NEWARK, N.J. >> Roughly two years ago, the Los Angeles Kings and New Jersey Devils were the finalists in the free-agent market battle for Ilya Kovalchuk.
The Devils won the right to keep the high-scoring Russian with a bid of $102 million.
Wednesday night, the teams will start fighting for a much bigger prize, the Stanley Cup. In this contest, skill, heart and desire will decide the outcome. Nothing else.
And it doesn’t matter that the Devils and Kings aren’t the two teams most experts expected to be left standing after three rounds of the playoffs.
“You hear it every year, but it doesn’t get old: Once you make it in, you have a chance to get here,” Kings coach Darryl Sutter said. “I think that’s one thing that the prognosticators don’t consider. I always put it this way, when the playoffs start, the clocks should be reset. Because everyone’s starting over, and all 16 teams have a shot to win it all.
“I think both teams would agree with that this year.”
Led by Kovalchuk and a 40-year-old Martin Brodeur, the Devils are just the second No. 6 seed to reach the finals. The 2004 Calgary Flames, coached by Sutter, were the other.
Riding the goaltending of Jonathan Quick, the Kings overcame even bigger obstacles. They are only the second No. 8 seed to make it since the conference-based NHL playoff format was introduced in 1993-94. The Edmonton Oilers were the first in 2006.
“It’s all about winning here, and eliminating distractions and doing what it takes to be successful,” said Brodeur, who led the Devils to Cups in 1995, 2000 and 2003. “That’s worked for us this year, and really my entire career. For me, to be a part of that is great. To come to the rink every day during my career, knowing we had a chance to win every night is something special.
“I’ve had that my whole career here, and that’s been a great ride.”
While this isn’t a glamour series that boasts the likes of a Sidney Crosby, a Steven Stamkos or even a Henrik Lundqvist, it has elements that should help the NHL, and prove entertaining on the ice.
To start, this is an East-West series featuring two of the nation’s biggest media markets: Los Angeles and the New York metropolitan area.
The Kings and Devils also present great story lines.
Los Angeles, which heavily courted Kovalchuk in free agency, is making only its second appearance in the Cup finals, having lost in 1993 to Montreal. The Kings are back after a midseason shake-up that saw Sutter replace Terry Murray just before Christmas and a late trade that added skilled scorer Jeff Carter to the lineup. Still, they didn’t clinch a playoff berth until the final week of the season.
The Kings have been virtually unstoppable since then. They have posted a 12-2 record in the playoffs and knocked off the three top seeds in the Western Conference — Vancouver, St. Louis and Phoenix. They have never trailed in a series, winning the first three games in each round.
“Everybody’s just clicking,” Kings defenseman Drew Doughty said. “People are used to playing with their linemates now. The lines have been the same from the last part of the season. D pairings are the same. It’s just getting used to them. Everyone is playing with confidence. Once you start clicking like that, pucks start going in the net for you.”
The Devils’ story is just as good. They missed the playoffs last season despite retaining Kovalchuk with a $102 million contract that the league said violated its letter of the law. Few expected them to recover this quickly, especially with Brodeur seemingly on his last legs after a sub-par season, and captain Zach Parise returning from a major knee injury. When top center Travis Zajac blew out an Achilles tendon before training camp, the chances of Devils making the finals seemed slim.
New Jersey won its final six games in the regular season, rallied from 3-2 deficit in the opening round of the playoffs with two overtime wins against Florida, and then eliminated the Flyers and Rangers, their two biggest rivals, in five and six games, respectively.
“Last year was tough,” said Kovalchuk, who said there was never a doubt in his mind that he would stay in New Jersey. “But we made sure it paid off. We have a great coaching staff, great players here, great group of guys, very close to each other. I think that makes a big difference.”
The other thing that should be great is the goaltending.
The 26-year-old Quick leads playoff netminders in goals-against average (1.54) and save percentage (.946). He has eight road wins in as many starts, posting a 1.55 goals-against average and .948 save percentage in those games.
Brodeur is a four-time Vezina Trophy winner. He has played in 24 career Stanley Cup finals games, posting a 15-9 record with a 1.91 goals-against, losing only a series to Colorado in seven games in 2001. The Montreal native is set to become the fifth goaltender in NHL history and first since Jacques Plante in 1970 to appear in the Stanley Cup finals after his 40th birthday:
“Well, everyone knows what he’s meant to the league and this team, and where he stands in history,” Quick said of the NHL’s winningest goaltender. “For me, it’s not about me against him. It’s about the Kings and the Devils.”
The Devils and Kings are very similar in their approaches. Both want to establish the forecheck, create pressure and have it lead to offense. The Kings, who posted a 25-13-11 regular-season record after Sutter took over, are definitely a little bigger than the Rangers, and they certainly have more depth.
Devils defenseman Peter Harrold played five seasons with the Kings before signing with New Jersey this year. He spent the majority of this season at Albany of the AHL, before being inserted into the Devils’ postseason rotation. He said both organizations stress team first.
“Everything is about the collective, not the individuals,” said Harrold, who says this series will be good for hockey. “It’s two really big stages.
“That’s what you want to grow the game.”