|N.J. won both matchups this season, but way back in October. (Getty Images)|
If you take the Los Angeles Kings of January and pit them against the New Jersey Devils of a few years ago, you'd have a pretty dull matchup. You'd probably also have a whole in the space-time continuum, but I'm no astrophysicist or anything.
I'll stop you from asking when will then be now and just leave it at I'm glad we're in the here and now ... now. Because these two teams, the way they have been playing this postseason, are the perfect antidote to some of the sleepier hockey we've seen in recent weeks. They're like chewing a bag of unground coffee beans after a day of lethargy on the couch.
To cut through the veiled references and unusual metaphors: these teams can fly and have been playing some great up-tempo, exciting hockey. That's what should make this matchup so good, two teams who have been pushing the pace all postseason long going after one another. Presumably, they will continue to play at a high pace.
But as usual when you have teams doing similar things, something has to give. In this case there is a lot, the biggest for me is the forechecking. Without a doubt there has been no team better than either of these two in that department and it's not even close. Both the Kings and Devils have been punishing teams with a strong -- and often physical -- offensive-zone push. It has led to pretty good puck possession times, particularly for the Kings.
Now certainly you are going to see some shots blocked and guys making solid defensive plays -- these teams are both still sound in that department -- it just doesn't figure to be the talk of the series like we've seen in other rounds. At least I hope not.
What's missing from this Stanley Cup Final is any kind of animosity. Some might say that means it's also lacking some of that pizazz. For example, a rematch of the Canucks and Bruins this year would have been off the charts as far as intrigue goes because of how nasty things have been between them. Now granted, they didn't have much of a bitter taste for each other before last year's Final so the same thing could potentially happen between the Kings and Devils, it's just these two aren't combustible for that kind of toxology.
But Devils captain Zach Parise thinks that can be built in no time.
Parise on lack of rivalry with LA: "I think you have to hate your opponent right away. I don't think that'll be a problem for either side."— Ian Mendes (@ian_mendes) May 30, 2012
I say, who needs pizazz when you have great hockey? There are plenty of other angles to drum up interest, too. There's the fact that the Kings have never won the Stanley Cup, even when they had the Great One. There are the Devils looking to restore their dynastic ways with a fourth Cup in less than 20 years. Two coaches hired in the last year, Ilya Kovalchuk rebuilding his reputation, Mike Richards and Jeff Carter winning a cup together -- in L.A. -- Dustin Penner's incredibly awesome beard ... on and on they go. Take your pick.
That's all without even mentioning the goalies in this series, perhaps the best in the game today vs. the best in the game ever. Those arguments aren't tough to make for either Jonathan Quick or Martin Brodeur, respectively.
We'll still have to wait and see how this series is going to appeal to the nation as a whole, but for pure hockey's sake, with the way these teams have been playing, it should be worth every sports fan's time.
Prepare to break down teams. Breaking down teams, sir! (You didn't think Spaceballs -- one of the best things to come out of L.A. -- wouldn't make another appearance, did you?)
NJ Offense vs. LA Defense
As mentioned, don't mistake these Devils for the old ones that ruled the NHL with the trap. Patrik Elias will remind you that the Devils scored a lot in 2000 and 2001, but as a whole, everybody remembers them for playing a dull brand. Not now under new coach Peter DeBoer, who has his team pushing up ice a lot more than they ever did. It's something that took many of the Devils a lot of time to get used to, forsaking a little of that defensive responsibility, but since it clicked in their heads, it's been terrific. New Jersey was one of the hottest teams entering the postseason and clearly it has continued.
But they are now facing a Los Angeles defense that has been their bread and butter for a few years. The Kings have surrendered just 1.57 goals per game this postseason, nearly a half-goal better than the next best team (Ottawa). That's an enormous gap. Just to show it's not a fluke, the Kings were second in the league in that department this regular season. Now the last line of defense obviously helps a ton, but their defensive corps is strong, and they get a lot of help from the guys up front, too, like Anze Kopitar and Mike Richards.
LA Offense vs. NJ Defense
Obviously the Kings have come a long way since Darryl Sutter took over. Or probably more appropriately since GM Dean Lombardi brought in Jeff Carter. It's not that Carter has been producing a lot of offense himself -- he hasn't -- it's that the rest of the team has been aided and freed by his presence. It has opened the ice up a little for the other lines, particularly Kopitar, Dustin Brown and Justin Williams. In the playoffs Los Angeles has turned into a juggernaut after a season of mostly just being a "not" offensively.
The Devils underwent a bit of a makeover on the blue line last summer and as a result it's a "no-name" group of guys. They have been middle of the road when it comes to postseason goals against, not spectacular but not necessarily a liability either. However, they will have their hands full trying to match against the Kings' lines.
The strong advantage in favor of the Kings is not a reflection on Brodeur, just in praise of Quick. His numbers this postseason are, as you'd expect, pretty amazing. His save percentage of .946 and GAA of 1.54 are enough to make you double take to make sure you weren't seeing things. Especially on shots from within the red line, Quick has been the same goalie he was this season; nearly impossible to beat.
On the other side you have Brodeur, who has been pretty solid and reliable this postseason. He has had a couple of awful showings in playoffs past recently but he has held his own and been there when the Devils have needed him. However he doesn't still have that cloak of invincibility around him that he might have once had, or that Quick seems to have now.
Let's start with the Devils. The record-setting penalty kill from this regular season? It has disappeared. The Florida Panthers skewered New Jersey's PK unit in the first round and it has gotten back to form a little bit since, but it still hasn't been anywhere near as strong as it was in the season, including as an offensive weapon. The power play, though, has been fine. Marek Zidlicky, a pretty underrated transaction this trade season, has been a good fit leading the power play to an 18.2 conversion rate this postseason, fourth best in the playoffs. Kovalchuk and Parise are always dangerous, but they become quite scary when on the ice together with one less defender.
Then you have the Kings, which have taken the Devils' regular-season role on the penalty kill. It has been lethal for opponents. Consider this: If you were to give the Kings' PK a plus/minus rating this postseason, it would be even. The PK has given up five power-play goals and scored five while short-handed. That's simply stunning. But keep that in mind when you look at the L.A. power play. It has scored only six goals this postseason. It's been as bad as the PK has been good, or least close to it. It's been the one problem spot for the Kings in the past few weeks, clicking at just 8.1 percent.