The 2012 Stanley Cup Finals will get underway tonight, as the New Jersey Devils host the Los Angeles Kings in Game 1 at the Prudential Center in Newark.
The Devils are in the Cup Finals for the first time since winning their last championship in 2003. New Jersey entered the playoffs as the sixth seed in the East, but ultimately earned a berth in this round after disposing of the top- seeded New York Rangers in six games during the conference finals.
While New Jersey ended its previous series with a win on Friday night, the Kings have been idle since finishing off Phoenix in Game 5 of the Western Conference finals on May 22. Los Angeles, the No. 8 seed out West, is in the Stanley Cup Finals for the second time in franchise history. The club's other trip to hockey's biggest came in 1993, when the Kings lost in five games to Montreal.
Los Angeles is also the second No. 8 seed to make it this far since the NHL's postseason switched to the current playoff format in 1993-94. The 2006 Edmonton Oilers were the other eighth seed to qualify for the Cup Finals and they wound up losing in seven games to Carolina.
The Kings have compiled a stellar 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 amazing 8-0 record as the guest and the Kings will put that road dominance to test again tonight.
Los Angeles has outscored the opposition by a 30-13 margin on the road this postseason and the Kings are the first team in NHL history to win eight straight as the guest in one playoff year.
However, the Devils, who will also host Game 2 of this series on Saturday, hardly have been a pushover on home ice this postseason, compiling a 6-2 record at the Prudential Center this spring.
Perhaps the biggest reason both teams are in the Stanley Cup Finals is the play of the club's starting goaltenders.
Devils netminder Martin Brodeur has led New Jersey to all three of its Stanley Cup titles (1995, 1999, 2003), and at 40 years of age, he seems primed to go for a fourth crown. 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 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 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.
"You never know when you're going to get here or when you're going to come back again," Kopitar said at Tuesday's off-day press conference. "Right now everybody is really excited to get going. I think it's obviously going to be fun and hard working at the same time. We have to make sure we're ready."
While the Devils have certainly benefited from Brodeur's solid postseason, the club's real strength also 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.
"It's excitement really. A little nervous," Parise said about being in the Finals for the first time. "Maybe today now going through all this, but I guess it hasn't really sunk in that we're in the Final yet. But we got a lot of work. That's the thought process. We got a lot of work to do. We know how great a team L.A. is."
On the injury front, both the Devils and Kings could have players return from months-long absences in this series. For New Jersey that player is defenseman Henrik Tallinder, who last played on Jan. 17 due to a blood clot in his left leg, but has been cleared for action in Game 1. It's unclear if Devils head coach Peter DeBoer will opt to put Tallinder in the lineup tonight or stick with the defensive rotation that has gotten his team this far.
Meanwhile, Kings forward Simon Gagne has been out since late December with a concussion, but 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. Like DeBoer has been regarding Tallinder, Kings head coach Darryl Sutter has not said one way or another what his plans are for Gagne in this series.
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. Patrik Elias and Dainius 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.