The last time a winger won the Conn Smythe Trophy was in 1995, when Claude Lemieux did it for the New Jersey Devils. 17 years later, it's entirely possible that we see this drought come to an end, as both the Devils and Los Angeles Kings enter this series with a winger playing MVP-level hockey.
For New Jersey, it's Ilya Kovalchuk, who leads the postseason in scoring with 7 goals and 11 assists in 17 games. As he goes, so go the Devils. He put up 6 points in the final 3 games versus the Flyers, and 5 points in the final 3 versus the Rangers. For the Kings, it's Dustin Brown, who's just behind Kovalchuk with 7 goals and 9 assists in 3 fewer games.
Expect to see a battle between the two on the Devils' power play especially.
Kovalchuk averages 5:47 of power-play ice time for the Devils, and he's scored 5 of his 7 goals with the man advantage. But if recent history is any indication, the Devils' power play could also be Dustin Brown's playground. He's been in on 5 shorthanded goals in the postseason, matching the Kings' total power-play goals allowed.
But enough about these two. Kovalchuk and Brown have been the standouts, but it would be foolish to overlook the cast surrounding them, especially since the Devils and the Kings get it done by committee: both teams rely on all four lines for regular shifts.
And for those of you complaining that this year's postseason has rewarded passive, defensive-minded teams and foreruns a horrifying, steampunk future in which the Dead Puck Era has returned seven times over, take heart: both of these teams are attack-oriented.
It will be the effectiveness of the whole unit that determines the outcome of this series. So which group gives their team the advantage in the Stanley Cup Final?
The Kings' top line has been the best line in the postseason. Dustin Brown, Anze Kopitar, and Justin Williams have been unstoppable, singlehandedly steamrolling the Canucks, Blues and Coyotes.
But the units behind them have done some yeomanly work as well. Mike Richards, Jeff Carter and Dustin Penner have been an effective shutdown group, matching up against the opposition's best forwards and freeing the Kopitar line up to focus on scoring. But they're hardly checkers with stone hands. They can beat you.
The third line consists of Jarret Stoll, Trevor Lewis and Dwight King, and while they aren't going to burn the house down with their offensive contributions, they do tend to score timely goals, and they don't give up much either.
Finally, the Kings' fourth line of Brad Richardson, Colin Fraser and Jordan Nolan does what fourth lines do best. Provide energy, grit and a breather for the top three lines while maintaining momentum and denying the opposition that same rest. What makes the Kings so effective is that all four lines play the same way. The offensive capabilities drop off as you toggle through the lines, but the defensive and physical play is consistent all the way through, and that makes getting the puck to Jonathan Quick a nightmare.
Like the Kings, the Devils' attack is relentless, and when I say attack, I mean it. At times, they run a three-man forecheck. On their jaunt through the Western Conference, the Kings never faced a team that came at them quite as hard as New Jersey will. The Kings have two very young defenders on the back end in Slava Voynov and Alec Martinez. Expect to see that three-man forecheck a lot.
New Jersey closed out the Rangers without an official first line. They deployed two top lines, as Ilya Kovalchuk skated with Patrik Elias and Adam Henrique, and Zach Parise played with Dainius Zubrus and Travis Zajac. Neither is the go-to trio - both Kovalchuk and Parise are difference-makers - and having two lines with a guy like that is a luxury.
Below the top-six, the Devils send out two waves that don't have the scorers, but are just as capable of hammering you in the forecheck. Alexei Ponikarovsky, Jacob Josefson and David Clarkson aren't going to set the world on fire, but they're going to keep the pressure on, play strong two-way hockey, and hurt you if you make a mistake.
And finally, the Devils got some major contributions out of the CBGB line, the fourth wave of Steve Bernier, Stephen Gionta and Ryan Carter versus the Rangers, and they'll need similar contributions to best the Kings.
The Kopitar line has been the difference for the Kings in three consecutive series, and it's the difference in this preview. Of the eight trios discussed, Kopitar, Brown and Williams remain the most formidable.
Versus the Rangers, who didn't have a line quite like this one, Peter DeBoer was able to mix up his lines to make his attack more even. He may have to revert to a checking line to shut down Brown, and this could slow down the Devils' attack some. The fact that Brown's line will likely necessitate more adjustments than anything the Devils will be able to throw at Darryl Sutter is enough to give the Kings the advantage.
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