I can only assume that part of the reason for this assignment is my residency in self-proclaimed Hockey Town. One would figure that the city is abuzz with hockey fans getting ready to crown a new champion. Truth be told though no one has said a word about hockey in Detroit since April 21st. And therein lies the most disappointing part about this year’s Stanley Cup Playoffs – they feel like they’ve been going on forever.
In the West the glamor teams in Detroit and Chicago were dispatched with ease leading to a Nashville/Phoenix series that went 5 merciful quick games. The Los Angeles Kings finished the fairly meaningless regular season as an 8 seed but like a buzz-saw cut thru top seeded Vancouver, only to face a 5 day break followed by the 2 seed St. Louis Blues. The Blues fell even faster than Vancouver with the Kings sweeping a Blues team that looked utterly hapless for the series. You could have told me that L.A. won 5 games in the series and I would have believed it. And as a reward for dispatching the 1 and 2 seeds the Kings received another long break and a series against the 3 seed Coyotes. Again the Kings made it look easy, this time in 5 games dispatching the Coyotes leading to AN EIGHT DAY BREAK! As someone who watches an inordinate amount of hockey the scheduling for this off-season in the West was impossible. 1, 2, and 3 day breaks between series games meant that getting into a rhythm as an out-of-town follower was painful at best and severely adverse to living a normal life outside of Pacific Time . It only took 14 games for the Kings to get to Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Finals – but those 14 games took over 7 weeks from the end of the regular season. Certainly the Canucks, Blues, and Coyotes struggled with the timing but for the Kings they seemed immune to the breaks.
The Kings are anything but a prototypical Stanley Cup contender but they have the one single trait that just about every one displays – a top-notch, on fire, hot goaltender. Jonathan Quick is this year’s model of a brand we’ve seen countless times. Quick has done everything you can ask of a goaltender, and deserves much credit, but behind the scenes a bit his defensemen have been absolutely incredible. Drew Doughty has given the Kings a spark in moving the puck on a number of occasions and has shown maturity beyond his 22 years while Willie Mitchell has been a steadying influence throughout the defense. Alec Martinez and Slava Voynov has been largely impressive and the ability to pair veterans Rob Scuderi and Matt Greene has been a tremendous help. Scuderi has been here before with the Penguins and in the locker room that type of influence will help settle down the kids immensely. Defensively the Kings are the type of juggernaut that suffocates teams into submission that the Devils of the last 20 years have gained a reputation for. Offensively there’s more pop in their bats then what you’d expect. Dustin Brown emerged as a captain over the past few years and is a gritty, tough, sometimes nasty player. He’s been the captain for 4 years but only in the last two seasons does it seem like the light has clicked on. Brown is the type of player that everyone else’s fans hate but want. He’s got a decent scorers touch as well which makes him the power forward in the relationship between him and Anze Kopitar. Kopitar provides the more conventional skilled scorer side of the modern NHL. The Kings have done a phenomenal job of matching the strengths of their players against their opposition up front. For every time Dustin Penner, Brown, or Mike Richards have mucked it up a bit with tough play Kopitar, Jeff Carter, or Justin Williams have done something equal on the skilled side. Right now the way things are flowing for the Kings they may give the Golden State its first Cup.
If the Kings made everything look easy the Devils have made everything look like pulling teeth from a pissed off honey badger. The East’s six seed started off by taking on the Florida Panthers, a three seed underdog. The Panthers, mostly unidentifiable due to the glow of the Heat, pushed the Devils to the brink after Game 5 but 2 overtime wins advanced them to the second round. The argument can be made that the Devils never should have been in a 7 game series against the Panthers and I would fully subscribe. New Jersey is the type of team that can get sloppy – for as solid as they once were defensively they’re a much different team. The Devils drew the Flyers in round 2 and whereas the rhythm seemed to be missing out west – the Devils established it out east matching Philadelphia in each game and aside from a game 1 slip never looked like they were going to lose the series. The Conference Final was a bit sketchy with 3-0 losses in games 1 and 3 but Martin Brodeur looked like he has for the past 18 years – a consummate professional in every sense who gives his team a chance to win on nights when they shouldn’t have a chance to win. An emotional OT win in game 6 ended the series and sent the Devils to the finals.
For the Devils everyone will talk about Martin Brodeur. He is a legend and without question one of the best goaltenders in NHL history. He’s a money goaltender in every sense of the word leading the Devils to 3 Stanley Cups, while picking up 10 All Star nods, 4 Vezinas, 5 Jennings Trophies, and 2 Gold Medals – if you need them. Credentials are not the issue with Brodeur. As you will hear in every pregame show, during every intermission, and as part of every post game show Martin Brodeur is 40. I will grant that goalies can play seemingly forever but with the grind of the playoffs that the Kings haven’t faced it feels like something is going to give. Bryce Salvador has been fantastic for the Devils, more so than anyone had the expectation of him being. The rest of the defense from Volchenkov to Harrold to Zidlicky is serviceable. If nothing else this highlights the unreal performance of Brodeur to date. While the defensemen have largely held the line steady they’ve allowed chances and more often than not Brodeur has responded. Up front the Devils have the ability to out-skill the Kings with Ilya Kovalchuk and Zach Parise. Both bring a scorers touch to the ice and both have the ability to change a game with a single shift. Even with their struggles defensively, and they do have them, the Devils forwards will manage to put more pressure on the Kings then they’ve seen in the first three rounds.
Stanley Cup finals are difficult to predict with the pace of the series being wildly variable. This season is no different and with one team having several weeks off and another playing regular hockey up until now both teams will be healthy and we should see entertaining up tempo hockey. Unfortunately most of America and secretly a good portion of Canada have tuned out by now. In particular this is disappointing because it has the potential to be an extremely entertaining series between two teams with vastly different approaches. Despite every mistake the NHL has made, by having a regular season that appears to mean nothing, by having 16 teams you can throw a blanket over, despite all of it – the NHL has shaken out 2 teams that will likely play 6 or 7 games of highly entertaining hockey. As for predictions – I love the Los Angeles Kings lineup and as an 8 seed they’ve played with a sizable chip on their shoulder and have knocked off the top 3 teams in the West. The Devils have played just within the realm of good enough to win. As much as I’ve grown up with Martin Brodeur I see too much toughness and too much grit from the Kings and I see them taking their first Stanley Cup in a tightly fought 6 game series with Jonathan Swift your playoff MVP.