When Adam Henrique scored just 1:03 into overtime Friday night to give the New Jersey Devils a six-game upset victory over the New York Rangers in the Eastern Conference Final, it set up a more interesting Stanley Cup Final matchup than some may think.
Both the Devils and Los Angeles Kings play a very similar style. The Kings -- awaiting their opponent from the East since Tuesday night's 4-3 overtime triumph over the Phoenix Coyotes in Game 5 -- have also employed a strong forechecking and puck control game, much like the one that has propelled New Jersey through the first three rounds of the playoffs.
While the upsets of the Philadelphia Flyers and Broadway Blue Shirts were somewhat surprising -- as the method with which they dominated play against two fellow-Atlantic Division arch rivals perhaps being the most eye-opening aspect -- the Devils are hardly a Cinderella story.
After all, they did finish the regular season with 48 wins and 102 points. But they were overshadowed by the three teams that finished ahead of them in what is likely the best division in hockey. The Rangers won the East with 109 points, with the Pittsburgh Penguins finishing a close second with 108, and Philly with just a point more than them at 103.
All three teams received more accolades and were publicized heavily by comparison, as New Jersey quietly went about its business, fine tuned its game, and entered the postseason with an NHL-high six-game winning streak.
The Kings closed out the 2011-12 campaign on a somewhat comparable run down the stretch. Though they dropped two overtime decisions to close out the season, their 5-2-3 mark in the final 10 contests gave them 40 victories and 95 points. While the media focus was closely aimed on the battle between the Vancouver Canucks, Rangers and St. Louis Blues for the Presidents' Trophy as the NHL's top club, Los Angeles was already in playoff hockey mode. Having difficulty off and on with their ability to score goals, the Kings elevated their defensive play as every point became essential to their postseason hopes.
Once they locked up the eighth and final spot in the West, they continued their grinding style of play, enabling the Kings to breeze through Vancouver in five, a sweep of the Blues, and the Phoenix Coyotes in five.
Both teams can score goals. The Devils were led by Ilya Kovalchuk, Zach Parise and Travis Zajac (all with seven goals). Dustin Brown (7), Anze Kopitar (6), the surprising Dwight King (5) and Jeff Carter and Mike Richards (each with 4) paced the Kings. Richards and Carter experienced a good deal of success against N.J. during their time in Philadelphia and will look to continue that good fortune in the Cup Final.
The outcome of this series will likely hinge on defense and goaltending, along with which club can dictate play via the forecheck and cycling games.
As legendary goalie Martin Brodeur looks to add a fourth Cup championship to his ridiculously qualified Hall-of-Fame resume, the 40-year-old veteran of 20 NHL seasons hasn't been called upon to steal the majority of games for New Jersey the way he was in previous playoffs. With a 12-5 record, a 2.04 goals-against average and .a 923 save percentage, Brodeur has been excellent when his team has needed him the most. Look no further than the third period of Game 6 against the Rangers as evidence, when N.Y. carried play and held a lopsided advantage in quality scoring chances. Marty simply said no, making several highlight reel stops among his eight saves.
The performance seemed to spark the Devils, who had been heavily outplayed for a good part of the second and third frames. Henrique closed out the series shortly after the opening faceoff of the extra session.
Jonathan Quick has followed up a Vezina Trophy-caliber year by going 12-2, with a 1.54 GAA and .946 save percentage. Against the Devils, he will have to deal with a more dangerous, balanced offensive attack than he had to face in any of he first three rounds.
A key to N.J.'s success against New York was being able to get traffic in front of Lundqvist, an elite netminder who will stop virtually every shot which is in his field of vision. They will have to do the same with Quick, getting deflections and getting position on the Los Angeles defense to gather in rebounds for second-chance opportunities.
Another area of play that could go a long way in determining which club will get to party with Lord Stanley all summer is special teams.
Although they have garnered the most power play opportunities of any team in the postseason (74), the Kings have managed just six goals with the man advantage. Their success rate of 8.1 percent is second-worst of any of the 16 teams that qualified for the playoffs, including an awful 3.1 percent (1-32) at the Staples Center.
With New Jersey operating at an 18.2 percent clip, Los Angeles will have to improve its PP rate.
While L.A.'s power play was second from the bottom, the Kings' penalty killers have been the second-best. The Kings have killed off 52-57 opposition power plays for a 91.2 percent kill rate, and have also scored five shorthanded goals.
Yes, if you're doing the math, that means Los Angeles has scored as many times while a man short than their opponents have, and that is an amazing statistic. The Devils will have to be cautious in how much they put into their attack, as it could come back to haunt them.
Conversely, New Jersey's PK unit -- tops in the NHL with an 89.6 percent kill rate over the course of 82 games -- has not been very good in the postseason. The Devils' 74.2 percent rate is just 13th overall of the 16 playoff clubs, which could be a welcome issue for a Kings team struggling to put up any man advantage tallies.
"We're in the finals for a reason," Kovalchuk told Rich Chere of NJ.com. "(L.A. was) really good on the road the whole playoffs, but I don't think they faced a team like us."
He's right. For the Kings, it will almost be like facing a mirror image of themselves.
Which club will be able to impose its will, win the physical battles along the walls and dominate puck possession? Which team will be able to crowd the opposing goaltender and make it tough for him to do his job?
These are important inquiries regarding two squads that are very much alike in makeup and work ethic. There is very little difference.
The answers to those questions will likely go a long way in determining which club ends up hoisting the most treasured trophy in all of sports in about two weeks.