So here we go, the Stanley Cup Final is here again. To me, it feels like the 2011-2012 season just started a few weeks ago, but we’ve only got a few weeks left before the summer starts and we wait again until next fall. But before that happens, we’ve still got a couple of more hockey games left to enjoy.
Of course, my “big thing” this year was talking about how the lower seeds never win the Stanley Cup (once since 1992), so a 6th versus 8th seed is not exactly what I expected this time around. And considering I’ve only correctly picked the winner in series between these two teams a combined two times, I’m picking a theme song for myself for this Stanley Cup Final:
So I’m tempted to pick the opposite of whom I actually think will win. To cover myself, I’m not going to tell you what I’ve decided to do with that.
The 6th ranked New Jersey Devils represent the Atlantic Div…er um, the Eastern Conference. Despite their 102 point regular season, I was quick to dismiss them in each previous round because of their shootout-inflated record. They’re a good team (obviously), but they’re not the Devils team that we’ve been used to seeing hoist up the Stanley Cup in previous years. There’s less of a choking defensive approach and more of an effort to have great puck support in every zone on the ice. If you allow them, they will outwork you and control the puck and pace. They’ll still take advantage of turnovers, but they now score a lot of their goals by simply chipping and chipping away. If you throw the puck at the net a thousand times, no matter how good the goalie is, some pucks are going to get through.
If the Devils weren’t surprising enough, the 8th seeded Kings are the biggest shocker this season. It’s not so much that an 8th seed has advanced all the way to the Cup Final, it’s that they’ve completely dominated on their way to it, only losing 2 of the 14 games they’ve played so far. Don’t be offended that people may be throwing around talk about the Kings being the favorite this series: they absolutely deserve it.
The defense and goaltending for Los Angeles has been there all season. Jonathan Quick has been one of the best goalies in the game for the past several seasons and you just can’t say enough about a defense anchored by Drew Doughty, Willie Mitchell, Rob Scuderi, and Slava Voynov. Flip it around, and we all know about Martin Brodeur and what he’s done in his illustrious career. He’s not the Brodeur of his younger days, but he’s made some humongous saves for this team. The Devils defense, while needing some time to finally gel together, has been smooth and solid. Anton Volchenkov and Marek Zidlicky and even Bryce Salvador are some easy names to recognize, but little known Mark Fayne has pulled in a whale of a postseason. Yes, the Devils prove that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Now, to look deeper into the matchup, let’s take a look at some interesting individual matchups…
Carter and Richards vs. the Devils. The first is Mike Richards and Jeff Carter versus their old divisional nemesis Devils. Each side is very familiar with the other, so who does that benefit more? Two years ago, Richards lit up the Devils for 8 points in 5 games in the opening round of the playoffs. Brodeur does have some tendencies to let in strange goals, and Richards is the king of firing sneaky shots from bad angles (pun absolutely intended).
Devils’ Size vs. Quick and the Defense. As I’ve said in previous previews, the Devils have their share of big forwards who play a strong physical game. One question is how Jonathan Quick will react to them creating chaos in front of his net. Quick’s been good in traffic so far, but there’s plenty of film that shows that Quick’s going to get the stuff along the ice, not what’s lifted up. Of course, that’s easier said than done, and that’s where the Devils are going to really need to use their size not only to block Quick’s vision, but to also outmuscle the LA defense for any loose pucks. Quick can be a slinky and get just about everything along the ice. It’ll be a challenge.
Devil’s Forecheck vs. the Kings’ Defense. That’s not the only way the Devils need to use their size. Their forecheck has been very effective in the playoffs. A player like Dainius Zubrus, while not the most naturally gifted offensive player, creates a ton of space and zone time by wedging himself in with the defense and coming away with the puck. He can then use his big body to shield off defenders. It’d be great for the Devils if Alexei Ponikarovsky started to pay attention to the way Zubrus plays and picks up some slack. There’s some youth on the LA back line and the best way to knock them off their game is to take them out of their comfort zone and force them to make quick decisions.
Kopitar Line vs. Zajac Line. A quick look at the stats revealed something interesting to me: Of the players playing most of the games so far in the playoffs, the only minus players are Ilya Kovalchuk, Zach Parise, Travis Zajac, and Patrick Elias. Kovie, Parise, and Zajac often play together. They’re the bread winners on the Devils having accounted for 21 of the team’s goals so far, but their combined -8 means they’re giving up their fair share of goals at the same time. This is an area that the Kings have to exploit. If I’m the Kings, I’m playing my top line against the Devils’ top line. The line of Anze Kopitar, Justin Williams, and Dustin Brown are a combined +32. If that trend holds steady, the Devils will be in trouble.
Jeff Carter vs. Perception. A lot has been said about the acquisition of Jeff Carter and what it’s meant to the LA offense. All throughout the regular season, the Kings have had serious issues with finding the back of the net. Once Carter got healthy and playoffs came around, that seemed to change. But look, he only has 4 goals so far this postseason, and three of them came in one game. So is he the one helping the Kings? The answer is a big fat yes. He may not be doing much scoring at the moment, but his talent level is so high that you have to respect his abilities. If you nap on him, he can score. And the way he scores, he does it in bunches. With a defense like the Kings’, Jeff Carter’s offense alone can beat you in a game. Defense is a scarce commodity—there’s only so much talent that can be spread around the ice on a given team. In order to give Carter necessary attention, you’ve got to take some away from Kopitar, Brown, Jarret Stoll, etc.
Dustin Brown vs. Ilya Kovalchuk. If you’ve ever watched the Kings, especially in this year’s playoffs, you’d see that Dustin Brown is not only an effective two way player, but also a serious thorn in the side to his opponents. If you’ve got several players calling for a lifetime ban for a hit considered to be legal by the refs and the league (and me), you know you’re doing something right. Kovalchuk has matured a lot as a player with his play and temperament, but he can have lapses every once in awhile. Last series, while sitting on the ice after the play, he gave Ryan Callahan a nice spear to the nether regions area after light jabbing from Callahan. He can lose it sometimes and Brown’s going to be in his face all series, just egging him on to do something stupid. The Kings don’t have the best powerplay (although the Devils’ penalty killing hasn’t been all that spectacular in the playoffs), but give any team enough chances and you’re going to pay. Boy, is this matchup going to be fun to watch.
Dustin Brown vs. Martin Brodeur. This one’s similar to the last matchup. This should also involve Mike Richards…actually, it should involve the entire Kings team. It’s well known that Martin Brodeur likes his space and doesn’t like to be touched. It’s also known that he has the severe tendency to flop when anyone gets near him. Dustin Brown needs to go to his office in front of the net and just make life miserable for Brodeur. If that means risking taking some interference penalties (and he will), so be it. But rough Brodeur up a bit. Get too close. Poke him. Get him jabbing back and paying more attention to you than he is to the play. Hope that decides it more important to take a dive instead of making the save and hope that the referees don’t call a penalty. A lot will depend on whose side the refs decide to take.
Refs vs. Terrible Acting. It’s no secret that there’s diving in the league and that it’s been there for awhile. This postseason, however, has been just awful with it though. Every time there’s a stick near a skate, the player trips. Every time there’s a stick near an elbow, the player clamps his elbow down and falls backwards. Stick near the face? Snap your head back even if it doesn’t hit you. It’s frustrating to watch and it has me worried about the league’s future with it. I have a feeling there’s going to be a lot of anger and yapping from the players back and forth over this. If the refs hold their ground and either not call the ticky-tacky penalties and call the dives, or they call everything and let these floppers get away with murder. If the latter happens, there’s going to be all sorts of whining after every game. This last matchup is really mostly just for my own sanity.
Prediction. Both of these teams are very good and deserve to be where they are right now. I really see this as a tight physical battle with an assortment of low scoring and high scoring games, but close games nonetheless. Both teams have had some rest since their last series, so I don’t think that the opening portions of the game are going to be very slow for either team. I’m going with the Kings in 6 games. I cannot believe I’m picking an 8th seed team to win the Cup, but they’re just firing away on all cylinders right now and I just don’t see anyone able to stop them at the moment. The Devils really need the first game to put some pressure on the Kings since they’ve never had anything but comfortable leads so far in the playoffs. If they can upset machine, they’ve got a good shot, but that’s going to be tough to do.
Enjoy the series.