The New Jersey Devils and Los Angeles Kings were both not supposed to make it this far, but they have. It’s never out of the question for one or two low-seeded teams to make it to the Stanley Cup Finals, but they don’t win it. The Devils in 1995 are the lowest-seeded team to ever win the Cup, but back in that season, teams only played 48 games, which isn’t enough to tell us which teams ought to have been seeded and where.
Whichever team wins, they’ll be the lowest to take the title. But that isn’t really what makes the two teams similar. They’re both very good possession teams that have played with some terrific goaltending behind them this spring. After Game One of the Stanley Cup Finals, Jonathan Quick’s even strength save percentage was up to .946 and Brodeur’s .942. Not to say that both teams have ridden a hot goalie, but it helped both teams immensely, as neither really ran into too much trouble in the second or third rounds of the playoffs.
What I’m also looking at is the dominant first line that each team has deployed. Anze Kopitar, Dustin Brown and Justin Williams have accounted for 16 goals in 15 games for the Kings, while on the Devils’ side, Ilya Kovalchuk, Zach Parise and Travis Zajac have contributed 21 goals in 19 Devils games.
However, the Devils never got their top three-man unit together until late in the season. Adam Henrique had a spot there for most of the year, but Zajac took over once he drew into the lineup following his achilles injury. Kovalchuk-Parise-Zajac had been a staple through the post-season, but in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Finals, Peter DeBoer split them up, and that didn’t work. Not only did the Devils lose the game, but as James Mirtle noted, the Devils got dominated in puck possession.
Zajac went out with Parise and Dainius Zubrus, while Kovalchuk got sent out with Henrique and Alexei Ponikarovsky. Henrique was a minus-5 zone adjusted Fenwick while Zajac was a minus-4.4, hardly showing that balancing talent is an effective method of deployment. Kopitar was a plus-5.2, as a reference point, but Los Angeles do have the advantage of better defence moving the puck forward.
I couldn’t find a quote from DeBoer explaining the rationale for splitting up Kovalchuk and Parise who have been so successful this season, but In Lou We Trust had a good look at the lines in their game recap:
Basically, this top six needs to be reformed and the players on them need to perform better in Game 2. Kovalchuk and Parise have to provide more offense. Zajac and Henrique need to chip in and help out defensively. Zubrus needs to focus less on using his big body for hits and more on using his big body to make plays. I will also say that I want Patrick Elias back with them. Elias led the team in shooting attempts with five and was one of two Devils who were positive in Corsi (+1) and Fenwick (+5) tonight. (Aside: the other one was Stephen Gionta, +1 in both categories.) He was actually not bad, but he could have done a lot more with Kovalchuk and Henrique or some combination of the Zajac line. Hopefully, he’ll get a chance in Game 2.
Meanwhile, Robert from Jewels From The Crown, in his statistical breakdown of Game One for the Kings’ SB Nation blog, concurred. His line breakdown graph shows that the third line was the only one that had any sort of success for the Devils, the one that just happened to have Elias on it.
Also fun to note that there wasn’t a hard match on any line from a defensive standpoint. New Jersey’s top pairing of Andy Greene and Mark Fayne saw about 6:30 of their 19:00 at even strength against Kopitar. They also didn’t take up a huge amount of defensive zone starts, with five of the overall 15. In fact, the heavy load in this game was given to Anton Volchenkov and Peter Harrold, who matched up partially against L.A’s second line and had seven defensive zone starts.
For Los Angeles, head coach Darryl Sutter doesn’t usually get the chance to match his lines on the road but that will be something to keep an eye on when the series shifts to the Staples Center in Game Three. Drew Doughty and Rob Scuderi got a relatively hard matchup on Zajac and Parise and Zubrus, playing nearly 10:00 against the trio, which is pretty good for a road team.
In Game 2, DeBoer will need to reconfigure his lines, and if he’s worried about his best forwards running into Doughty, he really ought to use his home-ice advantage to avoid it. Splitting up Kovalchuk and Parise at this point in the season doesn’t really help anything and you only have four chances to find something that works. Elias needs a bigger role as well.
Los Angeles is beatable somehow, but the Devils eliminated one of their own strengths by taking players off that dominant top line.