A long, long NHL season is almost over. There are officially, a maximum of only seven games left, unless you count potential overtime periods. Of course after the final buzzer sounds there is still the NHL Awards, NHL Draft and Free Agent Frenzy Day. I consider those events part of the current season. The next season doesn’t start for me until training camps open.
The Kings and Devils have survived the tough, grind that is the NHL Playoffs. Looking back at my predictions for the playoffs, I was way, way off. I do take some comfort in the fact that a lot of actual ‘experts’ didn’t have these two teams meeting in the Conference Finals let alone the Stanley Cup Finals. I did predict the winners of the Conference Finals accurately, I was off on the game totals though, but that is definitely not my forte.
If you have been following me on Twitter and my blogs here at www.onesecondleft.com, you might recall that I have been preaching a bit about the Kings. Smytty and I have been waiting for this team to be a contender for a couple of years now. I don’t think either of us expected the Kings to be in the Stanley Cup Finals this early though. The Kings have been stockpiling young talent for several years now through the draft. It was only a matter of time before Los Angeles became a playoff team in the Western Conference. I didn’t expect this kind of performance out of Jonathan Quick. Los Angeles has Jonathan Bernier waiting in the wings and I thought Bernier was going to be the key to this club finally becoming a contender.
Quick isn’t the only reason the Kings are where they are, some great moves in picking up Richards and Carter have helped. Simon Gagne has been out with a concussion for months, I can’t imagine this team with a healthy Gagne in the line-up. This is a deep, young team. The NHL has become very young and it is fun to watch the young kids play. The Kings have followed the same plan that the Blackhawks and Penguins used – bottom out and build through the draft. In my opinion, it is paying off better and faster than most people had anticipated.
While the Kings I expected to be at least decent, the Devils completely snuck up on me. A team full of mostly nobodies, with an overpaid Kovalchuk and an aging Martin Brodeur has shocked most NHL fans. Historically the Devils have been one of those old school-type clubs that retooled through free agency. Similar to another old school club like the Red Wings, the Devils had a great scouting system and always seemed to be able to find a few young guns in the draft to compliment their veterans. Adam Henrique is a perfect example of a great young rookie who is learning to play New Jersey Devils hockey. I was sure Brodeur was done this season after having watched his play fall off over the last two seasons. Amazingly though, Brodeur’s game was at such a high level that even with his game falling off over the last couple of seasons, I would still rank him among the top half of the goalies in the NHL.
As surprising as Kovalchuk has been, perhaps the biggest surprise to me has been Ilya Kovalchuk. I didn’t like the transaction to begin with, I didn’t think Ilya was a good ‘fit’ for the Devils style of hockey. Early on it definitely appeared Kovalchuk was buying into the defence-first idea of the Devils system. His point totals dropped quite a bit and I figured it was only a matter of time before Kovalchuk would be unhappy with the Devils system. An unhappy Kovalchuk in my opinion, would be a huge disruption for this team. Instead, Ilya continued to buy in to the Jersey system and his offensive numbers rebounded. This is a scary player who can pounce on the counter-attack in the blink of an eye. I have never liked the Devils, especially after they seemed to eliminate the Leafs every season after the Leafs would eliminate the Senators. Having said that, I have always respected the way this club was run and have had nothing but the utmost respect for Martin Brodeur. I was a Gretzky fan instead of Mario, and I was a Patrick Roy fan instead of Brodeur, but Marty’s numbers speak volumes. Brodeur may go down as the best goalie in the NHL to date and I probably wouldn’t argue that too much. The Devils play in the playoffs has been just amazing. New Jerseys has had a great run, with solid performances from the goal out. This has been a real team effort all the way. Kovalchuk has fit in fine and refined his game beautifully. Both the organization and Kovalchuk deserve a lot of credit for how this team has performed. In the 80’s I preferred to cheer for the veteran Islanders and not for the young, upstart Oilers. For the most part, I have always cheered for the veterans. I wanted to see Ray Bourque win a Stanley Cup, I wanted to see Andreychuk get a Stanley Cup. Normally I would be cheering for Brodeur to win another title and go out on top, capping off a stellar career. It would be a great story, but I am not going to pick the Devils. I like the Kings in this series. I think the Kings defence is just too good, head and shoulders above the Devil’s D. I would even take the Kings forwards over the Devils forwards, but not by much. The goaltending is tough, I have a hard time not looking at Brodeur’s career and not choosing him. However, this is not ‘that’ Marty Brodeur, I think in this year’s playoffs Quick is at least Brodeur’s equal. This year the Kings have taken each series in fewer games than I have predicted and I wouldn’t be surprised if this is a short series. I want to see Brodeur battle one last time and help stretch this series out to seven games, but I don’t think that will happen. I’m taking the Kings in six games. You can take that to the bank…but don’t mortgage the house on it.