No. 6 New Jersey Devils vs. No. 8 Los Angeles Kings
It's been a long time since two teams seemingly came out of nowhere like this to vie for the Stanley Cup. On one hand, you have the Kings, who got hot at the end of the regular season and have parlayed that momentum into complete domination of their Western Conference opponents. Very few thought they'd beat the top-seeded Canucks, but they did.
Most people thought the Kings would get shut down by the Blues' excellent goaltending tandem. However, St. Louis could not stop Los Angeles. Then, after some of those naysayers had come around, there were still detractors who felt Coyotes goaltender Mike Smith would be too much for the Kings' offense. He was not.
Los Angeles is an incredibly fast team that can beat you in several different ways. The Kings are getting great contributions from captain Dustin Brown (16 points), and Anze Kopitar (15 points). Ergo, the team has the capability to win in high-scoring affairs.
However, what really makes Los Angeles scary is that when it isn't firing on all cylinders offensively, goalie Jonathan Quick (1.54 goals-against-average, and .946 save percentage) has been incredible. When you have a team that is playing this well top to bottom, it is going to be a very difficult out, as the rest of the Western Conference has learned. The Kings presently have their best chance to win the franchise's first Stanley Cup.
Then there's New Jersey. A team that was considered an afterthought going into the postseason, but that has played so well during this postseason run that it has knocked out two consensus Cup favorites. The Devils seemed shaky against the Panthers, winning only on an overtime goal in Game 7. Most thought Philadelphia would roll over New Jersey with its tremendously fast offensive game.
That's when the Devils truly unveiled their frustrating, and amazingly effective, forecheck-trap defense. They are not going to win many five or six goal games, mainly because they aren't going to be involved in them. New Jersey showed the league that not only can it shut down one of the finest offensive teams in Philadelphia, but also a more balanced team in the New York Rangers in the Eastern Conference finals.
Many people might point to the fact that the Devils has played more games than the Kings, and thus will be more tired for this round. However, all New Jersey has done is prove that the experts aren't playing the game on the ice.
What's greatly impressed me in these playoffs has been the play of forward Ilya Kovalchuk. Here is a player who previously hadn't been known for his postseason abilities. Granted, he was only there once in Atlanta, but he just never displayed the abilities to take over games when his team needed him the most.
However, Kovalchuk has been sensational this year. He currently leads the tournament in scoring with 18 points, and would be in the running for the Conn Smythe trophy as playoff MVP should New Jersey win it all.
However, there can't be a discussion about the Conn Smythe without mentioning the goaltender who you never count out of a seven-game series: Martin Brodeur. He has been his normal postseason self, posting a 2.04 goals-against-average, and a .923 save percentage. There are those who will claim that his success has been due to the Devils defensive system, and while that may have some merit, Brodeur makes the key saves when his team needs him. That's the difference between Martin Brodeur and above-average goaltenders.
This series, like most this year could go either way. Both teams are surging coming into the series, and don't appear to have many weaknesses. You've got the Kings' high-flying offensive system against the Devils' relentless forechecking system. I feel the balance of momentum will shift several times in this series, but ultimately, the more balanced team will win.
Prediction: Kings in seven and Jonathan Quick wins the Conn Smythe trophy.