No hockey pundit forecast this: tonight in Newark, the New Jersey Devils will host the Los Angeles Kings in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Finals. The Devils were the sixth seed from the Eastern conference and only the fourth best team in the Atlantic division; the Kings scraped into the playoffs as the West’s eighth seed. That they are now in equal reach of hockey’s most coveted prize is testament not just to the frenzied unpredictability of the NHL playoffs, but the importance of momentum in the course of a long, grueling NHL campaign. After middling seasons, both the Devils and the Kings peaked at just the right time.
In October, some commentators believed the talented Kings could be darkhorses to win it all. But they struggled for long stretches of the season, a stingy defense and excellent goaltending from Jonathan Quick betrayed by an anemic, woeful offense. At the trade deadline, though, Kings GM Dean Lombardi made perhaps the league’s most important mid-season deal, acquiring under-performing scoring winger Jeff Carter from the Columbus Blue Jackets, easily the worst team the NHL has seen in a while. Carter’s insertion into the lineup — and the Kings desperate scramble at the end of the regular season — got its forwards clicking again, and they carried that form into the playoffs.
Coming in as the lowest-ranked seed, the Kings blazed through the opposition, dismissing the league No. 1 Vancouver Canucks in five games, sweeping the West’s No. 2 team, St. Louis, and bowling over their Pacific division rivals Phoenix in five again to make the finals with a shockingly considerable level of ease. They’ve been near-perfect on road ice, which surely will play on the Devils’ minds going into the series.
New Jersey, for its part, was sputtering along halfway into the season, looking like it might slip from the playoff picture altogether. No one paid them much attention. The Devils are perhaps the least appreciated franchise in North American sports — despite years of success, including three Stanley Cups in a decade — they’ll always play second fiddle in their home state, both to their cross-river rivals, the New York Rangers, and turnpike neighbors the Philadelphia Flyers. But they found elite form at just the right time and blazed into the playoffs with one of the best late-season records in the league.
Still, few gave them much notice. It took an emphatic smackdown of the Flyers — who had just trounced the cup favorite Pittsburgh Penguins — in the second round to turn heads. And, in a series that no Devils fan will ever let a rival Blueshirt forget, they outfought and out-thought a fatigued New York Rangers side in the conference finals, claiming home ice against a Kings franchise that has yet to win a cup in its 45-year history.
Three Stanley Cup storylines:
Brodeur vs. Quick: In this encounter, it’s a battle between the man and the boy. But virtually any athlete is a kid compared to the Devils’ 40-year-old Martin Brodeur, who, in the whirring machine that is the Devils team, is the one part that has never been changed over the past two decades. Sure, Brodeur has been backed up by a great defense in front of him over the years, but he will retire in the coming years as arguably the greatest, most consistent goalie in the history of the sport. He was at his wily, energetic best against the Rangers. Quick, 26, on the other hand, is the goalie of the moment: no one has been better than him in the playoffs.
The Two Ex-Flyers: Last summer, the two single biggest off-season moves were both made by the Philadelphia Flyers when they traded away two top forwards and fan favorites in Mike Richards (to Los Angeles) and the aforementioned Carter (to Columbus). With Richards and Carter now reunited in Tinseltown, the pair have a chance to continue their Philly story by achieving a measure of revenge for the Flyers and their long suffering, easily over-excited fanbase.
Kovalchuck or Kovalchoke?: The Devils aren’t usually a team with one standout superstar, but in Ilya Kovalchuck they have one of the league’s most dynamic, mercurial talents. The speedy Russian has not been reared in the famed Devils system and has saddled the franchise with an eye-popping 15-year contract. And while his performance has been decent in the playoffs, he and other top Devils forwards were bailed out, especially against the Rangers, by the surprising play of other bit-part third- and fourth-liners in the team. Against the stingy, relentless Kings, the Devils need Kovalchuck to rise up to his marquee potential.