The New Jersey Devils and the Los Angeles Kings are the champions of their respective conferences and so they will compete against each other for the greatest trophy in all of sports: the Stanley Cup. The Devils won the East after coming from behind to knock out Florida, crushing Philadelphia in five games, and defeating New York in six games. The Kings won the West after slicing through Vancouver, sweeping St. Louis, and pounding Phoenix (seriously). It's easy and wrong to look at their playoff seeding and see #6 vs. #8 as a surprising match-up. Given how the Devils and Kings performed, they truly deserve to get this far.
Needless to say, both teams have been really, really good. For the neutral fan, this looks to be a very entertaining series as both New Jersey and Los Angeles favor an up-tempo pace with a strong forecheck. Both New Jersey and Los Angeles have goaltenders who have been excellent in this postseason. Both New Jersey and Los Angeles have players with loads of skill and others who work hard and have been rewarded for their efforts. Any casual or fans of other teams will enjoy watching the 2012 NHL Stanley Cup Finals. For the fans of either the Kings or the Devils, it will be difficult as they should be able to push each other to the proverbial limit.
If you want basic information about the series, such as the schedule or what news sources you should check out, then check out this series primer. If you're interested in predictions and some sort answers about what the ILWT writers think about this series ahead of Game 1, then please read our series prediction post. This is the preview for the entire series. As with the prior series preview posts, I hope to properly convey what you need to know about each team in various aspects of the game. I'll largely be focusing on playoff stats because I think recent form is going to reveal who the top players are more so than what they did during the regular season. Either way, please continue on after the jump for a very detailed and close look at both teams as they prepare to begin 2012 NHL Stanley Cup Finals on Wednesday.
The big goaltending match-up is a legend of the game versus an near-prime goaltender. The 40-year old veteran who's done it all in pro hockey versus the 26-year old who's establishing himself as a top goaltender. It will be Martin Brodeur versus Jonathan Quick.
|2011-12 - Martin Brodeur||59||3392||31||21||4||136||2.41||1472||1336||.908||.911||3|
|2012 Playoffs - Martin Brodeur||18||1090||12||5
Martin Brodeur may be prone to the occasional soft goal allowed; but I don't think there really be any complaints about his performance in the 2012 playoffs. He's been able to draw on his experience to keep the Devils in games they probably didn't deserve to be in. He's been quick on his reflexes, absolutely robbing opposing players of what looked to be a sure goal. Brodeur continues to move the puck well (one or two massive errors aside), which has hurt opposition's offenses - something Bruce McCurdy of the Edmonton Journal noted. (Thanks to George Ays for finding it.) A goalie putting up a save percentage of 94.4% at evens is clearly doing his job and doing it quite well. The only area that hasn't been good is his power play save percentage. It was wonderful during the regular season at 91.1%, but it has dropped like an anvil to 80.5%. It's not as if he becomes a sieve in man advantage situations; but it explains why his overall save percentage is so much lower. Still, Brodeur has been an asset and will continue to be one as the Devils play for the Stanley Cup.
|2011-12 - Jonathan Quick||69||4099||35||21||13||133||1.95||1863||1730||.929||.933||10|
|2012 Playoffs - Jonathan Quick||14||858||12||2||-||22
Quick has been every kind of wonderful for Los Angeles throughout their entire 2011-12 campaign. He was brilliant back when they struggled to score goals and were playing under Terry Murray. He has continued to be brilliant under Darryl Sutter as the Kings' puck luck turned around completely (and around the same time Jeff Carter became a King). Quick has been excellent on low shots, strong on high shots, and just about everything in between. Even if the Kings skaters get shocked or struggle to produce anything, Quick will keep LA in the game as long as possible. He's the main reason why they made the playoffs, and he's a key reason why they are where they are in the postseason.
Given that Los Angeles likes to push the tempo and forecheck, Brodeur may not get so many opportunities to sweep the puck away behind the net. Brodeur's performance is going to be more about how he can react to the Kings rushing the net. Given that the Devils just faced and defeated a goaltender who carried his team to their spot in the postseason, I wouldn't count on them worrying too much about Quick. They'll try to fire as many shots as they can on him, trying to catch him when he isn't set or in a position where he can't make a stop. Either way, this goaltending match-up looks to be a real good one on paper.
In terms of overall shots against per game average, both the Devils and Kings can claim to be pretty good. According to NHL.com, the Devils have allowed 27.6 per game (5th) whereas the Kings have allowed 29 per game (7th) in this postseason. However, the Kings can claim to have a stud leading their top four, while the Devils don't. You know him as Drew Doughty, though some people are still learning it's not Brad Doty.
|2012 Playoffs - Drew Doughty||14||2
|2012 Playoffs - Rob Scuderi||14||0||1||1||8||10||0||0||0||21:11||8||0.0|
|2012 Playoffs - Willie Mitchell||14||1||1||2||8
|2012 Playoffs - Slava Voynov||14||1||2||3||3||4
|2012 Playoffs - Alec Martinez||14||0
|2012 Playoffs - Matt Greene||14||1||3||4||5||8||0||1||1||16:09||13||7.7|
Doughty is a classic stud, do-it-all defenseman. He plays in all situations, he's got a threatening shot from distance, he's got good vision to pass from the point or on the breakout, and he's very good in positioning. It's no surprise he's got as many points as he does. The Kings defense, on the other hand, really hasn't been adding much offense. It's OK because they're more about getting stops and driving the play forward. While Behind the Net has had some updating issues, their first 13 games still says a lot. Alec Martinez and Matt Greene have been a very good pairing in limited, soft situations. Doughty and Rob Scuderi have been usually starting in their own end, which makes their positive on-ice Corsi rate even more impressive. The "weaker" pairing appears to be Slava Voynov and Willie Mitchell, but they definitely haven't been bad. I suppose the Devils should try to pick on the rookie, Voynov, but he's going to be well supported by Mitchell - who also plays a lot as the first choice defenseman on the PK and a regular PP pointman. The Kings have a stud to lead an otherwise good group of blueliners; and Sutter relies on the top four.
|2012 Playoffs - Marek Zidlicky||18||1||7||8||1||16||2||0||0||24:08||39||2.6|
|2012 Playoffs - Bryce Salvador||18||3||8||11||10||16||0||1||0||22:36||21||14.3|
|2012 Playoffs - Andy Greene||18||0||1||1||1||6
|2012 Playoffs - Mark Fayne||18||0||3||3
|2012 Playoffs - Anton Volchenkov||18||0||1||1||7||8
|2012 Playoffs - Peter Harrold||14||0||4||4||3||6||0||0||0||14:29||17||0.0|
The Devils are similar to the Kings' defense except they don't have that stud player. They do have a surprising amount of production from defensive defenseman Bryce Salvador. No matter how this series goes, Salvador clearly has surprised everyone. The additional production brought by Marek Zidlicky plus special teams (Zidlicky is on the first unit of the power play, Salvador is on the first penalty killing unit) contributes to the fact the Salvador & Zidlicky pairing has gotten some more ice time than Andy Greene & Mark Fayne. Greene & Fayne have been wonderful in terms of possession, but it hasn't led to many points. Salvador & Zidlicky haven't been terrible in terms of possession, but it's a clear drop off - especially in the New York series where Zidlicky had some pretty poor games. Hopefully, he'll turn it around as Peter DeBoer relies on his top four. I think Peter Harrold has been perfectly fine as a third pairing defender in limited minutes, while Anton Volchenkov has gotten away from his struggles in the Florida series. They're still the weakest part of the defense.
Given Harrold's lack of size and how many big players Los Angeles has on their roster (user Houner has a good summary in this FanPost), it wouldn't surprise me if Adam Larsson gets into this series at some point. Larsson is larger and has a good offensive element to his game, though - like a lot of rookies - he is prone to some bad decisions with the puck. Henrik Tallinder has just been medically cleared, so he could get into this series if DeBoer has a lot of confidence that he can contribute after being out for several months. Tallinder was a top defenseman on this team earlier this season; so anything he can do can help. I'm personally doubtful given the long time he was out; but stranger things have happened.
Both teams have bluelines where the top four does a lot of the heavy lifting and the third pairing tries to chip in whenever they can. The edge may go to the more mobile Kings defense, particularly because they have a stud in Doughty leading them. Their speed is also better suited for what the Devils will attempt with their forecheck. However, the Devils defense did ultimately hold their own against a speedy Florida team and the Devils forwards did find success against the Rangers' speed on defense.
Like the defensemen, both teams are similar in that they have received production throughout their line up. Both teams are a little bit below scoring three goals per game on average. Their top players have put up points, and so have their third and fourth lines - often to great success within a game. Both teams are very good in terms of possession. While the Kings have been very good, the Devils are superior in Fenwick% in close-score and tied-score situations according to Behind the Net (Note: it's a few days old due to an updating error; but the last two Rangers games wouldn't drop the Devils down much). However, the Kings are superior in average shots on net per game: 32.9 to 30.4. Both Sutter and DeBoer prefer to control the pace of the game and forecheck with aggression. On paper, it makes for a great match-up. On the ice, it'll come down to who will be able to find the most success in breaking down the other team's skaters.
Let's begin with the Kings. Here are the stats for all of the Kings' forwards at NHL.com, and below, the statlines of their top six scoring forwards:
|2012 Playoffs - Anze Kopitar||14||6
|2011 Playoffs - Dustin Brown||14||7
|2011 Playoffs - Justin Williams||14||2||9
|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
One could say the Kings' top six forward group consists of two #1 lines. The unit of Dustin Brown, Anze Kopitar, and Justin Williams have been wonderful. Each of them averages three shots on net per game, their point totals speak for themselves, and they play quite a lot. If there's one line the Devils need to worry about the most, it's this one. Brown is known for drawing calls as well as throwing his body around and making plays on offense. Kopitar simply oozes skill; his awareness and agility makes him lethal even when there's chaos in the slot. Williams compliments both quite well, making passes and providing back support as needed. The Devils have been very successful at keeping the opposition's top lines quiet in the Florida, Philadelphia, and New York series. It will be very difficult to do so against a line as talented as the Kopitar line.
Beyond the Kopitar line, the Kings have two very talented players with typical Flyer attitudes: Mike Richards and Jeff Carter. Based on this usage chart Robert P put together at Jewels from the Crown, Richards, Carter and Dustin Penner have been the team's power line. They go up against the other team's best players. While that frees up the Kopitar line, the Richards unit has suffered in possession. Nevertheless, Devils fans know full well how good Richards and Carter are in both ends of the rink. If either gets hot or more consistency in scoring, it's going to create real problems for New Jersey. Richards alone will be a problem if only because he's not above doing something nasty to help out his team or if he can get away with it. Penner and his big body fits in well with them and he's got every reason to prove he's an asset. That sound you hear are Oilers fans banging their heads against a desk.
The Kings' third line has been delightfully productive. Dwight King has five goals, Jarret Stoll has two goals and two assists, and Trevor Lewis has a goal and five assists. For a group that plays about 11-12 minutes at evens, that's not too shabby. It's also helped that Stoll's goals and two of King's goals eventually won games. They've been slightly negative in possession, though. The Kings' fourth line of Brad Richardson, Kyle Clifford, and Jordan Nolan have been great in on-ice Corsi, but the unit's been heavily sheltered and they've scored a combined two goals. As long as the Kopitar line continues to crush teams and the Richards line takes on the toughs without conceding many goals, the bottom six can enjoy softer match-ups and chip in points.
As for the Devils, their forward lines have been more in flux. The only consistent unit throughout this entire playoffs has been the fourth line and even that unit saw a change when Ryan Carter missed a game due to food poisoning. In any case, here are the forwards' stats at NHL.com and the statlines of their top six scoring forwards:
|2012 Playoffs - Ilya Kovalchuk||17||7||11||18||-4||6||5||0||0||58||12.1|
|2012 Playoffs - Zach Parise||18||7
|2012 Playoffs - Travis Zajac||18||7||5||12||-1||4||1||0||2||39||17.9|
|2012 Playoffs - Adam Henrique||18||3||8
|2012 Playoffs - David Clarkson||18||3||7
|2012 Playoffs - Dainius Zubrus||18||3||6||9||1||14||1||0||1||32
Peter DeBoer has been changing done away with keeping the same line up after the Florida series. He's mixed up lines more during games and sometimes in between them to try and get the most out of his players. Given that the team's in the Stanley Cup Finals, I can't say he failed. The advanced stats - old as they may be - show that everyone's been going forward quite well except for the fourth line and Jacob Josefson, who just entered the playoffs when the Rangers decided to not be doormats in Games 4, 5, and 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals.
Nevertheless, two of the three top scorers from the regular season are leading the way for offensive production on the Devils: Ilya Kovalchuk and Zach Parise. Kovalchuk has been playing with a herniated disc, so he hasn't been as swift as he could be. I doubt he will be in this series. Yet, it really hasn't been a problem from Game 3 against Philadelphia and onward. Kovalchuk still gets several shooting attempts per game and he's been making plays happen while finishing them off well - particularly on the power play. Kovalchuk leads the 2012 NHL playoffs in scoring and I doubt he's going to be kept quiet going forward. Parise has been the team's most prolific shooter, second only to the now-eliminated Brad Richards. Parise skates in constant motion and he's just keeps getting in spots to shoot. When either are "on," it's not a question of whether they could be stopped - just whether they could be contained.
From there on, the forwards get mixed. Travis Zajac has had a great postseason run after missing most of the 2011-12 season due to injury. He's been very good at both ends of the rink like normal, and he's got a hot stick. Dainius Zubrus has been able to get on the scoresheet, which is a deserving reward for all of the work he puts in along the boards and in high-traffic areas at both ends of the rink. Even with Zidlicky's troubles in the Rangers series, all Devils with a last name beginning with 'Z' have been superb considering the entire postseason. While Zubrus and Zajac have stand out for consistently showing up in games, Adam Henrique and David Clarkson have been less consistent. Don't get me wrong, their production is appreciated; but they have drifted in and out of games in my view. Clarkson should be getting closer to the net more often for shots and actually shoot more: his shots per game in the regular season was 2.78, in the playoffs it's been only 1.94. He's even passed up clear shots, which is uncharacteristic of Clarkson. Henrique has been better, particularly with his hustle; though he's been a sore spot on faceoffs and he could stand to generate more shots as well.
But neither player are disappointments. Patrik Elias, on the other hand, might be seen as one. Elias was a top scorer in the regular season, finishing tenth overall in points. In this postseason, he's got four goals and two assists - and his only point in the New York series was because a puck he deflected went off a Rangers skate and into the net. Elias has been great all season at playing against tough competition and winning those match-ups, and it's continued to an extent in the playoffs. It's not like he's been doing nothing good. However, as much as he's driven the play forward and as much as he has tried with 48 shots on net, he's clearly in a slump. DeBoer actually moved him out of the top six in Game 6 against New York and it appears he'll return to wing on the third line to start this series. I can't say this is a great move as I think Elias' awareness and defensive skills better suit him if he's in the middle of the ice. With some better luck, the production will come. Maybe we'll see DeBoer move him back later in the series. Nevertheless, if you're looking for a Devil who could stand to do more, look no further than Elias.
As far as the rest of the depth goes, the Devils can boast of having a superior fourth line. Without goons to hold them back, Stephen Gionta (three goals, four assists), Ryan Carter (four goals, two assists), and Steve Bernier (two goals, four assists) have been flying throughout these playoffs. They have nine goals between them and some of them were simply massive. Their approach is simple: get the puck in deep and swarm down low to create a few opportunities. Their possession numbers are terrible and they are prone to getting pinned like one would expect from a fourth line. Yet, they've gotten hot on offense and have had a couple of good possession shifts per game. I don't know whether they'll keep it up; but I didn't know they could after the Florida series and yet they rose again in the Eastern Conference Finals. Let's hope it continues, just like we should hope Kovalchuk, Parise, Zajac, and others put up points regardless of the lines. The depth in production would give the Devils an edge at forward, even though it's arguable the Kings have the better top two lines.
The Special Teams
The Kings have had an ruthlessly excellent penalty kill and a pop-gun-like power play in the 2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs. The Devils have been good, if inconsistent, on the power play, but their penalty kill hasn't been nearly as effective as they were during the regular season. Given that both teams are similar in net, on defense, and on offense, special teams could very well decide the series.
One has to think that the Kings will have to have better luck on their power play. Their conversion rate has been a disappointing 8.1%, with six goals scored on 74 opportunities. Digging deeper into shooting rates, the Kings have only generated 44.2 SF/60 in 5-on-4 situations, which isn't very good. One would think that a team with Kopitar, Brown, Carter, Richards, and Doughty among others would be able to at least generate quite a few shots. Then again, we thought that about last season's Devils power play and, well, that happened. The hope for New Jersey is that their power play continues to sputter. Their penalty kill has performed better since the Florida series. In 4-on-5 situations, the Devils have a SA/60 rate of 47.8, which is pretty good. What's been killing them is that they're not getting all of the breaks or out-of-nowhere saves that they got in the regular season, and so their success rate is a mere 74.2%. It also hasn't helped that the aggressive Devils penalty kill has yielded no shorthanded goals except for an empty netter by Salvador.
If anything, the Devils' regular season PK success can be found with LA. Quick has an excellent 90+% save percentage on the power play, the Kings have scored five shorthanded goals, their 4-on-5 SA/60 rate has been outstanding at 41.8, and their success rate is an astounding 91.2%. Like the Devils, the Kings put top forwards on their penalty kill like Kopitar, Richards, and Brown and the coaches told them to be aggressive to generate offensive opportunities. It's paid off real well. The Devils' pointmen - Zidlicky, Harrold, and Kovalchuk - will have to be particularly careful with the puck as the Kings forwards will press on any chance to get a rush. The Devils' power play units will also have to hope the Kings' PK fortunes will run out, or that their power play gets stronger. In the 2012 playoffs, the Devils' power play has been good. They have a conversion rate of 18.2% with 12 goals out of 66 opportunities. On top of that, their SF/60 rate in 5-on-4 play is 54.8, which is very good considering they struggled in this area during the regular season. Kovalchuk has been great on the power play with five power play goals. If he can continue to strike gold or others like Parise, Elias, or anyone else can make more conversions, then their chances of succeeding should improve - especially if even strength play turns out to be wash.
One other item of note: discipline. It's always unclear how the refs will call each game. However, it's worth noting that the Kings have taken an average of about 4 shorthanded situations per game, whereas the Devils average only 3.44. The Devils have gotten better and better about playing whistle to whistle and maintaining their composure on physical plays in this postseason. It's therefore entirely believable the Devils can get more chances on their power play. Then again, that's only valuable if the Devils' power play can figure out Quick and the Kings' excellent power play and if the refs actually call more penalties on LA than NJ. The latter is always a wild card.
Peter DeBoer and Darryl Sutter have went up against some of the best coaches in the league and came out victors. Nobody will question their acumen in the short term. Both Sutter and DeBoer favor an up-tempo style, an aggressive forecheck, and they got their respective teams to be superior in possession. DeBoer will enjoy having the last change; but that may not mean much given the Kings' 8-0 road record in this post season. Sutter has been just fine without the last change. How each respond to what the other does could also make or break the Stanley Cup Finals. DeBoer has been willing to change things up if something's not working or if a line or player isn't performing well. He has had his team come from behind in both games and series to ultimately move on in the playoffs. I believe there may be more pressure on Sutter if events don't go the Kings' way. A lot has gone right for LA since Sutter became the head coach; it'll be interesting to see how he and the team responds when something goes awry.
Now that you've read this monster of a series preview plus the series primer and our prediction post, I want to know what your take on the 2012 NHL Stanley Cup Finals. At this point, you've likely read so much about the Stanley Cup Finals series here and elsewhere that you wish it would begin already. I completely sympathize. Alas, we must wait one more day.
Until then, here's a series of questions to consider that will fill the time: What did you learn about either team in this preview that you didn't know before? Can the Devils beat Quick like they did to New York's starter? Who do you think has the edge on defense? What about at forward? Can the Devils possibly quiet the Kopitar line like they did to the top lines of Florida, Philadelphia, and New York? Will Elias get his groove back in time for the playoffs? Will Kovalchuk, Parise, and Zajac continue to produce? Who will be the better team on special teams? Do you (still) think the Devils have a chance against a really, really good Kings team to win the Stanley Cup? I know it's a lot, but feel free to pick and choose and give your answers in the comments. Also, please feel free to give your other thoughts about the Stanley Cup Finals and this preview in the comments. Thank you for reading.