an understatement. In all three previous rounds LA led their series 3-0 before either sweeping or winning in 5 games. Not to mention they are a woefully pathetic 3.1% on the power play. They will need to be better to beat New Jersey.
Los Angeles is big, fast, skilled and physical, but they can be beat. Sometimes the Kings walk a fine line between clean and dirty. The Devils have to have the same approach they did in the Philly series. Play whistle to whistle. This is a very winnable series for New Jersey if they just keep it simple and stick to their game.
The Devils really need to win game 1 at home. If New Jersey can get grab an early series lead we may see a completely different Kings team. A Kings team that will finally be faced with their own mortality as a team.
The Devils were down and out in the opening round against the Panthers but they found a way to come back. New Jersey has grown and become a better team since then and I think that will be the final piece of this Stanley Cup puzzle. That’s why I believe the Devils win win their fourth Stanley Cup in 6 games over the Kings.
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