ChiSide’s 2012 NHL Stanley Cup Preview

The 2012 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs was an absolute doozy to witness. Although my beloved Chicago Blackhawks were eliminated in a mere six total games, my eyes never ceased to deviate from the rest of the competition that was going on. Thus far, there have been a total of 23 games that have gone into sudden death overtime, the most since 2003, which also had 23 overtime games. The NHL record for overtimes in a playoff is 28, set in 1993. The record could be broken if the extraordinary happens in this year’s final, which would have to result in, at least, a six game series in which every game extends beyond 60 minutes. A side note to those unfamiliar: Nothing is more nerve-wracking than observing your team sacrifice body after body in order to keep that tiny, disk-shaped piece of vulcanized rubber from crossing the goal line. Nothing. A great number of fans from Chicago and Phoenix, as well as myself, had to endure five consecutive cardiac-arrest-inducing wars between the Blackhawks and Coyotes. Even though the Yotes came out on top, it’s safe to say I loved every minute of it (this is easier to say a few weeks afterwards). No sport conveys suspense and sense of urgency like hockey. It’s simply unparalleled.

What makes hockey so great is that, no matter what happens at the end of the regular season, all sixteen teams have an equivalent shot at hoisting the most majestic trophy in all of sports. This year’s playoffs further attest that statement, as we are set to watch the eight-seeded Los Angeles Kings face-off against the six-seeded New Jersey Devils. The Kings have been wiping up the floor with everyone they’ve played so far, losing only two games in the entire playoffs. This includes the top three Western Conference teams, the pesky Vancouver Canucks, the St. Louis Blues, and the Phoenix Coyotes. The Devils, on the other hand, have had scares against the Florida Panthers, who took them to seven games, as well as the number one-seed New York Rangers, who took them to six.

I’m going to compose this preview in a more abnormal way than I usually go about by just giving five thoughts about the matchup, instead of breaking down every facet of each team and comparing the two. I’d like to imagine these opinions will enlighten those new to the sport as well as the hardened veterans that have watched the game for the past 20 years. Enjoy.

1. Infectious Captaincy

Fun fact: this season’s Stanley Cup winner will be only the second American-born captain to win the Cup since Derian Hatcher won it with the Stars in 1999. New Jersey’s Zach Parise hails from Minnesota while Dustin Brown grew up in the Big Apple. Country of origin isn’t the only thing that makes these two comparable, it’s their infectious style of play that wills each captain’s team to victory night-in and night-out.

The King’s unexpected run can be attributed to the equally unexpected emergence of Brown this postseason. As a player who was rarely considered an offensive threat throughout his career (his career best is 60 points in a season), Brown has complemented his elite defensive game with a scoring touch, notching 16 points in only 14 playoff games thus far, making him one of only three players in the Finals with a points per game average over one. Unlike Parise, Brown has exemplified textbook two-way game: he can get the puck in the back of the net while crushing any opposition who handles the puck with a vicious, highlight-reel check. Brown is also a key cog on LA’s penalty killing unit which ranks second best in the entire playoffs with a 91.2% rate, far and away better than the Devil’s thirteenth-ranked 74.2% rate.

Parise, like Brown, is a blue-collar type of player that displays a relentless forecheck. Parise can best be compared to the Energizer Bunny: his legs never stop churning until the puck is lodged in the depths of the net and your team is breaking its sticks in frustration. His style of play is the bread-and-butter of the Devil’s entire offensive scheme, which is to bring a tenacious forecheck against whomever they face. Parise may not bring the physicality that Brown presents for the Kings, but his grit and determination make him one of the NHL’s elite players.

Stopping either of these guys will be a near impossible task for both teams, but if either is able to accomplish the task, the game will likely fall in its favor. In round three, the Rangers were able to phase out Parise in the first three games, giving them the 2-1 series advantage. However, Parise was able to figure out the Rangers’ defense and contribute five points in games four and five, allowing the Devils to take the series lead and eventually win the series. Brown, on the other hand, has yet to be contained by any team in the playoffs thus far, which is a huge reason why the Kings have breezed through. Stopping Brown likely prevents a goal or two in a game, which is all the difference in these playoffs.

2. Special Teams

What makes this series hard to gauge is that fact that both Cup contenders exhibit identical styles of play. Both teams love to smother opposing defenses in their own zones, causing turnovers and creating scoring chances. Defensively, the two teams are also adept at preventing quality chances by collapsing in front of their goalies. Oh, and it doesn’t hurt for the Devils to have one of the greatest goalies of all time protecting the crease. The Kings’ Jonathan Quick has been playing Conn Smythe-worthy too, garnering a remarkable 1.54 goals against average and a .946 save percentage to go along with that impressive 12-2 record. Special teams may be the difference-maker in this series.

The disparity at both ends of the special teams spectrum is astounding. To make the series even more unpredictable, the Kings boast one of the best penalty kills while the Devils are home to the fourth-best power play in the postseason. Interestingly, the Kings seem to play better offensively while a man down, as they have scored five short-handed goals. When a man up? Somehow how the Kings have managed only an 8.1% success rate while on the powerplay, resulting in three 5-on-4 goals and three 5-on-3 goals. The Kings, however, kill penalties at a 91.2% rate which makes up for their dreary power play. They’ve allowed a total of five goals, which makes them a +6 in the special teams department (thanks to their short-handed mastery) despite their 8.1% powerplay rate. Odd, huh?

The Devils’ special teams unit isn’t a statistical anomaly like LA’s. Coach Pete Deboer has the Devil’s powerplay working at an above average rate (18.2%). The penalty kill is a different story, though. The Devils have allowed 16 power play goals, the most in the playoffs. If they allow the meager Kings’ powerplay to get shots on net at will, this will be a short and decisive series once again for the Kings.

3. X-factor: New Jersey Devils

Rookie of the year candidate Adam Henrique has come up big for the Devils when they’ve needed him most. Henrique has scored the two most important goals in New Jersey’s deep playoff run: the game seven overtime winner against Florida in round one, and the game six series winner against New York in round three. If any of these games go into OT, the Kings must take great measures to keep an eye on Henrique whenever he’s on the ice.

4. X-factor: Los Angeles Kings

The Kings dealt one of their top defensemen in Jack Johnson in order to acquire former Flyers star center Jeff Carter from the Columbus Blue Jackets. Carter was once a player who was a lock to get at least 30 goals, and has flirted with 50 goals once in his career. During this year’s playoffs, he seems to have shown up whenever he feels like it. In the third round he had two significant games in which he scored a hat trick, and then proceeded to get two assists in the series clincher against Phoenix in game five. If he’s on top of his game in this series, the Devils will suffer a quick and painless death.

5. The Ceremony

The great sportscaster Doc Emerick let this gem loose during one of this year’s playoff games:

These guys sacrifice so much for a ring that’s too big to wear and their name on a Cup they don’t get to keep.

Sentimental moments are to be had when a player that has longed for the Cup his entire career finally attains the ultimate goal. Think Ray Bourque, Dave Andreychuk. There’s not a greater sight to see than someone who has worked his whole career as a consummate teammate finally be able to hoist Lord Stanley’s Cup as high as they can above their head and take a lap around the chopped up ice amongst the roaring crowd. There are just…

With that said, my prediction for this series is Kings in six.

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