The Kings — who obviously haven’t gotten over Marty McSorley’s illegal stick penalty against the Canadiens in 1993 — invade Newark on Thursday to play the Devils for the Stanley Cup championship, a matchup no one could have predicted in April. There are no ghosts from the Montreal Forum to haunt the Kings this time and many believe they are a lock to win their first Cup in franchise history. But if the unpredictability of these playoffs have taught us anything, it’s don’t award a series to a team before they start to play.
So with that said, here are some little battles to watch for as the Devils and Kings square off. It’s not an exhaustive list, just some highlights.
1) Battle of the forecheckers — Both these teams like to play deep in the other team’s end and wear the opposition down. If they stick to what got them here, they will show some subtle differences, however. The Kings like to get the puck to the slot as quickly as they can and feel they can dominate there while the Devils pound it deep, grind it around on the outside until they can get it to the point and then get it to the net.
The challenge for the Devils is for their defence to battle in the slot against the big Kings forwards. The challenge for the Kings is whether they will get drawn out from the middle of the ice, where they like to play, to the boards where the Devils like to play. If they move out, that will take them away from their strength and if they stay in the middle, it will allow New Jersey to move the puck more freely.
2) Battle of the depth forwards — The third and fourth liners on each club have been impressive and productive. You don’t get this far in the postseason without that. Which group of depth forwards will be better? The answer to that may go a long way to determining who wins the Cup.
3) Battle of the goalies –– Local boy Marty Brodeur had struggled during the season; his save percentage was only .908; it’s .923 in the playoffs and while he doesn’t always look as solid as he used to, he’s getting the job done and that’s all the Devils need. His still-superior puckhandling could be big factor in that first point, thwarting the Kings’ forecheck, if he can get to their shoot-ins and move the puck to a safer area.
Connecticut product Johnathan Quick, whose uncanny flexibility and lateral movement will likely be the subject of many video replays on the telecasts, uses those gifts to search for pucks through traffic and he’s been pretty great at stopping them. If Brodeur has raised his game, so has Quick — his save percentage in the regular season was .929 and it’s now a Tim Thomas-like .946. But his puckhandling is an adventure and in the experience department, there’s no comparison between the two. Will either of those things matter?
4) The special teams battle — The Kings power play is awful, 6-for-74, a measly 8.1 percent, and it’s something they’ve worked on during their break between series (and keep in mind the Bruins won the Cup last year with a pretty unproductive power play). But their penalty kill has been brilliant, allowing only 5 goals in 57 chances, a 91.2 percent clip. And they have five shorthanded goals. Because the Devils like to put Ilya Kovalchuk on the point with the extra man, they could be ripe for a shortie or two this round.
On the other hand, New Jersey’s power play has been pretty good with 12 PPGs in 66 chances, an 18.2 rate. Their PK stats aren’t very good, but that is because they were hammered in the first round by the Panthers, who got 9 power play goals in 27 chances. It was a poor performance from the team that was best in the NHL on the PK during the regular season. Since then, they have killed 28 of 35, a bit more respectable at 80 percent.
5) Battle of the coaches — The Kings Darryl Sutter coaches a very basic style. He’s meat and potatoes, with not a lot of complicated terminology or concepts. You’re either doing a good job in the basics of your role or you’re not. It certainly has worked for him, as the Kings are 37-13-11 including playoffs since he took over. He’s somehow managed to get Dustin Penner to be an effective NHLer again and he’s been a calming presence behind the net as he turned the offense loose after frustrating years of Terry Murray’s more passive approach without losing the Kings defensive footing.
By contrast, the Devils Pete DeBoer — who also turned his teams offense loose — is more technically oriented and he’s been highly praised highly be the Kings Mike Richards, who says DeBoer taught him how to win when he played for DeBoer as a junior in Kitchener where they won the 2003 Memorial Cup and gold for Canada in the 2005 World Junior Championship (where DeBoer was an assistant coach). He’s also got two excellent assistants with him who think the game quite well too in Adam Oates and Larry Robinson. Larry’s work with the unheralded Devils defense corps has deservedly drawn raves. If there’s any adversity encountered by New Jersey, Robinson’s nine Cups as a player and coach will help them refocus.
DEVILS PROBABLE LINEUP
Zach Parise, Travis Zajac, Dainius Zubrus
Patrik Elias, Adam Henrique, Ilya Kovalchuk
Alexei Ponikarovsky, Jacob Josefson, David Clarkson
Ryan Carter, Stephen Gionta, Steve Bernier
Andy Greene, Mark Fayne
Bryce Salvador, Marek Zidlicky
Anton Volchenkov, Peter Harrold
KINGS PROBABLE LINEUP
Dustin Brown, Anze Kopitar, Justin Williams
Dustin Penner, Mike Richards, Jeff Carter
Dwight King, Jarret Stoll, Trevor Lewis
Brad Richardson, Colin Fraser, Jordan Nolan
Rob Scuderi, Drew Doughty
Willie Mitchell, Slava Voynov
Alec Martinez, Matt Greene