After eliminating the Phoenix Coyotes in the NHL's Western Conference final back on Tuesday, the Los Angeles Kings finally learned who they would be playing for the Stanley Cup. It'll be Lou Lamoriello's New Jersey Devils, a team with more than its share of ties to the Kings' organization, from top to bottom.
Kings centre Mike Richards won a Memorial Cup in Kitchener playing for Devils' coach Peter DeBoer and alongside Devils' forward David Clarkson. Kings defenceman Willie Mitchell was drafted by New Jersey and learned the art of defence from an organization that essentially perfected the craft two decades ago. Kings' general manager Dean Lombardi considers Lamoriello one of his primary mentors in the game. Richards and Kings' defenceman Drew Doughty played with goaltender Martin Brodeur on Canada's 2010 men's Olympic championship team. Kings captain Dustin Brown played with Zach Parise on the U.S. runner-up team.
The Kings, the third-place finishers in the Pacific Division, and Devils, fourth-place finishers in the Atlantic met twice previously this season, both games won by New Jersey. However, they were played back in the first month, when Terry Murray was still coaching the Kings and they were still in the process of sorting themselves out. It's a different club now, riding high at 12-2 thus far in the playoffs, with a new look and a different coach in Darryl Sutter.
"They got a lot of skill up front," said Sutter. "They have so many fast, skilled guys. They've got big wingers. They got the veterans on defence and they've got, depending upon who you talk to, the greatest goalie of all time (Martin Brodeur)."
Brodeur is 40 and Jonathan Quick, his opposite number in the Kings' goal, is just 26. Brodeur's next playoff game will be the 200th of his career; Quick's will be his 25th.
So there's a demonstrable experience edge for Brodeur, although Brodeur won his first of three Stanley Cups in 1995 at the age of 23. This will be Brodeur's fifth trip to the finals; and Quick's first. Thus far in 12 games, Quick has the better personal stats – a 1.54 GAA, a .946 save percentage compared to Brodeur's 2.04 GAA and .923 save percentage.
How does Quick's current form stack up against Brodeur and his lengthy resume?
"You don't get here without goaltending," replied Sutter. "Jersey-Rangers. LA-Phoenix. Four best players, four goalies, right?"
Few players know the Devils better than the Kings' ex-Philadelphia connection – which consists of Jeff Carter, Mike Richards and Simon Gagne. According to Carter, the 2012 Devils "are still playing that strong defensive game, but if you look at the guys they added up front, with (Ilya) Kovalchuk and those types of guys, they're definitely more offensive than they have been in past years."
From leading the Flames to the 2004 Stanley Cup final, Sutter has some experience in handling the balance between rest and rust. The Kings will skate again Sunday, travel Monday, meet the press Tuesday and then finally start the final Wednesday night in Newark.
There was a far greater sense of urgency in Saturday's practice compared to earlier in the week, when the Kings were more in recovery mode. The session included a mini-scrimmage and finished up with some old-school, hard skating drills for conditioning purposes.
Brodeur joked after Friday's victory that after riding nothing but buses for the last two rounds, he and his teammates will be happy to eventually get on a plane. By Western Conference standards, the Kings have had decent travel thus far in the playoffs too. Monday's flight takes just under six hours, which according to Sutter, is long enough to tax the body physically.
Sutter said he started getting used to the travel in his days with the San Jose Sharks.
"The toughest part is not going, but coming back," said Sutter. "Everybody's different, but when you look at the schedule, the Saturday-Monday is a tough turnaround, for both teams. If you go eight o'clock, then five o'clock, that's a tough turnaround. Even if it's just a normal game and you only play three periods, you're not getting out of there until midnight. So you're getting in here at 3 in the morning, with the time change, and then you turn it around and play the next day at 5. That's the toughest part of the series, right there."