The New Jersey Devils and Los Angeles Kings have two baby-faced, American-born captains. They have star goaltenders that have back-stopped them to the 2012 Stanley Cup Final. They have tenacious, aggressive forwards and active defenses. Thus far, they've both been impeccably coached.
On paper, this has the makings of a great matchup: The Devils play very well at home, while the Kings are flawless on the road; the Devils offense vs. the Kings defense; and the fact that both teams hit like battering rams.
Here are five keys for the 2012 Stanley Cup Final between the Devils and Kings:
It's the most interesting and obvious connection between the teams (with apologies to Peter Harrold): In 2010, Kovalchuk was an unrestricted free agent being courted by the Devils, who traded for him earlier that year, and the Los Angeles Kings, who saw him as an elite scorer on the left side and they were willing to ante up for him.
When Kovalchuk hit the open market, Kings GM Dean Lombardi was exasperated when the winger rejected their "best shot" at signing him. Eventually, the Kings got back in on Kovalchuk, bringing him to Los Angeles for a tour and at one point closing in on a contract. But the Devils won his hand with a massive 17-year, $102-million contract that was later rejected by the NHL, costing the Devils a financial and draft pick penalty.
It altered the course of both franchises. The Devils aren't playing for the Cup without Kovalchuk. The Kings probably don't make their aggressive moves with Mike Richards and Jeff Carter if they land Kovalchuk.
In the Final, it could be the Richards/Carter duo matched up against Kovalchuk's line, as they attempt the neutralize the NHL's top playoff scorer. The key for the Kings: Take away Kovalchuk on the power play, where he can be dangerous for the Devils.
They've combined for 42 points in 14 games and a plus-32. They've produced four shorthanded goals and three game-winning goals. They've scored the first goal of the game five times.
Dustin Brown, Anze Kopitar and Justin Williams have been nearly unstoppable as a trio this postseason. Brown is the Kings' catalyst, equal parts goal-scorer and human wrecking ball. Praise of Kopitar's two-way game has reached Toewsian levels. Williams is the underrated member of the trio, but brings a veteran savvy and solid offense to the group.
"It's pretty good recipe. I think it's a little bit of everything," Williams said. "The power forward, Brownie; there's Kopi, big dominant centerman; and I guess I fit the mold of the playmaker, puck-handler. It's only a good blend when we're all working together. The last month or two we've really been moving our feet and creating a lot of havoc in the offensive zone."
That they do. And the Devils have to figure out a way to stop them.
Outside of the Kings knocking down the dominoes 1-2-3 in the West, 40-year-old Brodeur is the story of the 2012 playoffs.
He's arguably the greatest goalie in NHL history, with three Stanley Cups and four Vezina Trophies and NHL records for wins and shutouts. If the mainstream sports media in the U.S. didn't have an allergy about lauding defensive players, his journey to the Final would be a national conversation.
He had a few lapses against the Rangers that his offense covered up, but overall Brodeur has erased the bitter memories of past playoff failures. His 2.04 GAA and .923 save percentage represent his best numbers since Jersey's last Cup.
If they're going to earn another, it's going to be thanks to Brodeur. The Kings know what they're getting out of Jonathan Quick, who may still be the leader for the Conn Smythe. Does the Devils' mercurial goalie with the weekend jock build have four more wins in him, or do the Kings find a way to crack him?
Controlling The Tempo
Both teams excel when the other one's on the heels of its skates.
The Kings average 32.9 shots on goal and out-chanced the Phoenix Coyotes by a significant margin in their wins. It's not just the Jonathan Quick Show — the Kings love to smother teams in their own zone, restricting the abilities of defensemen to get the rush going.
They've got a collection of forwards that can bring it physically and create chances offensively, whether its Dustin Brown or Jarret Stoll. Best of all for this matchup, they've just beaten a puck-moving goalie (Mike Smith) by dumping, chasing and winning pucks. Dwight King explained it to NHL.com:
"Obviously, when one guy has pressure on the first D man, you can kind of tell where they are going to go with the puck and linemates can read off that and you get the early jump and they have no chance to make a play. When they have no chance to make a play, you are more likely to get it back."
The Devils' forecheck has controlled games and produced the majority of their big goals in the postseason. They've got big bodies like David Clarkson and Dainius Zubrus, as well as rink rats like Zach Parise, winning puck battles in the offensive zone. The got around the Rangers shot blocking by creating scoring plays from below the dots. And unlike Devils teams of yesteryear, they don't let up — DeBoer will send three forwards into the attacking zone with a one-goal lead late in the game.
Battle of the Unsung
Dwight King of the Kings has five goals, matching his NHL career total. Dustin Penner scored the series-clinching goal against the Coyotes. Jarret Stoll has an overtime winner. Trevor Lewis has six points.
For the Devils, Adam Henrique has two OT game winners and 11 points. The CBGB line of Ryan Carter (4 goals), Stephen Gionta (7 points) and Steve Bernier (6 points) is the new Crash Line. Ex-King Alexei Ponikarovsky has an OT game winner. David Clarkson has three game-winning goals.
Both of these teams have gotten exemplary work from their grunts. It feels like there's a different hero every night.
Which is just another reason this Final could be terrific to watch.
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