If one word could be used to describe this year’s Stanley Cup Finals matchup, it would be “surprising.”
No one could have predicted that the sixth-seeded New Jersey Devils and the eighth-seeded Los Angeles Kings would meet to determine who would walk away with the most famous trophy in professional sports.
The Devils, who were coming off one of the worst seasons in franchise history, weren’t expected by many to get much farther than the second round.
In comparison, the Kings became just the third eighth-seeded team in league history to advance to the Finals. They also played the role of underdog throughout the entire tournament, upsetting the top three seeds in the Western Conference on their way to the final round (Vancouver, St. Louis and Phoenix).
The Devils and Kings are almost mirror-images of each other. Backed by elite goaltenders, each team can play an excellent two-way game, forecheck extremely well and can roll all four lines without missing a beat.
Snipers like Ilya Kovalchuk, Zach Parise, Patrik Elias and Travis Zajac litter their lineup, while players like Adam Henrique, David Clarkson, Alexei Ponikarovsky and Dainius Zubrus provide solid secondary scoring. Even the team’s fourth line of Stephen Gionta, Ryan Carter and Steve Bernier has chipped in, combining for nine goals and 19 points in 18 playoff games.
The Devils also don’t have any superstars on defense. A unit comprised of players who have little-to-no name recognition get the job done in their own end and contribute offensively as well.
Perhaps the biggest difference is the way the Devils attack teams. In the past, they would have all of their players sit back in the neutral zone and wait for their opponent to skate out of their zone. Once the puck carrier would get to the blue line, the rest of his team wouldn’t have any room to skate. This in turn would force the opposition to dump the puck into New Jersey’s zone, and give up the puck. This style of defending has popularly become known as “The Neutral Zone Trap.”
Nowadays, the Devils don’t play with a passive mindset on defense – they play more aggressively. When the opposing team has the puck in their own zone, New Jersey typically sends in a number of forecheckers to put pressure on the puck carrier, causing the player to panic and turn over the puck. This leads to more scoring chances for the Devils, and also helps make life easier for future Hall-of-Fame goaltender Martin Brodeur.
The L.A. Kings have rolled through the playoffs with a 12-2 record, and are undefeated on the road (8-0). Like the Devils, the Kings have a lot of scoring depth with Dustin Brown, Justin Williams, Jeff Carter and Dustin Penner on their roster. The Kings also have an elite goaltender in Vezina Trophy finalist Jonathan Quick.
When comparing the two teams, a lot seems alike, but there are a few factors that will help determine the Stanley Cup Champion.
Over the last few years, teams that have won the Stanley Cup have had great depth at center. From Crosby, Malkin and Staal in Pittsburgh, to Toews, Sharp and Bolland in Chicago and Bergeron, Krejci and Kelly in Boston, each of the past few champions have had good options down the middle. The Kings are no exception, with the likes of Anze Kopitar, Mike Richards and Jarrett Stoll filling out those roles.
Kopitar is one of the best playmakers in the league, with exceptional vision and great hands. Richards is an elite two-way center, capable of putting up a lot of points and also shutting down opposing superstars. Same goes for Stoll, who is a good faceoff man and can also contribute in the offensive zone.
Not only do the Kings have better depth down the middle, they also are slightly better defensively. With one of the league’s best blueliners in Drew Doughty, two shutdown defensemen in Rob Scuderi and Willie Mitchell, and three solid options in Matt Greene, Alec Martinez and Slava Voynov, L.A. has the ammunition to counter New Jersey’s lineup.
Each team has been mediocre on the power play, but the Kings have been better on special teams, in large part due to their dominant penalty-kill units. L.A. has killed off 52 of 57 opposing power plays this postseason, while also scoring five shorthanded goals.
The Devils, meanwhile, set an NHL record for penalty-kill efficiency in the regular season with an 89.6% rate. If New Jersey is able to match that output in the Finals, Los Angeles could struggle with the man-advantage throughout the series.
Both coaches are evenly matched too. In his first year with the Devils, Peter DeBoer has proven that he can win at the NHL level. In Florida, he was doomed because he didn’t have much talent to work with. Now, backed by a competent general manager in Lou Lamoriello, he has the tools to win his first Cup.
Darryl Sutter of the Kings has been there, done that. He has had success everywhere he’s been, from being an assistant with the Chicago Blackhawks to being the bench boss of both the San Jose Sharks and the Calgary Flames. But he has never won the ultimate prize, despite reaching the Finals twice (with Chicago in 1992 and Calgary in 2004.) He’ll be looking to get the monkey off of his back in this series.
Even though there is no clear-cut favorite to win the Stanley Cup, one thing is certain: this year’s Finals is bound to go down to the wire to determine who walks away with the most famous trophy in all of sports. This series has the potential to become a classic.
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