Saturday, May 26, 2012

NHL Round 4 - Stanley Cup Finals


What it's all about

And then there were two.

The Stanley Cup Finals begin on Wednesday, May 30 - which I think is ridiculous; do the two teams really need another four days off at this time of year? When the summer weather arrives the NHL should do whatever it can to keep their captive audience because unless you are a fan of one of the two teams remaining your thoughts quite likely aren't turning toward hockey when it's 30 degrees (86 in American) outside. Game 2 isn't scheduled until the following Saturday. If this series were to somehow go 7 games it wouldn't end until nearly Father's Day. The draft is barely a week from the potential end of the season. That's far too long, especially when you consider there wasn't even an Olympic break to play havoc with the schedule. But that's the schedule; it remains to the fans to deal with it as best they can. As usual.

All right, first things first: it's time to dissect the ugly predictions I made for Round 3. Looking back I see....hey! Would you look at that? Just a whisker away from being absolutely perfect! About time, really.

Los Angeles vs. Phoenix - I took the Kings in 6, but with the comment that I expected them to win it in less than that. They won in 5.

New Jersey vs. New York Rangers - I took the Devils in 6 (they won in 6).

Much better. I was starting to wonder why I was even bothering to make predictions any more, at least in the Eastern Conference. So now it comes to this: New Jersey Devils vs. Los Angeles Kings in the Stanley Cup Finals. Two compelling story lines, two relatively low seeds, although in the case of at least one of the teams, the standings were quite misleading.


Marty Brodeur's Olympic glory
The Devils ended up in sixth place in the Eastern Conference this past season; however they played in by far the toughest division (they ended up fourth with 102 points) and actually had as many points as the #2 seed for the playoffs, the Boston Bruins. In fact, had the conference seeded on point totals alone and not the way they currently do it (all division winners are given one of the top three seeds) the Devils' entire division with the exception of the woeful Islanders would have finished in the first four spots. (I am not saying that the seedings are incorrect; I am not making a case here either way because the schedules are also unbalanced. I am just showing that the sixth-seeded Devils were actually as "good" as the defending Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins this year, so perhaps they are not as much a surprise as they are being made out to be.) To get to the finals the Devils knocked off the third-seeded Florida Panthers, a team that finished 8 points behind them, but that series went the maximum seven games. Then they met the Philadelphia Flyers, a team that had just hammered the consensus favourite team to win the East, the Pittsburgh Penguins - and the Devils beat them rather handily, in five games. This set up a matchup with the New York Rangers, the top team in the East, but one that had struggled mightily in their previous two series against Ottawa Senators and Washington Capitals and could very easily have been knocked off (and would have by the Caps if not for some terrible luck on their part in Game 5). I thought all along that the Rangers could be taken and, although it took three rounds, eventually they were eliminated. The huge upside of this: no more John Tortorella sightings for the foreseeable future; this is a very good thing indeed. So the Devils are a strong team, stronger than they appear to most observers. They have in goal arguably the greatest netminder in the history of then NHL, Martin Brodeur, whom many people expect would retire immediately should the Devils win the Cup this year. He gets the sentimental vote in most corners. But this is no Ray Bourque saga all over again; Brodeur is well-decorated with Cup and Olympics victories and has spent his entire career on the same team. If he never wins another trophy he'll still be just fine.


Fraser: "I was blocked out on the play..."
On the other hand there are the Los Angeles Kings. They came into the NHL in 1967, part of the big expansion wave that doubled the size of the league from six to twelve teams (and gave rise to the nickname "The Original Six" for the teams that existed pre-1967). They have never won the Cup in their 45-year existence, which means they are tied with the St. Louis Blues and the Toronto Maple Leafs for futility. In those 45 years, the Blues have been to the Finals three times, although those appearances may be discounted as they occurred in the first three years of their existence when they played in a division consisting only of the brand-new teams and one of them was guaranteed to make it to the Final each year, where they were immediately swept by a far superior Original Six team. The Blues have not been to the Finals since then. The Leafs have not been to the Finals since they won their last Cup in 1967. The Kings have been there exactly once, in 1993, but they cheated to get there when Kerry Fraser famously "missed" a high-sticking call on Wayne Gretzky in overtime of Game Six in the semifinals, a call which would have resulted in Gretzky getting tossed from the game and very likely in the Leafs winning that series in that same overtime, setting up a Toronto-Montreal dream final for what may be the very last time.. Gretzky scored moments later on a power play that would also have been negated by that call. 19 years later and we're still bitter; we might still be bitter in 19 more years, too. But I digress....


Mike Richards, pride of Kenora, ON
Even though that series was tough to swallow, I hold no grudge against the Kings. (Fraser, however, is a very different matter.) I would be thrilled if they were to win their first-ever Cup this year. For one thing, I almost always root for a non-winner to take the Finals if they are playing a team that has won a Cup before. There are notable exceptions, of course; two of them are the two non-Cup-winning Canadian franchises in Ottawa and Vancouver. I think if they were ever playing each other I would try to move to Fiji for a couple of months to avoid all NHL news accidentally reaching me. But the Kings are playing a team that has won before and that would be enough reason on its own for me to pull for them. On top of that, though, there is the fact that the Flyers decided last year that two of their top players - Mike Richards and Jeff Carter - were somehow a detriment to their team and traded them away, opening up cap space for the signing of the very average (at best)_Ilya Bryzgalov to play goal for them. Even though they knocked off the Penguins this year - mostly because their goalie Marc-Andre Fleury out-stunk Bryzgalov for that round - the Flyers once again stumbled due to a lack of solid goaltending in the playoffs. Meanwhile the two castoffs, Richards and Carter, are playing together on the Kings and are now in the Finals. The best storyline for me would be for them to win the Cup and rub it in the face of the Flyers' management team. Also, Richards is a Kenora boy so there is a chance, if we timed it right, that he would have the Cup at home there while Sarah and were visiting this summer. That would be very cool indeed.

On top of all of that, the Kings have an outstanding coach, Darryl Sutter, with a system they have wholeheartedly bought into. They have superstars at every position, with Richards, Drew Doughty and Jonathan Quick chief among them. During the regular season they finished an enigmatic eighth and, unlike the Devils, they deserved only that spot and no higher. There was no doubt in my mind they had underachieved for much of the season and even the hiring of Sutter midway through almost came too late to salvage it, but even if you factor in how underrated they really were what they have done these playoffs is just short of shocking. They have knocked off the numbers 1, 2 and 3 seeds in their conference to get to the Finals and have never had home ice advantage - something that will continue the next round as it begins in New Jersey. This has not fazed the Kings one bit as they have won every road game they have played this year so far.

Their pattern this spring has been:

Win 3, Lose1, Win 1
Win 4
Win 3, Lose 1, Win 1

They've been up 3-0 with two road wins in every single series. They've barely been trailing in their games. And it's not like a lot of them have gone to OT, either - only two so far.

It's absolutely remarkable what they are accomplishing - and even more so when you consider the amazing parity across the board in the NHL right now. Seven series so far have ended in five games or fewer (only one in the East); the Kings have won three of them including the only sweep. Not only that, but the Kings knocked off the President's Trophy winner, then in the next round beat a team that had won 4-1, then in the next round beat a team who won their series 4-1 over the only other team to win a series 4-1 in the West. The Kings' dominance has been absolute. It's been incredible to watch. And it says here that it will continue for one more round. Therefore...


I am picking the Los Angeles Kings to win their first-ever Stanley Cup at home in the Staples Centre on Monday, June 11, 2012. Kings in six games.

And when they do, it will be a momentous day as no 8th-seeded team has ever won the Stanley Cup. The only other #8 seed to even make the finals: the 2006 Edmonton Oilers. They lost the Cup to Tampa Bay in 7 games.

Go Kings.

2 comments:

  1. well this is my prediction! Go Devils!! lol Just watch.. the Kings will finally win it... lol I am still mad at Montreal for stealing the cup in the 92 finals lol :P Not really :)

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    Replies
    1. I'm just tired of the Devils. Nobody on that team inspires me other than Brodeur. If they do win, even though they beat an 8th seed I think it would have to be considered an upset at this point. Thanks for the comment, Beth!

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