The New Jersey Devils are definitely not going into this final as the favourites.
All one has to do is look at the various polls, pundit picks and Vegas odds around the internet this week to see that the Los Angeles Kings are being taken to win the Stanley Cup by between 70 and 80 per cent of interested parties.
This particular image gives you an idea of just how compelling a pick the Kings have been for everyone not living in New Jersey.
There are good reasons to like the Kings, too.
They play in the tougher conference. They have a Vezina calibre goaltender. They had a coaching change and a key addition (Jeff Carter) in midseason that helped turn things around.
And they have rolled through the Western Conference in becoming only the seventh team to lose just twice in the first three rounds.
They very well could win.
Acknowledging all that, I’m still going to pick the Devils in seven games. This is the year of the underdog, and I think that’ll continue.
Here are five reasons why:
1. Their forecheck will frustrate
New Jersey has been underestimated in every series since the first round and part of the reason is their success isn’t easy to quantify. They have a no-name defence, an aging netminder and few “stars” beyond the two obvious ones up front. What was very clear against the Rangers, however, was the Devils dominance along the boards and on the forecheck, something that could be a problem for a few of the Kings less mobile defencemen. Neither team has an all-star cast so something as simple as keeping the puck hemmed in the offensive zone will be key. New Jersey has been doing that better than anyone in these playoffs.
2. Experience counts
With an average age of 30, the Devils are the greybeards of these playoffs and have been through a couple playoff wars already. The Kings are basically the rookies and have been relatively untested despite facing a No. 1 and 2 seed. Both teams have four players who have won Stanley Cups and gone deep into the postseason, but New Jersey has a nice mix of veterans who’ve been there before and those who are desperate in what might be their last chance to win. This is a very hungry team – and as Lou Lamoriello said Tuesday, they have the best team chemistry he's ever seen.
3. Scoring depth
Before Dwight King broke out for four goals in three games in Round 3, Los Angeles really hadn’t received any offensive production from its depth forwards – which is a continuation of a trend that’s been a problem the past two regular seasons for the franchise. The Kings lean heavily on their top two lines, and while that’s been working so far, Devils coach Peter DeBoer and staff have found ways to neutralize stars like Claude Giroux and Brad Richards already in these playoffs. If their top line and defence pairing can keep the Brown-Kopitar-Williams trio relatively quiet, New Jersey has an edge deeper in its lineup with the way its second, third and fourth lines have been producing. (And at some point Patrik Elias, who was tied for 10th in scoring during the season, will join in.)
4. They’re disciplined
The Devils were shorthanded 35 fewer times than the Kings during the season and were the least penalized team in the NHL a year earlier. New Jersey does discipline better than most, and they won’t lose their composure the way the Canucks or Coyotes did in the face of the somewhat abrasive style Los Angeles will throw at them. That’s not the Lou Lamoriello way. (The only thing they have to worry about in this department is getting scored on shorthanded, which is a team weakness and a Kings speciality.)
5. The Brodeur factor
Yes he’s 40. And I did list goaltending as a weakness for the Devils, statistically speaking, in our series “tale of the tape” preview. But Martin Brodeur had a .927 save percentage in outplaying Henrik Lundqvist in Round 3, is playing the puck like a third defenceman as well as he ever has and will not be rattled by being in the finals for a fifth time. If Tim Thomas and Dwayne Roloson could excel in the playoffs last year at similar ages, why not Brodeur? And don't rule out Jonathan Quick, who has one of the highest playoff save percentages ever right now, faltering in the finals.