As the New Jersey Devils and Los Angeles Kings prepare for the 2012 Stanley Cup Finals, two of the best goaltenders will square off in what could be called a battle for the ages -- one that has long been the best at his craft, and the other just scratching the surface of his ultimate capabilities.
New Jersey's Martin Brodeur -- the all-time winningest netminder during the regular season in NHL history with 656 wins, and second-most to Patrick Roy with 111 postseason victories -- has proven he is still one of the game's elite, even at the age of 40 years old. Following a non-playoff year in 2011, the Montreal-native won 31 games during the 2011-12 regular season -- including the last five of the year.
Brodeur hadn't been very successful in the second season over the past several years -- posting a 5-12 record and not escaping the first round in any of the Devils' last three playoff runs, failing to even qualify for the playoffs last year. But he has more than re-established his immense postseason presence with a 12-5 mark in New Jersey's push to the '12 Finals.
While many believed Brodeur was likely to falter as the playoffs progressed -- the elder statesman of the Eastern Conference representative Devils would eventually tire under the grueling pace of the game every other night grind -- the legendary goal keep has instead maintained a consistent excellence through each passing series.
In his worst appearance of the playoffs, he yielded three goals in just over 22 minutes of play in Game 3 against the Florida Panthers during the first round and was lifted for backup Johan Hedberg. But he gave up only six goals over the last four games of the seven-game series triumph, including just two in a clutch Game 7 double overtime 3-2 victory. The series was prolonged only by N.J.'s inability to stay out of the penalty box, along with Florida's amazing success while on the power play. Brodeur came up big when his team needed him, pulling out the last two contests in possible elimination situations.
At times during the Conference Semifinal against the Philadelphia Flyers, Brodeur looked shaky. In the series-opener, the Devils' goaltender allowed four goals in a 4-3 overtime defeat. It was the only time in the entire 18-game N.J. postseason run the netminder has yielded as many as four goals.
But that would be the Flyers' last hurrah. Brodeur gave up seven goals over the last four contests -- winning all four to help his club advance to take on the arch-rival New York Rangers -- largely on the strength of the New Jersey forecheck keeping Philly pinned deep in their own end for long stretches. Even when the Flyers were able to gain access to the Devils' zone, they were kept to the perimeter and away from the Jersey cage.
Against the Broadway Blue Shirts, Brodeur would come up biggest of all. He allowed just 12 goals during the six-game conference final, and produced several spectacular acrobatic stops to out-duel New York's Henrik Lundqvist.
At the other end of the ice is Jonathan Quick, long considered a goalie ready to make a jump to the class of the elite at his position. The 26-year-old Milford, Connecticut-native has won 109 games over the past three seasons -- including a second-consecutive year of 35 wins in a Vezina-nominated performance -- but had managed just four wins in 12 postseason games until this spring.
That has all been changed with this year's incredible playoff run.
Quick and the Kings have been near-flawless during the first three rounds, having lost just twice in the 14 postseason tilts. Los Angeles has yielded three goals just twice, while Quick has allowed two goals or less in the other 12, including two shutouts.
One of the more amazing aspects to Quick and the Kings' dominant showing has been the level of competition with which they have faced. Having struggled to score goals for much of the season and clinching a playoff berth in the late in the campaign, the eighth-seeded upstarts knocked off the Presidents' Trophy-winning Vancouver Canucks in five -- yielding eight goals in the five games -- allowing only four goals in a four-game sweep of the St. Louis Blues, and giving up only eight goals in a five-game triumph over Conn Smythe-candidate Mike Smith and the Phoenix Coyotes.
With one of the best lateral movements in the League, Quick sometimes resembles a crab with his ability to move side-to-side to cover both posts. He has stuck with shooters who had time to deke before sending their offerings toward the net, and New Jersey shooters may have to go for the top shelf with their shots in hopes of getting the puck over his ever-present pads.
Los Angeles has played a similar style to that of New Jersey's in its domination of the Western Conference field -- it has out-worked the opposition, winning the battles along the wall, forechecking its opponents into submission, and jamming the goal crease with big bodies. The club that ultimately comes out successful and earns the right to hang out with Lord Stanley for the summer will likely be the one to impose its will upon the other, with the ability to get into the grill of the opposing team's Conn Smythe probable enough to distract them enough to set a screen, garner a deflection, or force a rebound.
But it won't be easy in what could easily develop into a classic defensive struggle, back stopped by two of the games best between their respective club's pipes.
While Quick and the Kings are the heavy favorites before the commencement of the Finals, you never can count out Brodeur and the Devils -- winners of three of the four Stanley Cup appearances in a nine-year period between 1995 and 2003.
Can the younger upstart out-perform the wily, old veteran, or will the master show the apprentice a thing or two? Tune in Wednesday night to see how the drama plays out.
Stick with SBNation.com for full coverage of the 2012 Stanley Cup Finals. For more on the Eastern Conference Champion Devils, check in with In Lou We Trust and SB Nation New York. For more on the Western Conference Champion Kings, check in with Jewels From The Crown and SB Nation Los Angeles.