The Ottawa Senators faced the New Jersey Devils four times in 2011-12. Two of these games went past the allotted 60 minutes of regulation; the Sens won once, in a shootout, while the Devils claimed the other three games by narrow margins. On none of these occasions, or at any time during the regular season, did New Jersey appear to be favourites in a wide-open Eastern Conference. Despite featuring high-calibre offensive players like Ilya Kovalchuk, Zach Parise and Patrik Elias, as well as the ever-dependable Martin Brodeur in goal, the Devils seemed merely a fraction of their former dynastic selves, destined to take advantage of a favourable first-round matchup and bow out of the NHL playoffs soon after.
Tomorrow, the Devils will take to their home ice in Newark to host Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final.
A year after an invigorating postseason climaxed with a seven-game duel between the Boston Bruins and Vancouver Canucks, the NHL is set to conclude its strangest set of playoff series in recent memory. Based on the standings, neither finalist was expected to accrue even four postseason victories, but the Devils and the 8-seed Los Angeles Kings have bucked history and conventional wisdom in outlasting their conferences, and now stand four wins away from hockey’s Holy Grail.
Only in these playoffs could an 8-seed – generally the weakest of the NHL’s elite teams, or the best of the mediocre – be considered favourites in the Stanley Cup final. Although the Devils will open the series at home due to their numerical advantage, it is the Kings who enter the championship round having dropped just two games all postseason, and none on the road. Captain Dustin Brown and Anze Kopitar have led the offensive charge; defenseman Drew Doughty has rebounded from a pedestrian 36-point campaign; and goaltender Jonathan Quick has somehow managed to raise his game from a superb regular season, one that garnered him a Vezina Trophy nomination.
As it stands, Quick will be a shoo-in for Conn Smythe Trophy honours if he stonewalls the Devils. Such a performance would also make the Kings the beneficiary of an unforeseen incongruence: the most unlikely Stanley Cup champions of all-time, as well as one of the most dominant. Just the second 8-seed to reach the Cup final (after Edmonton in 2006), LA has defeated the Western Conference’s top three seeds in a brisk 14 games. 29th in goals for during the regular season, the Kings have scored four goals or more in exactly half their playoff games, never conceding more than three and never allowing their opponents any modicum of hope. A team that saw their coach fired 29 games into the year, the Kings are on the verge of going where no 8-seed has gone before, and going there with a nearly unblemished record.
The Devils, meanwhile, have appeared for years to be the remnant of one of the NHL’s last dynasties, a team that clashed with Detroit and Colorado for Stanley Cup supremacy during the decidedly unbalanced late 1990s and early 2000s. Decried throughout their championship years for their monotonous, trapping hockey, the Devils have tallied three goals or more in 14 of their 18 playoff games. (They’ve also been shut out three times.) Brodeur, who looked each of his 40 years at several points in the regular season, has not been dominant (certainly not on the level of Quick), but has performed well enough to stymie each opponent the Devils have faced. New Jersey has made less noise in the media and among fans than any other successful playoff team, scuttling through the Eastern Conference and emerging with home-ice advantage. Killers move in silence, and so do 6-seeds that make the Stanley Cup final.
Each top team has looked impervious during this erratic NHL season, before crashing and burning not long after. The Canucks won their second consecutive President’s Trophy, lost Daniel Sedin to a concussion in late March, then lost in five to Los Angeles, with Quick playing the role of Tim Thomas reincarnate. The reinforced Pittsburgh Penguins bowed out meekly in the first round, with Marc-Andre Fleury adopting the form of a common kitchen appliance. The Philadelphia Flyers blitzed Pittsburgh to the tune of 30 goals in six games, then found themselves unable to hit the net against New Jersey. The St. Louis Blues thrived under a stifling defensive system implemented by their affable head coach, before being swept away by the Kings faster than a John Tortorella press conference. Tortorella’s New York Rangers, for their part, struggled to defeat the conference’s two lowest seeds in seven games, before their dismal counterattacking style was exposed by (of all teams) the Devils.
So who remains? The Devils escaped in double overtime of their seventh game against the league’s weakest division champ, before finding their stride and outclassing two detested rivals. No 8-seed has ever advanced so far and with such ease as the Kings. Neither team can be considered a favourite or underdog, partially because neither team should be anywhere near the Stanley Cup playoffs at this time of year.
Regardless of which club emerges victorious, the NHL will crown its lowest-ever champion in terms of seeding. If these playoffs have taught us anything, however, it might be that seeding has been rendered meaningless, giving way to a new brand of parity where dominance is exhibited in the seemingly weakest teams. Credit the Devils and Kings for what they’ve accomplished, but this much is clear: in the post-post-lockout NHL, practically anyone can win. This year, it might as well have been anyone.
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