Stanley Cup Finals Preview: New Jersey-Los Angeles

The Stanley Cup Finals begin tonight when the New Jersey Devils host the Los Angeles Kings. It’s not the matchup anyone would have predicted when this postseason began in mid-April, but it rarely is in the NHL. The Devils were seeded #6 in the East, while Los Angeles was #8 in the West, only the second eight-seed to make the Finals since the league went to the current playoff format back in 1994. TheSportsNotebook previews the series…

New Jersey may have been seeded sixth, but that is a little misleading. The Devils did accrue over 100 points in the regular season (2 for a win, 1 for getting to OT), and that’s a general mark of excellence. They happen to play in the toughest division in professional sports. Yes baseball fans, the Atlantic in the NHL is even more ruthless than the AL East in baseball, so the Devils trailed the New York Rangers, Pittsburgh Penguins and Philadelphia Flyers. New Jersey had a much better record than division champ Florida and the Devils finished tied with Boston, the other divison champ. Since league rules require first-place teams to take the top three seeds, Jersey found itself in sixth, but for an 82-game schedule this was at least the #4 team in the East on merit and close enough and only seven points off the lead. All of which is the long-winded way of saying that their presence in the Finals is not some quirk of the playoffs—they are competitive enough that you might play the entire season over and see New Jersey show up as a 1-seed.

>The same can’t be said for Los Angeles. They came out of the Pacific Division, the weakest in the West and had to go to the bitter end just to make it into the playoffs. The Kings played themselves out of the division title and were passed by both Phoenix and San Jose in the closing days. Obviously it didn’t matter in the playoffs, but I don’t think even the most ardent Los Angeles backer would suggest that if you replayed the entire season the Kings could finish on top of the West overall. What they have is a great goaltender in Jonathan Quick, who has been one of the NHL’s best all season long and that single factor alone makes you a tough out in the postseason. What’s been nothing short of stunning is the way the Los Angeles offense has done a complete 180 since the start of the playoffs.

Los Angeles had one of the worst offenses in the NHL all season along, but they were a statistical anamoly. They were good at generating shots, but lousy at scoring and more often than not those two stats coincide, at least over the course of a long regular season. Perhaps it’s taken this long for the Kings luck to even out. More likely though, they are getting their best offensive players the most shots in the postseason. Dustin Penner’s seven goals are tied for second in the playoffs (the leader were Philadelphia’s Danny Briere and Claude Giroux who scored eight thanks to a wild first-round series with Pittsburgh).  The Kings have gotten strong production on the opposite wing from Dustin Brown and whatever line is in the game, the center spot has been a source of strength. Anze Kopitar has delivered nine playoff assists and scored six times. And those of us who’ve charted each box score since mid-April (wait, did I really admit that in public? Never mind, forget I said it) know that Mike Richards and Jeff Carter have been consistently involved. LA’s also gotten some good passing and occasional scoring from defenseman Drew Doughty.

This offensive attack faces a New Jersey defense that spent the regular season as an elite unit in shot prevention.  In the first round of the playoffs against Florida, the Devils seemingly forgot this and nearly lost to a Florida team they should have beaten in their sleep. After going to overtime of Game 7 to survive, New Jersey’s team defensive efforts have started to come back to form. They still gave up a decent number of shots to Philadelphia, but part of that is due to the Flyers being a great offensive team. By the last series against the Rangers, the Devils’ defense looked as good as new.

New Jersey is another team who has enjoyed an offensive awakening in the playoffs, albeit not as dramatic as Los Angeles. If the Kings’ turnaround was about better luck and better players taking the shots, we can focus on the latter reason for New Jersey’s revival. The Devil attack is top-heavy, very reliant on the forwards Ilya Kovalchuk and Zach Parise to make things go. Over the course of the regular season, that’s not enough balance. But just like a pitching rotation in baseball that has two great starters gets magnified in the playoffs, so too does a hockey attack. Kovalchuk has seven goals and combined with his 11 assists, he’s the best offensive player in the postseason. Parise also has seven goals and the Devils are also getting consistent play from the center spot, with Travis Zajac having seven goals of his own and Adam Henrique doing a nice job.

The Kings’ defense will be tested and this is a unit that’s met every test thus far. It was the D that carried LA into the playoffs and once the postseason started they’ve been the best in the game. They were also one of the elite in shot prevention during the season, although that stat has been mediocre in the playoffs. This may also be conscious strategy though, to play more aggressively in offense, expose yourself on defense and rely on Quick to bail you out. To again cross sports for an analogy think of a basketball team with a great shotblocker that knows they need easier baskets in the offensive end. They go for more steals and know if they get beat, their mistakes can be wiped out. Nobody’s wiped out mistakes better than Quick, who’s got an amazing 94.6% save rate.

This brings us to the big storyline of the series and it’s the up-and-coming Quick looking for his first championship, against the veteran Martin Brodeur looking for his fourth in net for the Devils. Regular readers of TheSportsNotebook’s coverage know I’ve harped ad nauseum on the fact that Broduer is not the goaltender he once was and all the numbers bear that out. I’ve also harped on the fact that he’s a winner and somewhere along the line he can give you at least one big game where bails out an entire team. He’s done that in each series thus far, and against Florida and New York those were the series’ clinchers. The longer this series goes, the more the goalie situation shifts from an LA advantage to a wash.

Los Angeles is looking for its first Stanley Cup, the one pro sports championship the city has never won (they won the Super Bowl in 1983 when the Raiders were in Hollywood). New Jersey is after its fourth Cup and first since 2003. You know I tend to default to the team with the better goalie in the playoffs and that’s clearly the Kings here. But the way the Devils are playing, I feel like they can extend the series and if we reach a sixth game, I like Brodeur to again steal a win for his team late. In yesterday’s walk-through of recent Cup history, TheSportsNotebook noted that six of the last twelve years have seen Game 7s. I think we’ll see another one this year and New Jersey is the team that hoists the Cup high.