The best thing about the NHL playoffs is that almost anything can truly happen in a seven-game series. When the sample size is that small, there are so many things that can occur. Any goalie can get hot and steal a series for a lesser team, a player or a line can tear it up after a disappointing season or the league's best powerplay can dry up and it will decide the outcome of a series for some teams. This is why the "best team" during the regular season doesn't always win the Cup. The higher seeded team is always at an advantage, yes but a lot of other things need to go right for them if they want to win it all. There are just so many different things that can go right or wrong for any team in a series that it makes most predictions look foolish in the end.
The idea that "anything can happen" has never been more true this post-season as the Stanley Cup Final is between the 6th and 8th seeds from their respected conferences and the eight seed might be the favorite going in. That team would be the Los Angeles Kings, who have made short work of their playoff opponents by defeating all three in just 14 short games. The higher seeded team, the New Jersey Devils, finished fourth in the Atlantic Division in the regular season but here they are in the Finals now. The Devils were perceived to be a weaker team than the Rangers and the Flyers but they managed to get past them in 11 games which was partially due to luck and the Devils being a better team than their seeding indicates. Just like how the Kings are a better team than what most 8 seeds are considered to be.
This is why I'm against making predictions for the most part. I like going into a series knowing that anything can happen and that a huge upset might be just around the corner. It seems that mindset has been in line with this year's playoffs more than any other season in recent memory and the final matchup this year is one that could go in either direction. Therefore, any prediction I make can easily end up being completely different from what I think will happen, but I'm going to make one anyway.
Find out what I have to say about this year's final after the jump.
Regular Season Matchup
Here are some numbers from the regular season to show how the Kings and Devils match up against each other.
A point that has been repeated by the stat community is that the Kings have been a dominant possession team at even strength this year but have been on the short end of the stick with shooting luck. Despite their scoring issues, the Kings were able to get into the playoffs on the back of Jonathan Quick and his incredible season. Once they made it, they started to look like the team some pundits predicted them to be. What makes the Kings so dangerous is that they are one of the very few teams since the lockout to be this good at even strength and have elite goaltending on top of that. It's the reason why a lot of people aren't surprised by the "upsets" they've managed to pull off this post-season.
That being said, the Devils have also been a good possession team this year and have and were a slightly better team on special teams, as well. You also can't discount the way the Devils have played in the post-season either. New Jersey beat down a very good Flyers team and the main reason for it was their ability to crush them at even strength play. They also had a slight advantage over the Rangers in territorial play over the Rangers in the Eastern Conference Finals, so the Devils aren't going to completely roll over. The Kings should be able to win the battle at even strength, though. As good as the Devils have played, I think LA has the advantage in overall play at even strength.
Special teams might be a more interesting story because neither team's powerplay was very good during the regular season and the Kings' has been just awful in the playoffs. They have been only 8.1% successful with the man advantage during the post-season and created only 17 scoring chances in 43 minutes of 5-on-4 time in their series with the Coyotes. The Devils' powerplay has been much more effective in the playoffs both at scoring and getting shots on net, but the Kings PK has been equally as good, if not better.
Going by the two team's playoff stats, both have been very good at controlling play at even strength so special teams could be how this series is decided. You have the Devils hot powerplay against a stout penalty kill from the Kings and an under performing LA powerplay against a Devils PK unit that has been only 74.2% successful. The Devils overall PK numbers are still feeling the effects of that first round series against Florida where they were torched but they do appear to be giving up a lot of shots against. With that being said, the Kings powerplay hasn't been creating many chances or shots even though they have four all-world talents playing regularly on their first unit. It's tough to figure out what is wrong there but the Kings might need to fix that if they can't win the even strength battle. As for who has the advantage on special teams, that is a tough call because you have a hot powerplay against a great PK and a mediocre powerplay against a somewhat weak penalty kill. I actually think the Devils might have a slight advantage here even though I think the talent the Kings have on their powerplay shouldn't be underestimated. Like the even strength matchup, this could go either way.
The biggest challenge for the Devils is going to be shutting down the Anze Kopitar line. They have looked like an unstoppable force at times this post-season and it doesn't look like they are going to slow down any time soon. They've been dominating territorial play at even strength and are also putting up a lot of points. They will probably be the most dangerous line in this series and if the Devils don't have an answer for them, then this could be a quick series. Just ask the Canucks, Blues and Coyotes.
After that, instincts will tell you that the Carter-Richards-Penner line will be the Devils' next concern and while these three have been scoring, they aren't exactly creating a ton of offense at even strength. In fact, they seem to be getting hammered in their own end more times than not and are riding the luck train to keep them above water. The Kings have been shooting at above 11% when those three are on the ice and Quick has been stopping most of the shots he sees, which has buoyed their numbers a little bit. If they continue to get the tough matches, then they are going to need to play a hell of a lot better. There's a good chance that Darryl Sutter may match them up with Travis Zajac's line and it's going to be hard for them to come away unscathed against them.
The Kings' scoring depth is another thing that's been talked about this post-season and most of it is concerning their third line of Dwight King, Trevor Lewis and Jarret Stoll. however, like the Richards line, they haven't been controlling play and are seeing a lot of bounces go in their favor. Stoll usually takes a lot of tough draws, but he's still been bad at driving possession despite that. Their fourth line has been much more effective at gauging possession but they are getting some very easy ice time on top of that.
The tough matchups have been split between the Doughty/Scuderi and Voynov/Mitchell pairings with the former performing slightly better. Mitchell was LA's best defenseman in the Phoenix series but Doughty & Scuderi have been better overall. Both are very reliable defense pairings and gives the Kings a nice luxury of having two units they can use against the Devils' top six. Voynov might be a rookie but he has handled himself well this post-season and should be fine playing next to an experienced veteran like Mitchell.
Their third pairing, however, has been under some extreme protection and can be taken advantage of if there's a bad line change or a poor matchup. One thing that can be said about them is that they are getting the job done with the easy minutes they've been assigned. We'll see how they fair against the Devils third line which is stronger than what most teams send out and might be able to exploit this pairing if their success is completely built on being used in favorable situations.
The Devils have been controlling even strength play at a very high rate this post-season so Pete DeBoer isn't exactly protecting most of his forwards in terms of zone starts. However, he has been letting the Zajac line get some of the easier matchups and you can see that both him and Zach Parise are getting the job done at even strength. Ilya Kovalchuk is a different story, though. He hasn't been dominant at controlling possession but the Devils are shooting at only 6.5% at ven strength when he's on the ice. There's been some suspicion that he's playing through an injury and that's affected his performance but he hasn't gotten many bounces to go his way either. Judging from how DeBoer has deployed his forwards this season, he will probably try to get these three away from the Kopitar line and possibly match them up against either Stoll or Richards.
The unit that will probably get matched up against the Kopitar line is the second line anchored by Patrik Elias. He has been relied upon for the shutdown role this year and he's been doing a damn fine job at it along with Dainus Zubrus. My guess is that Adam Henrique might get bumped up to this line, too since Petr Sykora is injured and Josefson will probably be centering the third or fourth line. The third line has been getting some easier minutes in terms of who they are matched up against and both Clarkson and Ponikarovsky are doing a pretty good job in this role.
As for the Devils fourth line, they lit up the scoresheet a bit in the Rangers series but Bernier, Gionta and Carter are getting destroyed territorially. DeBoer has shown a lot of confidence in them by using them against other team's top lines but they seem to be over-matched against that kind of competition. Maybe that's the sacrifice you take when you give easier minutes to the first line? Either way, this matchup looks like something the Kings might be able to exploit if they play their cards right.
It's tough to figure out which defense pairing DeBoer will use against the Kopitar line but from the looks of things, Anton Volchenkov has been getting the tough matchups even though he doesn't play as many minutes as the rest of the defense. Their top defense pairing has been Zidlicky/Salvador so I would expect them to play against the toughs, as well. Salvador has had some trouble with keeping the puck out of his own end but Marty Brodeur and the rest of his team have bailed him out more than a few times. Zidlicky has been the better half of that pairing and his puck-moving skills give the Devils breakout game a huge boost.
The Kings might be able to get some favorable matchups against the Devils defense because the guys who have played tough minutes for them have had a rough time keeping their heads above water while the more sheltered players have prospered. I would have thought that Fayne and Greene would get tougher matchups since they play so many minutes but that hasn't been the case in the playoffs for whatever season. They are doing well in their role but they might need to do more if oen of theri other pairings can't handle the Kings' first line. That's my main concern with the Devils overall but they managed to survive Claude Giroux and Brad Richards in the previous rounds. Can they do the same with Kopitar?
This could go in either direction because any goalie can get hot during the playoffs. Quick is having a tremendous season and that has carried over into the playoffs but Brodeur's performance at even strength has also been great in the post-season. Most would trust Quick in a series than they would 40 year old Brodeur but you never know how things will work out in a seven game sample. I see the Devils relying on Brodeur less than the Kings will with Quick because of how good of a team the Devils are at preventing shots against but I would give Los Angeles the overall edge in the goaltending matchup. Brodeur is capable of stealing a series but Quick was arguably the main reason LA even made the playoffs.
Here's where I go against my standards and make a prediction. Judging from what I've seen out of these two teams, I think the Kings have the better shot of winning it all. The Devils defensive play overall is very solid but I don't think they match up well with their top line. Elias' line might be able to play against Kopitar but do they have a defense pairing that can shut him down? I don't think so. The fact that the Richards line has been riding a wave of good luck might work in the Devils favor though, because one of their top lines can jump on that opportunity. I still think the Kings are the better team and have the talent up front, on defense and in net to win the Cup. It's just a matter of all things coming together. The Devils can likely push this to at least six games but if the Kings let them take it that far, then I think they have a worse shot of winning. If they are going to win the Cup, it's going to have to be a relatively quick series.
Kings in 5