With the Stanley Cup Final poised to begin this weekend, I’ll take one final stab at prognosticating who may win the final series of the 2011-12 NHL season. I suffered through an up-and-down run of picking this year’s series and stand at 5-8 entering the Finals.
This year pits a pair of unexpected opponents as neither entered the playoffs as a sexy pick to be playing for the Cup. While the Kings have been an annual choice for pre-season success, they had an underwhelming regular season and nosed their way into the playoffs. The Devils were quiet for most of the year and are just now getting fully healthy. While their aging goaltender was average in the regular season, he has been stellar in the playoffs.
Somewhat ironically, the Devils enter this series as the more potent scoring team as the Kings were the team whose blanketing defense helped them through the regular season. However, Los Angeles has played David to the NHL’s Goliath this spring, knocking off the top three seeds out west thanks to terrific goaltending and a recent injection of offense.
This may serve to be a very entertaining Cup Final, and has the potential to make a major impact on the national sports scene with LA as part of the series. While the NHL and NBC didn’t get their silver platter matchup of the Rangers and Kings, the Devils seem to be slowly reminding people in the tri-state area that hockey is indeed a serious sport.
This series, for both teams, will likely begin and end in net. Marty Brodeur has been a revelation these playoffs after a somewhat sub-par regular season. These are the Devils from 2003 that trapped and choked away offense. This is a dynamic forechecking team that dictates the pace with an aggressive offensive attack that is predicated on pressure, not limiting movement.
New Jersey probably became a true contender when they manhandled the Flyers. Not only did they manage to shutdown the powerful offense Philly rode in round one, the Devils kept scoring goals at an impressive rate. Their series against the Rangers was a little more conservative, but that was mostly dictated by New York’s stifling style.
The Devils enter the Cup finals with six seriously talented forwards and a strong supporting cast up front. Their defensive corps is stout and their legendary goaltender speaks for himself. New Jersey even has a few also-rans skating on their wings (Ponikarovsky and Bernier) but these players have been quite strong in the roles they have been assigned by Pete Deboer.
Give credit to the coaching staff of the Devils for finding the proper system and roles for the cast they have been given. There is a ton of talent on this roster and the staff has utilized it well.
Why the Kings will win
Like the Devils, Los Angeles has gotten some great hockey out of their goaltender. Jonathon Quick has been tremendous and was inexplicably left off the Hart Trophy ballot. He was solely responsible for LA dispatching Vancouver and was equally good against St. Louis. The Phoenix series was more of a team win, which may point to the real strength for the Kings.
As a team that couldn’t score all season long, the Kings have been rejuvenated this spring and are suddenly seeing all four lines create chances offensively. Their top-six has been terrific, led by Anze Kopitar and Dustin Brown. Meanwhile, the old Flyers have awoken to provide a secondary scoring punch that is tough for any team to handle.
In the end, LA is a defensive team with a bunch of guys who can score goals. This team’s success starts in their own end, not the offensive end. This is something they have shown in each of their series this postseason. Vancouver, St. Louis and Phoenix all do things differently, but the Kings maintained their style and have been beaten only twice for it.
Don’t expect LA to breeze through this series like they did their first three. In fact, their road winning streak will likely come to an end in one of these first two games. However, their size and depth may be what puts them over the edge.
Conn Smythe Winner: Jonathon Quick