Despite posting 102 points during the regular season, the New Jersey Devils quietly entered this postseason as the sixth seed in the East.
After going seven games with the Florida Panthers in the opening round, the Devils have been getting stronger throughout this postseason. New Jersey eliminated fifth-seeded Philadelphia in five games in Round 2 before taking out the top-seeded New York Rangers in six games to win the Eastern Conference title.
Now, the Devils are in their first Stanley Cup Finals since they won it all in 2003 and they can thank balanced scoring, strong goaltending and a relentless forecheck for their spot in the final round.
Perhaps the biggest reason New Jersey had made it this far is the fact that goaltender Martin Brodeur has rediscovered his postseason touch. The 40-year- old led the Devils to Cup titles in 1995, 2000 and 2003, but the club won only two playoff series from 2004-11 before breaking out of its slump in this postseason.
With a win over Los Angeles this year, Brodeur could become the ninth player in NHL history and the second goaltender to win Stanley Cups in three different decades. Patrick Roy, a native of Montreal like Brodeur, is the lone goalie to achieve the feat.
Brodeur played in 59 games during the 2011-12 regular season and had a respectable 31-21-4 record to go with a 2.41 goals-against average and .908 save percentage. In the 2012 playoffs, however, the future Hall of Famer is 12-5 with a 2.01 GAA and .923 save percentage. Brodeur, who is considered to be one of the best stickhandling goaltenders in NHL history, has also recorded four assists in this year's playoffs, setting a league record for most helpers by a goalie in a single postseason.
While the Devils have certainly benefited from Brodeur's solid postseason, the club's real strength resides in an impressive group of forwards. Wingers Ilya Kovalchuk and Zach Parise are the biggest names up front, but New Jersey has received goals from 15 different players in this year's playoffs and 10 skaters (9 forwards, 1 defenseman) have posted three or more markers.
Kovalchuk, Parise and top centerman Travis Zajac led the team with seven goals apiece. Kovalchuk is pacing the Devils with 18 total points, Parise is next with 14 and Zajac is third with 12 points.
This postseason has gone a long way towards vindicating Kovalchuk. The 29- year-old Russian has been one of the league's best snipers for the last decade, but Kovy never made it past the first round of the playoffs until this year.
Parise, meanwhile, is set to become an unrestricted free agent at the end of this season and New Jersey's captain could be entering his final days with the team that drafted him in the first round back in 2003. If Parise does ultimately go elsewhere, winning his first Stanley Cup would be a perfect way to end his tenure with the Devils.
Patrik Elias, who has already won two Stanley Cups with New Jersey, has four goals and two assists in the 2012 playoffs. Brodeur and Elias are the only two players remaining from the Devils' 2003 championship team.
Ryan Carter also has four goals and two helpers, while Adam Henrique, David Clarkson, Dainius Zubrus and Stephen Gionta each have three goals. Henrique, a finalist for this year's Calder Trophy as the league's top rookie, delivered the OT winner in Game 6 against the Rangers.
The biggest surprise for the Devils in this year's playoffs has to be the offensive production coming from defenseman Bryce Salvador. The 36-year-old had three goals and one assist in 50 career playoff games entering this postseason, but has exploded for three goals and 11 points in 18 games this spring. Salvador is also leading New Jersey with a plus-10 rating
Marek Zidlicky, who leads New Jersey in ice time this postseason, has also delivered one goal and seven assists in this year's playoffs.
Overall, Devils head coach Peter DeBoer has been able to keep the minutes of his defensemen down so far in this postseason. Zidlicky is averaging 24 minutes, 8 seconds per game, while Salvador, Andy Greene and Mark Fayne are the only other blueliners to average 20-plus minutes a night.
With 2.83 goals per game, only Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and the Kings have averaged more offense per contest in this postseason. New Jersey has scored 12 of its 51 goals on the power play and has registered a solid 18.2-percent success rate on the man advantage this season.
For some reason, the Devils have struggled on the penalty kill in the 2012 playoffs after leading all NHL teams in that category during the regular season. New Jersey killed off 89.6 percent of its penalties in 2011-12, but is at 74.2 percent for the playoffs.
LOS ANGELES KINGS (8th seed, West)
REGULAR SEASON RECORD: 40-27-15
2012 PLAYOFFS: Defeated Vancouver 4-1 in conference quarterfinals; defeated St. Louis 4-0 in conference semifinals; defeated Phoenix 4-1 in conference finals.
(Sports Network) - While New Jersey's run to this year's Stanley Cup Finals has been a mild surprise, what the eighth-seeded Kings just achieved out West is flat-out shocking.
Although it could be argued that the Kings are an eighth seed in name only -- after all they did finishing only two points out of a division title -- the way L.A. tore through the Western Conference playoffs was simply stunning.
The Kings have compiled a 12-2 record in this year's playoffs while defeating the West's top three seeds (Vancouver, St. Louis and Phoenix) in convincing fashion. Along the way, L.A. has posted an 8-0 record on the road and has outscored the opposition by a 41-22 margin. Not bad for a team that was just happy to be in the playoffs when the regular season ended in April.
Los Angeles will try to keep up its dominating postseason and win the franchise's first-ever Stanley Cup in the club's second trip to the final round. The Kings, who could become the first No. 8 seed to win it all, lost in five games to Montreal in the franchise's other run to the Cup Finals in 1993.
While legendary scorer Wayne Gretzky was the undisputed leader of the Kings back in '93, this team is built from the net out with goaltender Jonathan Quick installed as the club's best asset.
After a regular season that earned him one of three Vezina Trophy finalist spots, Quick has performed even better in the playoffs. The 26-year-old American has topped 384 of the 406 shots sent his way this postseason, compiling a 1.54 GAA and .946 save percentage. Quick has also recorded two shutouts in these playoffs.
In the regular season, when scoring goals was a major issue for L.A., the club relied heavily on Quick to give them a chance to win, but the offense has been formidable in the postseason.
All told, the Kings have received goals from 15 different players, but the team's top line has been the driving force for the offense. Centerman Anze Kopitar and wingers Dustin Brown and Justin Williams have combined to post 15 goals and 42 points in the playoffs. Brown, the team's captain, is leading his club in goals (7) and points (16) and all three linemates are tied for the team lead with nine assists.
Brown and Kopitar, who is second on the team with six goals, are also tops on L.A. with plus-13 ratings.
Another formidable line for the Kings has been the unit of Mike Richards, Jeff Carter and Dustin Penner. Carter and Richards, of course, had both spent their entire careers with the Philadelphia Flyers before getting traded in separate deals last summer. Richards was dealt to the Kings, while Carter was traded to Columbus before landing in L.A. at this season's deadline. Both Richards and Carter, who helped Philadelphia reach the Cup Finals in 2010, have four goals each in this postseason.
Penner, meanwhile, has three goals and 10 points in this year's playoffs and he scored the OT winner and series' clincher in Game 5 of the West finals against Phoenix.
Also producing timely goals for the Kings this postseason has been rookie forward Dwight King, who has five goals, including two game-winners. King scored four times against the Coyotes in the last round.
Kings forward Simon Gagne, who has been out since late December with a concussion, has returned to practice and is available to play in this series. The former Flyers and Tampa Bay Lightning winger has 37 goals in 105 career playoff games.
L.A.'s most dynamic player at the back end is defenseman Drew Doughty, who at 22 years of age has already been a finalist for the Norris Trophy and won an Olympic Gold Medal. Doughty has two goals and eight assists in this year's playoffs and is leading the Kings' blue line with an average ice time of 25:52 per game.
Although not blessed with Doughty's offensive prowess, Willie Mitchell is an invaluable member of L.A.'s blue line and is averaging 25:27 of ice time per contests. Rob Scuderi is the only other Kings' defenseman logging over 20 minutes per ice, but Matt Greene, Alec Martinez and rookie Slava Voynov round out a solid group of blueliners.
The only weakness L.A. has displayed on its amazing run to the Cup Finals has been the team's inability to score on the power play. The Kings have scored only six goals on 74 chances with the man advantage for a paltry 8.1-percent success rate. Helping offset the struggles on the power play is the fact that L.A. has posted five short-handed goals this postseason and has allowed only five power-play goals while killing off 91.2 percent of its penalties.
When the playoffs began well over a month ago, it's safe to say that the Kings and Devils were not picked by many to win their respective conferences. However, the Stanley Cup playoffs are hockey's ultimate proving ground and both L.A. and New Jersey certainly have changed the perception of their teams in the 2012 postseason.
This year's Cup Finals marks the first-ever playoff battle between the Kings and Devils and the teams only met twice during the 2011-12 regular season. New Jersey and L.A. faced each other twice in October and the Devils won both contests, taking a 2-1 shootout decision at home on Oct. 13 and posting a 3-0 victory in Los Angeles on Oct. 25. Elias and Zubrus had two goals each in the season series for New Jersey, while Gagne had the lone goal for L.A.
Quick stopped 36-of-37 shots in a losing effort against New Jersey on Oct. 13. Brodeur only faced L.A. for 20 minutes in the regular season, leaving the Oct. 13 game after one period due to body soreness.
As the team with less points during the regular season, L.A., which is 8-0 as the guest in this postseason, will have to continue to play excellent road hockey to win this series. The Devils are 6-2 as the host in this year's playoffs.
New Jersey's previous opponents in this postseason found it difficult to possess the puck against the pressure of the Devils' forecheck, but L.A. has the personnel to end that trend.
Although Brodeur is a first-ballot Hall of Famer who has played solid hockey this spring, the Kings still hold the advantage between the pipes with Quick. Unlike L.A.'s offense, which was dormant for most of the regular season, Quick has been terrific all season long. There is no doubt he'll receive a tough test from New Jersey's solid group of forwards in the final stage, but once again, Quick will make the difference for the Kings.
Sports Network predicted outcome: Kings in 6