2012 Stanley Cup Final preview: Devils (6 east) vs. Kings (8 west)
A superior fourth line sets up as a huge advantage for New Jersey
The Kings' ferocious puck pressure is a stiff challenge for the Devils
Something little like winning more face-offs could decide this series
Regular season series: Devils win 2-0
Oct. 13: Kings 1 at Devils 2 (SO)
Oct. 25: Devils 3 at Kings 0
Key Injuries: Los Angeles -- LW Simon Gagne (concussion, injured reserve -- skating, may be available); New Jersey -- none
Snapshot: On the surface, a bi-coastal tilt between New York and Los Angeles might have seemed a little more buzzworthy -- shoot, it could even have earned a mention at the tail end of SportsCenter -- but the hockey gods have graced us with a much more compelling Stanley Cup Final in Devils vs. Kings.
Unlike their most recent opponents, these finalists recognize that scoring goals is a nobler pursuit than focusing on preventing them. Outside of the Penguins and Flyers, who turned back the clock to the run 'n' fun '80s for that one gloriously entertaining first-round series, New Jersey and Los Angeles boast the two most prolific offenses in the playoffs, averaging 2.83 and 2.93 goals per game, respectively.
Both teams employ four lines that apply pressure all over the ice, but the Devils are doing a better job of spreading the offense. Ilya Kovalchuk leads the playoffs in scoring -- oh, those enigmatic Russians! Zach Parise is routinely making big plays that lead to quality chances. Rookie Adam Henrique has two series clinchers in OT and is plus-9, third among all forwards. David Clarkson has three game-winners.
Then there's the fourth line. Ryan Carter, Stephen Gionta and Steve Bernier have contributed 19 points and a plus-16 rating through three rounds. Compare that to L.A.'s fourth line. Brad Richardson, Jordan Nolan and Colin Fraser have earned praise for their full-throttle play at both ends of the ice, but they have three points and a plus-one rating between them. That sets up as a huge edge for the Devils.
The Kings will rely heavily on their top two lines. Timely goal scoring and an edgy physical game establish Dustin Brown as a Conn Smythe Trophy favorite, although Anze Kopitar's diligent two-way play has been equally effective. Playing alongside Justin Williams, the trio has been the dominant line in the playoffs. They'll pose a challenge unlike anything the Devils have faced. The Mike Richards-Jeff Carter-Dustin Penner line has been less consistent, but when they're on they come at speed and with a willingness to pay the price down low that makes them difficult to stop. For Los Angeles to prevail, these three guys have to find the elevated sense of urgency that made them so dangerous in the second half of Game 5 against Phoenix.
Of course at this time of year, everything always seems to come down to special teams and goaltending.
Jonathan Quick is at the center of Conn Smythe talk, but it's hard to say why. Sure, he made a few big stops along the way, but until he held the fort during a frantic first period of Game 5 against the Coyotes, he was never the difference between winning and losing for the Kings. Full marks to the guys in front for sparing him that responsibility, but you have to wonder if a little adversity along the way would have put him in a better position to succeed now.
The Devils feast on the turnovers they create down low, and that makes them a greater challenge than Quick has faced to this point. It's fair to ask if he's ready to step it up, especially considering the guy at the other end of the ice is vying to become just the second goalie to win a Stanley Cup in three decades.
Not that Martin Brodeur's play has been flawless. The 40-year-old has been erratic at times, but as my colleague Adrian Dater pointed out in a recent column, he's been good enough. And there's a sense with Brodeur that he always has that one critical save in his bag when he needs it. He gives the Devils a slight edge between the pipes.
The struggles of the Kings' power play have been well documented, so it's hard to believe they've sorted it out in their down time since knocking off the Coyotes. And it's not like taking on New Jersey is the tonic, its 74.5 percent kill rate notwithstanding. The Devils numbers are skewed by their play against the Panthers and, if anything, they're probably feeling better about their PK after blanking the Rangers over the last three games.
Still, with the talent L.A. employs, the Devils can't afford to take the unit lightly. Given all we've seen during this surprising postseason, a potent Kings power play in the Final almost seems inevitable, doesn't it?
Spotlight's On: New Jersey's blueline. "Do you know us? We're a Stanley Cup Finalist defense corps. But because we don't have any future Hall of Famers like Scott Stevens and Scott Niedermayer, nobody recognizes us -- not even in our own home town!"
No names? No problem. In fact, the mongrel crew that makes up New Jersey's blueline might just be ready for its own Major League-style American Express commercial. Like those fictional Indians, this crew doesn't look like much on paper -- there's no real difference-maker like L.A.'s Drew Doughty and only one of the regulars, Mark Fayne, was even drafted by New Jersey -- but it has come together as a cohesive, even overachieving unit at the best possible time. Hey, when Bryce Salvador chips in with 11 points, you know you're living right.
Los Angeles and its ferocious puck pressure, however, pose an entirely new challenge for the group. The inability to consistently make quick, smart decisions with the puck while being hounded by two forecheckers led to the quick demise of the Canucks and Blues and, to a lesser extent, the Coyotes. It's an intensity level unlike anything with which the Devils have yet had to deal. They did, however, show a knack for handling Kings-sized bodies down low in the Philadelphia series. They'll need to draw on that experience when L.A.'s marauding forwards come screaming through the slot to make life miserable for Brodeur.
X-Factor for the Devils Jacob Josefson. The second-year pivot had an up-and-down season marred by injuries and, at times, the sort of inconsistent play that's part of the learning process. But his return to the lineup in Game 4 against the Rangers benefited the Devils in much the same way that the deal for Jeff Carter helped the Kings. Josefson slid onto the third line, allowing Henrique to move to the second line and creating a more natural flow down the middle, helping turn what's long been perceived as a problem in New Jersey -- center depth -- into a strength.
Josefson is unlikely to be a big factor on the score sheet, but anything he contributes that way will be seen as a bonus. With him, it's all about the little things. He'll win more draws than Petr Sykora, the veteran he replaced in the lineup, and he brings a lot more speed to the mix. His positioning is better, his reads are outstanding and his defensive game earned the Jacques Lemaire Seal of Approval.
He's the kind of player who makes the guys around him better, and that means he should help draw the best games out of regular linemates David Clarkson and Alexei Ponikarovsky. He'll likely line up across from the more experienced Jarret Stoll, who was outstanding in the Phoenix series. If Josefson can grind the veteran center into a stalemate, it's a win for the Devils.
X-Factor for the Kings: Dustin Penner. It's been a redemptive postseason for the often underwhelming Penner, an energetic 10-point spring capped off by his Game 5 overtime clincher that propelled L.A. into the Final. That goal made for a nice lede... but this is where his story really gets written.
Penner has found chemistry with Richards and Carter, and the trio has, at times, looked uncontainable. He's been driving the net like a side of beef should. He's been a battler along the boards. He's even digging hard on defense, somewhere bringing a tear to the eye of Terry Murray.
But the trick with Penner is keeping his motor running, and as good as his numbers look, he's still disappearing for stretches. And when a player is averaging just over 12 minutes per night, with almost nothing on special teams, he has to make that five-on-five time count. The Kings don't need him to win this series by himself, but they do need him to wear down the Devils' blueliners by being heavy on the puck. And if he can be an offensive factor in at least two games, he could put them over the top.
Point To Ponder I: Keep an eye on the dots. Both teams have been charitable in the faceoff circles, with the Kings winning 48.2 percent of their draws and New Jersey just 47.5. (14th and 15th in the postseason, respectively) and each has just one player (N.J.'s Travis Zajac and L.A.'s Mike Richards) clicking at better than 50 percent. Both sides are more pursuit- than possession-oriented, so the tendency to start without the puck hasn't hurt them... yet... but at a time of year when little plays turn into big moments, the team that finds a way to win more of those battles should come out on top.
Point To Ponder II: The Devils have faced their share of adversity on their path to the final, needing seven games to eliminate the Panthers and swapping control through their first four contests with the Rangers. The Kings? No so much. L.A. has carved out a 3-0 lead in each of its series to this point, subduing its opponents before they knew what hit them. If the Devils can hold serve at home to start this round, they put the Kings in a position they've yet to prove they can handle...and will give themselves their best chance to win the Cup.
Point To Ponder III: The Devils have played four more games than the Kings. Is that enough to make a difference? The tougher path seemed to weigh on the Rangers in their last series. Fatigue could play a role here as well.
The Pick: There's so much to like about these Devils, but over the last two months, no team has played at a higher level more consistently than the Kings. Give me Los Angeles, and let's hope it goes seven
Conn Smythe Trophy: Anze Kopitar. No one in these playoffs has played a more effective 200-foot game than Kopitar. You know he'll score a couple of big goals in this series, but it'll be his defensive work --especially on the PK -- that will earn him the hardware.
GALLERY: Notable Conn Smythe winners
HACKEL: Each team's keys to victory