It’s been an unpredictable post-season, but the NHL is left with two interesting matchups.
On the East Coast we have the natural New York-New Jersey rivalry in a conference final rematch from 1994. The Rangers’ stifling defense and back-to-back Game 7 victories face New Jersey’s re-invented forecheck that has the offense scoring three goals a game. Henrik Lundqvist is the current crown jewel of NHL goalies and he faces the all-time great Martin Brodeur on a massive stage.
In the West, the awakened Kings offense steamrolled through the top two seeds in the conference. GM Dean Lombradi’s vision is finally coming true with this year’s version, as the Kings are back in this position for the first time since 1993. Meanwhile, the Coyotes are putting together one of the most improbable runs of recent memory, if not for the storyline around their uncertain future, then in the way they allow a ton of shots a game. Everyone keeps waiting for reality to catch up to Mike Smith, but now he has the opportunity to knock off a second straight goalie nominated for the Vezina Trophy over him (Jonathan Quick).
How the Devils got here: By performing with the precision and poise of a surgeon. The Devils went about their business and, in doing so, dispatched a favored Philadelphia Flyers team that seemed to get way too caught up in the emotion of the playoffs. Their forecheck has been something to behold and their best players – namely Ilya Kovalchuk, Zach Parise and Martin Brodeur – have lived up to their reputations.
How the Rangers got here: Pretty much the same way they earned the top seed in the Eastern Conference – by scoring a goal or two and then spending the rest of the time in the “defend, defend, defend” mode. Their penchant for blocking shots has become legendary in this year’s playoffs, to the point where the Capitals were giving up legitimate scoring chances because they were afraid their shots would be blocked. And when the shots did get through, Henrik Lundqvist was there to save the day.
OFFENSE: Not even close. The Devils are scoring almost a full goal per game more than the Rangers are during the playoffs and have been far more dynamic and explosive. (Yeah, you’re really reading that.) The Devils top-shelf offensive talent has been front-and-center in these playoffs, while the Rangers have literally scored only as many goals as they’ve needed to win two series by the skin of their teeth. Edge: New Jersey
DEFENSE: The Devils haven’t exactly turned their back on their former selves, but they are certainly nowhere near the defensive juggernaut they have been in the past. The Rangers, on the other hand, are in the final four almost solely on their defensive play and goaltending. It’s hard to believe that Ranger coach John Tortorella’s mantra with the Tampa Bay Lightning was, “Safe is Death.” Edge: New York
GOALTENDING: Lundqvist is at the top of his game without doubt and, all things being equal, would have a decided edge over New Jersey’s Martin Brodeur. But Brodeur has taken his game up a level and is handling the puck as well as he ever has. That has helped his defense corps, both in terms of creating quick-strike offense and reducing wear and tear on the blueliners. Lundqvist has won two Game 7s, but does not have the playoff pedigree of the guy at the other end of the ice. Edge: Even
SPECIAL TEAMS: The Rangers power play struggled through the first two rounds of the playoffs, as did the Devils penalty kill. One of them is bound to get better in the Eastern Conference final and whichever one does might provide the difference in the series. Neither team has been particularly impressive on either side of special teams through the first two rounds, but both have been among the least penalized teams in this year’s playoffs, too. Edge: Even.
PREDICTION: The Battle of the Hudson has been turned on its head this time around with the Devils being the offensive power and the Rangers the defensive juggernaut. The Devils are on some kind of roll and could not have been more impressive than they were in the second round in dispatching the Flyers. The Rangers can’t continue to play on the edge this much and expect to make it to the Stanley Cup final, can they? It says here the Devils ability to score will be the difference maker. Devils in seven
How the Kings got here: By being what we thought they would be before the season started. The Kings went from a team that couldn’t score a goal to save its life during the regular season to one of the most dangerous teams in the playoffs. Jonathan Quick has been spectacular and the Kings best players have suddenly started turning in performances commensurate with their press clippings.
How the Coyotes got here: With a defense corps that moves the puck like poetry in motion and the uber goaltending of Mike Smith. Give the Coyotes credit. They’ve been able to block out all the distractions and since February, have been one of the hottest and best teams in the NHL. The fact they knocked off the Nashville Predators with relative ease indicates they’re truly at the top of their game.
OFFENSE: Not including shootout goals, these two teams combined for a total of 24 goals in six meetings. Included in that were two 1-0 shutouts and a 2-0 shutout, so it wouldn’t be wise to expect to see an offensive outburst by either team in this series, particularly with how well both goalies are playing. But it seems as though Anze Kopitar and Mike Richards have finally begun to find their scoring touch, while the Coyotes offense has come by committee. The Kings have more natural game breakers. Edge: Los Angeles
DEFENSE: The Coyotes have been portrayed as an offensive juggernaut, but the fact is they’ve given up an average of more than 36 shots a game in these playoffs. The Kings have given up 30-plus themselves, which highlights the fact that both Quick and Smith have been their teams’ undisputed MVPs. The Coyotes have wonderful puck movers in Keith Yandle and Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Rostislav Klesla has stepped up his game. Drew Doughty of the Kings has rebounded well from an up-and-down season. All the Kings men have done a good job keeping the crease clear. Edge: Los Angeles.
GOALTENDING: This is a matchup of the two best goaltenders in this year’s playoffs. There is absolutely no doubt about that. And barring some sort of unforeseen offensive explosion, Mike Smith will win the Conn Smythe Trophy if the Coyotes win the Cup and Jonathan Quick will win it if the Kings prevail in the Cup final. Both have remarkably similar numbers, but Smith has been the far busier of the two goalies. Edge: Even
SPECIAL TEAMS: Both teams have been very proficient at killing penalties in these playoffs, but the Kings power play has been dismal so far. Phoenix plays much more on the right side of the rulebook than the Kings do, which will likely keep L.A.’s power play off the ice. Considering the way it’s performing, that might actually be a good thing because nothing kills the spirit of a team like a limp power play. The Coyotes move the puck around extremely well with the extra man. Edge: Phoenix
PREDICTION: With two teams that are almost a mirror image of one another, it’s difficult to pick a winner, but that’s what they pay us to do. The Kings look like they’re on an incredible roll and now that they’ve awakened offensively, they’ll be almost impossible to stop if Quick continues his high standard of play. Kings in six.