After knocking off the first, second, and third seeded teams in their battle against the Western Conference, the Kings find themselves just days away from the beginning of the Stanley Cup Finals. It’s a situation that is new to a lot of the Kings’ roster and for fans of the team it has been almost two decades since the team was last there, as Gretzky and the boys lost to the Montreal Canadiens in the 1993 finals. Dean Lombardi’s Kings will attempt to exorcise the demons of that 1993 team and bring the Stanley Cup back to Los Angeles for the first time in team history.
In their way stand the New Jersey Devils, a team that was arguably as unexpected to reach the finals as the Kings. New Jersey has put together an impressive playoff run, knocking off the Panthers, Flyers, and Rangers en route to their match-up with the Kings. A team that has only gotten better as the playoffs have progressed, the Devils will be as challenging to defeat as any team LA has faced in their post-season travels.
So what will it take? Here are Monarchy Hockey’s Keys to the Series between the Kings and Devils.
1. Brodeur vs. Quick
The Martin Brodeur that has showed up for the playoffs is not the Martin Brodeur that was in goal for the Devils the majority of the last few seasons. Brodeur has found a second wind in the Devils crease, shrugging off the public criticism which deemed him to old to continue to compete on hockey’s biggest stage. He made significant changes to his game this season, attempting to incorporate more of the butterfly style into his classic stand-up game; the results have been noticeable. Brodeur has looked more comfortable and reliable in recent games for the Devils and has backstopped them to some impressive wins.
At the other end of the ice stands Jonathan Quick. Quick has had an impressive post-season thus far and is LA’s runaway leader for the Conn Smythe trophy to this point. While his play seemed to falter a little in the series against the Coyotes, there is little reason to believe that he won’t bounce back with a strong effort against the Devils. The Kings will need Quick to be at his best (I wish I had a dollar for every time I’ve had to write that) if their defensive structure is to stand up to the more offensive Devils.
So this may just be the Bizzaro World version of the 2010 Stanley Cup finals, which featured the Michael Leighton lead Flyers versus the Antii Niemi lead Blackhawks, and lead to much speculation over the importance of a “franchise goaltender” in today’s NHL. It’s a match-up that pits arguably the greatest goaltender of all-time against one of the league’s brightest young stars. Does Brodeur have another strong round in him? Will Jonathan Quick steal the show as he did against Vancouver and St. Louis? The match-up in goal will play a pivotal role in the outcome of this series, it should be one for the ages.
2. Differing Schedules
It’s an old cliche that the playoffs are a marathon, not a sprint; the funny thing about cliches is that they usually exist for a reason. Coming in to the series, the Devils have played in 18 games to the Kings’ 14. While 4 games may not seem like the biggest of differences, in the hard-hitting, heavy gameplay of the playoffs it’s a world of difference. The Kings have had more time to rest, been able to fit in more practice and preparation time for their opponents, and have had to do less traveling than any Western Conference Champion in recent history. Anything can happen when it comes to the Stanley Cup Finals, but intuition would dictate that the Kings are bound to see some benefits from their quick dispatching of their previous opponents.
By the time the finals begin, both of these teams will have had to deal with a bit of a layoff, so who comes out of it in better shape? On the one hand, the Devils will have had less time to rest and recover, but they won’t have had to sit idle for as long as the Kings. One the other hand, the Kings have had the time to rest and prepare for the devils – almost a full week now – but will they come out in Cup Finals form, or will there be some rust to their game? Game 1 could be as important as any for establishing the tone for the rest of the series, whoever has dealt with the layoff better will certainly benefit from an added boost.
3. Who Can Handle the Pressure?
It may seem like common knowledge that being able to handle pressure packed situations is vital to team success in the playoffs, but nevertheless it has to be pointed out as a key to the series between the Kings and Devils. With each passing round the pressure a team is exposed to multiplies: the hometown fan-base raises its expectations, the games are being watched on a larger stage and players are faced with increased media scrutiny, and the expectations players put on themselves to contribute grow as well.
For the Kings, the pressure is arguably greater. This is a team that was expected to be a strong Cup contender before the start of the season and they met those expectations with a dismal showing in the first half of the regular season. Since the firing of Terry Murray the team has rebounded strongly and been one of the best teams in the game, but it will all be for naught if they are unable to close out the Devils in this series. As the Kings have never won a Stanley Cup, they will have the added pressure of playing for a fan-base that has patiently waited since 1967 for their team to bring home a championship.
The Devils on the other hand, are playing with the house’s money. Few people expected them to go this deep into the post-season, backed by a struggling defense and a goaltender that at times looked shaky. The team that has shown up for the playoffs has looked nothing like that however, and they are poised to bring home the fourth championship in the team’s history. Because few expected them to advance this far, they are under inherently less pressure to come home with the Cup, certainly so after knocking of the rival Rangers in the last round. Should they be able to take advantage of that situation they may be able to add another ring to Lou Lamoriello’s trophy case. Both teams will be burdened with pressure unlike any they have experienced in their careers this series and it will be the team that finds a better way to handle that pressure that will hoist the Stanley Cup in a few short weeks.
The stage is set for an epic playoff series between the Devils and Kings, with Game 1 taking place on Wednesday. Will the Kings win their first Stanley Cup? Will the Devils keep the Cup in the East? Only time will tell, but it will certainly be fun to watch.