Wait, LA and NJ?
Gary Bettman almost got his dream matchup. A Stanley Cup final between The Los Angeles Kings versus the New York Rangers would have had all the storylines to produce one of the highest rated finals in recent memory. Two of the biggest markets in the National Hockey League. One an Original Six team that finished first in its conference, poised to return to the Stanley Cup finals after an eighteen-year absence. The other an improbable 8-seed, the first to ever knock off the top three seeds in its respective conference. Kings v. Rangers had all the glamour and intrigue to battle the NBA playoffs for popularity, until Lou Lamoriello and Martin Brodeur struck again.
The two cornerstones of the New Jersey Devils were thought to have their best days behind them. The era of dominance in which New Jersey captured three Stanley Cups had looked further and further in the past over the past few years. The Devils missed the playoffs last year for the first time in 16 years. Brodeur looked old and creaky, and Lamoriello was losing his edge after giving Ilya Kovalchuk 100 million dollars.
Then the Devils took a six game winning streak into the playoffs. After surviving the first round jitters against the Florida Panthers they dismantled the Philadelphia Flyers. When the playoff rivalry between the Rangers was renewed the playoff run was sure to be over. New York had the better roster, goaltender, and coach.
The Devils outplayed the Rangers with the same formula they used to beat Philadelphia. It was their relentless fore check and elongated puck possession that wore down an already tired group. Henrik Lundqvist played exceptional but did not receive enough offensive support. New Jersey’s offensive balance, solidified by unexpected contributions from fourth liners Stephen Gionta, Ryan Carter, and Steve Bernier not only proved to be the difference but reaffirmed the General Managers’ worth (as if that was necessary).
Now onto a matchup that nobody expected or could have predicted. A 6 seed versus an 8 seed. No matter which team wins four games first they will become the lowest-seeded club to win the Stanley Cup. Interestingly enough, the 1995 Devils currently hold that mark, they were a 5 seed.
Against L.A. New Jersey will not be able to dictate the pace the way they did against the Flyers and Rangers. Los Angeles has a big and aggressive group of forwards who will not sit back like New York and will surely put pressure on the Devil defensemen. Scoring only gets tougher, too. Jonathan Quick is probably the only goaltender playing better than Lundqvist. He has no distinct butterfly pattern and will be hard for the Devils to solve.
The key in this series is going to be Bryce Salvador and Marek Zidlicky containing Dustin Brown. If Brown is able to percolate early in this series it will elevate the play of his teammates. That is what good captains do, and he is indeed a good captain.
If New Jersey can keep Brown’s name out of the broadcast and the rest of Los Angeles’s offense contained they have a chance to win this series. Zach Parise and Ilya Kovalchuk are sure to show up in this one. Kovalchuk is eager to defeat the team he spurned in free agency two summers ago. The Devils must continue to get secondary and tertiary scoring because the Kings will feature stud defenseman Drew Doughty whenever New Jersey’s top line is on the ice.
In the end the third and fourth lines will be the difference one last time, and the Devil’s will win a series full of 1-goal games in 7. It’s four for Brodeur, retribution for Kovalchuk, and immortality for Parise. And nobody saw it coming.