A safe prediction: there will be more hugs like this, though the teams may be different. (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)
In just two days, the New Jersey Devils will host the Los Angeles Kings in Game 1 of the 2012 NHL Stanley Cup Finals. Fans of both teams have every reason to be proud of each franchise; getting to this point of the postseason is always worthy of praise and adoration. That doesn't mean they don't want it all. The players certainly want the Cup. No team gets to the Stanley Cup Finals and says with their play, "Yep, we're here. That's good enough." Saying that both teams will play hard and will attempt whatever it takes to win each game by any means necessary isn't a prediction at all. It's just expected.
The Kings are heading into this series almost exactly as any fan dreams. They went 12-2 against Vancouver (4-1), St. Louis (4-0), and Phoenix (4-1). The former two teams were among the very best in the NHL in 2011-12 and the Kings made them both look second-rate. Phoenix was the weaker of the three opponents, though they had the best performing goaltender - that didn't matter. A fan couldn't ask for more. Speaking of elite goaltenders on opposing teams, the Devils were eventually able to put multiple pucks past the one that started for New York (4-2) to defeat them in six. That earned the Devils the right to play in the Stanley Cup Finals. Prior to that series, they rode the knife's edge and won two straight games beyond regulation to knock Florida out (4-3) and then took the Knife of Possession and metaphorically drove it in real deep into Philadelphia (4-1) in four straight games to eliminate them. The Kings were like an industrial buzzsaw going through lumber. The Devils resembled a manager of a lumber factory, adjusting their plans to get the desired results.
OK, clumsy metaphors aside, the two teams will get it going later this week. This primer post has the schedule and other basic information about the series. As we await the series to start, let's predict what will happen. I asked the other writers the same five questions from the prior prediction posts, including a series prediction. We did at least a pretty good job with our predictions for the Eastern Conference Finals. I hope we'll be just as good in this one. Please continue on after the jump to find out what we think heading into this series.
What one thing about the New Jersey Devils makes you confident about their chances going into this series?
Tom: Four quality scoring lines. They say you need all four lines offensively active to win a Stanley Cup and the Devils are certainly getting offense from all of their lines. Separating Parise and Kovalchuk and then perhaps even Elias, put three of the top 20 NHL scorers on different lines and will be hard for the Kings to matchup with. Add in one of the most productive fourth lines in Devils playoff history. Currently the trio of Carter, Gionta and Bernier have a total of 19 points in 18 games. The famed 'Crash Line' of the 1995 playoffs (Bobby Holik, Randy McKay and Mike Peluso) had 23 points in 20 games. The Devils current fourth line is in good company and I refuse to think that Gionta and company won't keep it up.
Kevin: The Underdog mentality. Outside of the first round, the Devils were never the favourites in the playoffs. In the second round, everyone (myself included) thought the Devils would be ripped apart by the Flyers and Claude Giroux. In the third round, everyone thought Henrik Lundqvist would stop the Devils offense dead in its tracks. Considering that the Kings destroyed the [Daniel Sedin-less] Canucks in the first round, swept the [Jaroslav Halak-less] Blues in the second round and humiliated the Coyotes in the Western Conference Finals, a lot of people are going to put their money on the Kings. The Devils have proven twice that they can play the role of David in these "David and Goliath" matchups, They just need to do it one more time.
Matt E.: This is a tough question. For me, it's between superb goaltending and scoring depth. Since John asked for just one, I will choose scoring depth because of Quick. In order to win this series, the Devils will need as many scoring chances as possible. However, the Kings also have scoring depth and a superb goalie.
John: Peter DeBoer has been excellent behind the bench in these playoffs. His adjustments to the team's gameplan, approach, and lines to achieve success have been, well, successful. Whereas other coaches would have faltered after a bad Game 1 (Philly, NY) or panicking after going down 2-1 in a series (Florida, NY), DeBoer has been calm, collected, and calculating. He runs the team hard in practice, but he's not having them do so on every possible date. His general approach of taking initiative has yielded varying and ultimately successful results. I look forward to what he'll do after the Devils get a taste of LA in Game 1. It could make all the difference in this series.
What one thing about the Los Angeles Kings worries you going into this series?
Tom: Vezina finalist Jonathan Quick. Quick has been outstanding all season and the Devils have their hands trying to score on the NHL's best goaltender. Quick has a .947 even strength save percentage in the playoffs and the Devils will have to create traffic, deflections and odd-man rushes to beat the Los Angeles goalie.
|2012 Playoffs - Jonathan Quick||14||858||12||2||22||1.54||406||384
Kevin: They have very few weaknesses. Unlike the Flyers, they have elite goaltending in Jonathan Quick. Unlike the Rangers, they have forwards who can drive play and bottom 6 forwards who aren't goons. And unlike both teams, they don't have a suspect bottom pair on defense. In fact, their only weakness is their power play, which isn't exactly great (8.1% conversion rate). Even then, it's only a small sample size, so for all we know, the Kings power play could break out and score all series long.
Matt E.: The Kings' second line may be better than the Devils current first line. The Kings' top line consists of Mike Richards - Jeff Carter - Dustin Penner, while the Devils' top line is Zach Parise - Travis Zajac - Dainius Zubrus. I don't know why, but I have a feeling this is not a good match up.
|2012 Playoffs - Mike Richards||14||4||7||11||3||15
|2012 Playoffs - Jeff Carter||14||4
|2012 Playoffs - Dustin Penner||14||3||7||10||5
John: The Kings' first line of Dustin Brown, Anze Kopitar, and Justin Williams. All three play big minutes and they've been wildly successful. All three have over 42 shots in 14 games; an average of three per game. Brown and Kopitar lead the team in scoring, with Williams not too far behind. Kopitar oozes skill, Brown plays to his size and draws plenty of penalties, and Williams has been a great complementary player for them. The Devils were able to shut down the top lines of their last three playoff opponents at evens; but I honestly question whether they can slow this trio down.
|2012 Playoffs - Anze Kopitar||14||6
|2011 Playoffs - Dustin Brown||14||7
|2011 Playoffs - Justin Williams||14||2||9
What's the key match-up between the two teams?
Tom: Third line scoring production/puck possession. At the end of this series, whomever has the better of the points/puck possession (Corsi) between the teams two third lines will be the victor. Each time Jacob Josefson and company can end in the Los Angeles zone is going to be a huge factor in this series. Josefson and Clarkson have had a lot of good shifts together in the regular season and now the postseason. If those good shifts can start ending in goals, the Devils have a strong advantage in this series. The question right now is what left wing will accompany Josefson/Clarkson. Elias was on the wing of that line at the end of game 6 and the three players looked pretty good together. If it's Elias or Ponikarovsky I think the third line matchup against the Kings third line (Jarret Stoll, Trevor Lewis, Dwight King) will be they key to the series.
Kevin: The Kings top line of Justin Williams, Anze Kopitar and Dustin Brown versus Andy Greene and Mark Fayne. Those two were able to stop the Panthers' best scorer, Kris Versteeg, at even strength; they prevented Claude Giroux from scoring a single point at even strength; and they stopped Brad Richards and Marian Gaborik at even strength. Those two have their work cut out for them, because those three Kings have been excellent in the post-season in terms of possession and scoring, albeit against weak competition.
Matt E.: Just like last series versus the New York Rangers, the goaltending will be the difference. However, the Devils have the advantage. The Devils have the most mild headed player in the league. When the pressure comes, Quick may crack. It is comforting knowing Marty will be manning the pipes.
|2012 Playoffs - Martin Brodeur||18||1090||12||5
John: The key match-up will be in special teams, specifically the Devils' power play against the Kings' penalty kill. LA has been killing penalties in this postseason like the Devils during the regular season. Their success rate is 91.2%, Quick has been wonderful in net, and they're not only preventing shots but aggressively attacking the point, which has yielded four shorthanded goals. However, the Devils' power play hasn't been too shabby. Maddingly inconsistent at times, sure; but they've got their shots on net rate up, their success rate is a solid 18.2%, and the Kings have averaged a little over four shorthanded situations per game. I don't know how the refs will call this series; but the Devils can only stand to help themselves if they can crack the Kings' PK. If the Kings' PK is not only successful but also gets a couple of goals, then LA's chances of winning will drastically improve.
Who will be the one X-Factor in this series?
Tom: Patrik Elias. Quiet for much of the Rangers series, Elias played the latter stages of game 6 on a line with David Clarkson and Jacob Josefson. If Pete DeBoer continues with that line combination. With less defensive pressure on Elias and perhaps some better in-game matchups perhaps this line combination can help jumpstart the Devils best all around forward. The Devils were able to get past the Rangers and the Flyers without much offensive contribution from Elias, I don't know if they will be that lucky again.
|2012 Playoffs - Patrik Elias||18||4||2||6||-5||10||2||0||0||48||8.3|
Kevin: For New Jersey, I'm going with Patrik Elias. He's been quiet offensively and while he hasn't been getting the results, he's been an excellent puck possession player for the Devils this post-season and his defensive contributions against Anze Kopitar and co. are going to be important. That and hopefully he'll break out of his scoring slump.
For the Kings I'm going with Jeff Carter, because like Elias he's been getting the brunt of the defensive assignments (0.063 Qualcomp, 1.896 Corsi Rel QoC) and is still capable of being an offensive threat.
|2012 Playoffs - Jeff Carter||14||4||9||13||-12||16||10||0||2||184||10.8|
Matt E.: For the Devils: Zach Parise. If Parise steps up in game one and sets the pace, the Kings are screwed.
|2012 Playoffs - Zach Parise||18||7||7||14||-3
For the Kings: Jonathan Quick. Quick needs to keep his composure. The Devils are going to be firing away at him whenever they get the chance. If he breaks down, it could be a short series.
John: The X-factor in this series is defenseman Bryce Salvador. Salvador has absolutely surprised everyone with his offensive production, which has come up big seemingly out of nowhere each time it happens. However, he's going to have a tough assignment. The Kings are deep at forward and they love to play with pace. Salvador is slow and he generally doesn't drive the play since he's a defensive defenseman. And when his partner Marek Zidlicky suffers, like in the Rangers series, his job becomes significantly harder. If he can slow down the Kings' forwards and get stops in his own end and continue to chip in some points, then Devils will be that much better of a team in this series. If he can't handle the speed or the Kings' forecheck, then the Devils are in trouble.
What is your prediction for this series?
Tom: The Devils are well prepared for this series. They have faced a fast, aggressive team in the Panthers and won. They have faced a strong forechecking team in the Flyers and won. Then they faced a sound defensive team with one of the best goaltenders in the league and won. The Kings offer a combination of speed, size, goaltending and defensive play that the Devils haven't faced yet, but the Devils will prevail utilizing the experiences they have had so far in the playoffs. Devils in 6.
Kevin: Devils in 7.
Matt E.: Devils in 6. I think the first four games will be split and then the Devils will finish off the Kings with fresher legs since they haven't been traveling far during the second and third rounds.
John: So far, so good, so why not? The Kings are a really good team. So are the Devils. The Kings are strong in each position, but they're not going to do anything to the Devils haven't seen before in this postseason. I think this one will go the distance; Devils in 7.
Now you've read our answers to these five questions, please let us know what you think of them. What answers of ours do you agree with? What don't you agree with? I also want to know your answers to the same questions we answered for this post. What one aspect about the Devils make you confident in their chances? What about the Kings worries you the most? What match-up will be important? Who will be the X-factor? Most of all, what's your prediction for this series - will the Devils win the 2012 Stanley Cup? Please leave all of your answers and other predictions in the comments. Thank you for reading.
One more thing: The big series preview post will come out on Tuesday. Until then, predict away.