Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Sports Cheat Sheets: 2012 Stanley Cup Edition

Since my Super Bowl Cheat Sheet posting was so popular, I thought I'd do a Stanley Cup edition. Most people don't follow hockey, so whipping out a little knowledge can go a long way to impress a guy or you like or contribute to a sports discussion. Here's the nitty-gritty.

The Basics
The NHL is not like the NFL in which the championship game comes down to one game. In hockey, two teams play a best of seven (so you have to win four games) series, just like the NBA. The NHL is spit into two conferences: East and West. The top eight teams (out of fifteen teams) from each conference makes it into the playoffs. Series are played out until there is one team remaining from each. This year, the New Jersey Devils will represent the East, and they are the sixth seed from that conference. (Fun factoid: The New Jersey Devils are not in fact devils but named for the cryptozoological creature the New Jersey Devil.) The Los Angeles Kings are the Western Conference team and is the eighth seed.

Also unlike football, the Stanley Cup Finals are not played in one neutral location. Rather, the higher seed gains home ice advantage, and the first two games are played in their arena. Thus, the first two games will be played at the Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey. The series then continues for game three and four at the lower seed's arena. Thus, the second two games will be played at Staples Center in Los Angeles, California. The last three games ping pong back and forth between the two teams. Game five goes back to Newark; game six to Los Angeles; game seven in Newark. Also of note, none of these games will be back-to-back. There will be at least one night off for both teams between each game.

Key Players on the New Jersey Devils
1. Zach Parise (#9): Parise is an American hockey player who serves as the captain of the team. He was drafted by the Devils in the first round in 2003, the same year that Los Angeles Kings captain Dustin Brown was also selected in the same round. Parise is a talented goal-scorer and leads his team by example. This means that he isn't a big rah-rah kind of a guy, though I'm sure he can find the words should the time for that be needed, but his performance on the ice sets the tone for the rest of the team. He plays hard, and his teammates follow his lead.

2. Martin Brodeur (#30): There is hardly anything I can say to even begin to describe the career that this goaltender has had. He was drafted in the first round by the Devils in 1990 and has spent his entire career with the team. Brodeur has three Stanley Cup rings, four Vezina Trophies (given to the top goaltender in the league), five Jennings Trophies (given to the goalie who allowed the fewest goals), and a Calder Trophy (rookie of the year award). At forty years old, he is approaching the end of what is sure to be a hall-of-fame career. It should be noted that no matter the outcome, he is not planning on retiring after this season. So yeah, this guy is really really good.

3. Ilya Kovalchuk (#17): Kovalchuk is a Russian hockey player who is a great goal-scorer and serves as an alternate captain of the team. He was originally drafted first overall in the 2001 draft by the Atlanta Thrashers (now the Winnipeg Jets). He played for the Thrashers until 2009-2010 season in which he was traded to the Devils and has stayed with the team since. Devils Coach Peter DeBoer gives Kovy a ton of minutes as his offensive strategy, and it works.

Key Players on the Los Angeles Kings
1. Jonathan Quick (#32): Quick is an American goaltender for the Kings who was drafted by the team in the third round in 2005 and has been the most important player for the team. The Kings have had offense struggles (as in they couldn't score goals), and Quick kept them in contention for a win because he didn't allow goals. As opposed to Brodeur, Quick is young at age twenty-six and just embarking on an NHL career. Seeing these two at opposite ends of the ice is something like watching two generations of goalies.

2. Anze Kopitar (#11): Although known as a top goal-scorer for the Kings, Kopitar is perhaps an even better play-maker.. He was drafted in the first round of the 2005 draft along with Quick. Kopitar is the alternate captain for the Kings and is perhaps one of the most talented forwards on the team. He has a great ability to read the ice and make plays. He may not always be the one to put the puck in the net, but he can set up a play to make it happen.

3. Dwight King (#74): King is a fourth-line rookie forward who was a late edition in the season. Read: not a top talent and new to the team and league. Despite the fact that he is so new to the team, King has been playing unbelievable hockey and has found a way to produce offense. He is a surprise for the Kings because he isn't a star and hasn't had much NHL experience. Watch for this player because games are won when the team is running on all cylinders.

Mini Preview
As the first game to this series approaches, everyone weighs in on what to expect. One thing that makes this Stanley Cup final so special is that the Kings are on a historic run. As the eighth seed, the Kings have knocked out the first seed (Vancouver Canucks), the second seed (St. Louis Blues), and the third seed (Phoenix Coyotes) in the Western Conference. This particular feat has never been done before, but coach Darryl Sutter did take the 2004 Calgary Flames to the Stanley Cup finals by knocking off the top three seeds, though not in that order. This is also only the third time in NHL history that an eighth seed has appeared in the Stanley Cup finals. Although I contend that the eighth seed in the Western Conference isn't a true eighth seed, as in a team that only barely made it into the playoffs, it is still an incredible feat.

Although the Devils have home-ice advantage, the Kings are undefeated on the road in the playoffs. Both of these teams are highly defensive with spectacular goaltenders with some offensive weapons as well. The Devils may have slightly better talent, but I would argue that the Kings have better depth (meaning players like King are playing well). The Kings have not lost the first three games in any of their series this far, but they have kept their attitude even-keeled. The Devils are a team that have won Cups and know what it takes to win, while the Kings have only been making the playoffs for the last few years after an eight-year drought.

If the Devils are to steal the game, they will need to see Kovalchuk and Parise do what they do and score goals. They will also have to rely on Brodeur to play at the top of his game. Perhaps because of his age, he doesn't always make some of the easier saves but also still has it in him to make the big saves when it counts. If the Kings are to steal this game, they are going to have to capitalize on those chances. Another factor is that the Kings started to lose some of their momentum at the end of the series against the Phoenix Coyotes in the Western Conference Finals. They are still playing well but perhaps not at the same level as when they started the playoffs. On the other hand, the Devils have found a groove have been playing very well, in fact better than when the playoffs began. Both teams have had some time off from the last series, so they may come back either ready to play or with dead legs. My guess is that the teams will start off hot and will be one heck of a showdown.

One last interesting point is that when Kovalchuk was traded from the Thrashers to the Devils during the 2009-2010 season, he became a free agent the summer of 2010. At the time, the Kings were looking to boost their offense, and Kovalchuk accepted an offer to visit the team and work on negotiations to join the Kings. By the end of his trip, no deal had been made, and Kings fans were disappointed. A few days later, Kovy had been signed to one of the biggest contracts in NHL history, and the Kings organization felt that given the size of the contract he had received, all was fine since they weren't in a position to match. However, it later came out that Kovy never intended to sign with the team. His wife wanted to visit California. That is an incident that never left the minds of Kings fans, and I will expect Staples Center to fill with boos every time Kovy steps on the ice.