The wildly unpredictable NHL playoffs enter the home stretch with long shots the Los Angeles Kings and the New Jersey Devils going head-to-head in a Stanley Cup final few saw coming.
The once-unthinkable best-of-seven championship series opens today in New Jersey and it marks the finish line of a punishing two-month playoff grind that has produced upset after upset.
After scraping into the post-season as the eighth and final seeds in the Western Conference, Los Angeles are trying to write a Hollywood ending to their storybook playoff run by capturing the 45-year-old franchise’s first Stanley Cup.
The sixth-seeded Devils have won three Stanley Cups since the Kings made their only appearance in the finals in 1993, but another championship would mean no less to a money-losing franchise that is in search of investors.
With the Lakers and Clippers out of the NBA playoffs, there is plenty of hockey buzz in Los Angeles as the Kings’ unlikely run has brought out the Hollywood glitterati, with A-listers from David Beckham to Tom Hanks taking up prime seats at the Staples Center.
“We’ll probably have to get a bigger bandwagon,” Kings forward Dustin Penner said. “It’s great for the city, great for hockey, especially in Southern California. We have a pretty rabid fan base and I think you’ll see more of that now.”
It may not be the dream New York-Los Angeles final the NHL had wanted, but the Devils and the Kings should offer some attractive hockey as East coast grit faces off against West coast glitz, with Newark, New Jersey, long portrayed as home to mobsters and once labeled the US’ most dangerous city, against Los Angeles, the sunny home to the rich and famous.
While the two cities offer stark contrasts, the teams very much mirror each other, relying on brilliant netminding, solid defense and some flashy offensive weapons up front.
Since securing a post-season berth, the Kings have reigned supreme, racing through the West by going 14-2 in knocking off the top-seeded Vancouver Canucks, second seeds the St Louis Blues and third seeds the Phoenix Coyotes, while winning an NHL-record 10 consecutive playoff road games.
The Devils’ path to the finals was more adventurous, needing double-overtime in Game 7 in the opening round to see off the Florida Panthers, before taking out the Philadelphia Flyers in five games, then grinding out a six-game battle with cross-river rivals the New York Rangers.
“Well, you’re down to the last two teams in the league,” Devils head coach Peter DeBoer said. “So the record speaks for itself — who they [the Kings] have beaten and how they’ve beaten them speaks for itself. I feel we’ve beaten some pretty good teams, and I told you my thoughts on the Rangers and how good a team they are. So we’re looking forward to the challenge.”
Since joining the NHL in 1967, the Kings have been hockey royalty in name only, still waiting to be crowned champions.
The last time Los Angeles were in the final, Hall of Famer Wayne Gretzky was the toast of Tinseltown, but this year they are being led by hard-nosed captain Dustin Brown and goaltender Jonathan Quick.
Goaltending has been the key to success this post-season and it will once again be a major factor in deciding which team will sip from Lord Stanley’s famous mug.
The final features a compelling showdown in the net with the Devils’ 40-year-old Martin Brodeur, the NHL’s all-time leader in wins and shutouts, going up against 26-year-old Quick, a Vezina Trophy finalist as top goalie for the 2011-2012 season.