After opening up a noticeable hole between the conference finals and the 2012 Stanley Cup finals – the kind of crater that kind of sort of reminds one of the fact that there are only between four and seven contests left until the hot, long hockey summer – the big games are about to commence. Despite being the road team for their first three series, the East’s sixth seed New Jersey Devils will host the West’s eight seed/sudden locomotive Los Angeles Kings (whose fans must absolutely be frothing at the mouth in anticipation of perhaps the franchise’s best opportunity to win its first Cup) beginning Wednesday night.
The funny thing about making series picks is that saying “Team X is going to win” automatically seems to insult “Team Y,” even if X’s advantage can oftentimes be the matter of a coin flip. In this case, the eighth-ranked Kings are taking up the mantle of Team X for a simple reason: they’ve been tearing their way through the postseason in a way that is rarely seen. The Kings are 12-2 in the 2012 postseason and haven’t lost a single road contest yet – a pretty good number since they’ll start the biggest series of all on the road. (It's also an NHL record if you count the two away wins they carry over from the 2011 postseason.)
I’ve railed against underdogs for much of this postseason for the simple-yet-sad reason that most upstart teams use snooze-inducing tactics to overcome favorites. The funny thing about a matchup between these two teams who were in the lower ranks of their conferences is that – at least relatively speaking – they’re aggressive teams who bring a nice amount of offensive talent to the table.
Does that mean the two teams are going to play the sort of games that will give Wayne Gretzky flashbacks of his game-changing run in Hollywood? Probably not, but considering the fact that the Stanley Cup finals is occasionally a first-time view (or at least a “OK, I’ll give hockey a chance”) experience for casual fans, it’s nice that the game will be sold by teams who have some star power and at least a passing interest in pushing the pace.
With all that in mind, I thought it might be fun to break down some of the most interesting fantasy-leaning storylines from the series. Some of the categories will strike you as obvious while some of this will revolve more around ponderous bigger-picture questions.
QUICK VS. BRODEUR
Considering the fact that Martin Brodeur essentially conquered some of the NHL’s biggest individual goalie records since he won his third Stanley Cup in 2003, his presence in the final round in 2012 is one of the biggest surprises of the postseason and also is the most obvious top story.
I have to admit that, to the naked eye, Brodeur hasn’t exactly blown me away in the playoffs. Aside from the occasional vintage stretch of the sort of atypical saves that will go borderline-extinct once Brodeur hangs ‘em up, the feeling – at least the gut reaction – is that the Devils’ success is more about their ferocious forecheck and underrated overall team talent.
That being said, his postseason numbers actually are pretty impressive, and not just his 12-6 (one OT loss) record. He has an outstanding .923 save percentage, 2.04 GAA and one shutout. Ever since being pulled from an April 17 game against the Florida Panthers, Brodeur has played some great hockey, only allowing a peak of four goals once (against the Philadelphia Flyers).
That being said, I get the feeling that the young netminder on the other side of the rink will end up looking better for a variety of reasons.
For one thing, life has been relatively easy for Brodeur since May rolled around. He's only needed to make more than 30 saves once this month (stopping 33 out of 35 to eliminate the New York Rangers in Game 6). The Kings offense isn’t as high-powered as the Philadelphia Flyers’ group, which the Devils handled with a surprising amount of ease, yet they’re likely to penetrate the unheralded New Jersey defense with more success than the Rangers (who were honestly kind of pathetic at times).
Los Angeles has a handful of forwards who are bigger and more versatile than the ones the Devils dealt with in round one, which should do a good job of clarifying just how strong a postseason Brodeur is really having. The Kings’ forwards are likely to crash Brodeur’s crease, block his vision and bring a more varied attack than they’ve seen.
Beyond that, it just seems like Jonathan Quick is better at this point in the two goalies’ careers.
Sure, there have been moments where he looked uncharacteristically shaky (the Derek Morris center-ice goal stands out, but there were other slightly worrisome moments), but Quick generally bounces back from setbacks. While it's true that Quick has benefited from the same sort of team-wide dominance as Broduer - maybe more - his numbers are superior. He has that 12-2 record with a .946 save percentage, 1.54 GAA and two shutouts.
Those are the kind of numbers that can make a "well-kept secret" into a househould hockey name.
WHO’S THE BEST?
Here’s an interesting question that’s been rolling around my head the last few days: which player would rank as the “best guy on the ice” in this series?
Let’s exclude the goalies for a second and take defensemen out of the equation, even though Drew Doughty could make a serious argument for top guy status. (That might be one of the underrated stories of the postseason, actually; after floundering compared to his hot start in the league for a second season, Doughty’s been a huge difference-maker so far in the postseason.)
Instead, the question comes down to Anze Kopitar vs. Ilya Kovalchuk vs. Zach Parise (with all apologies to honorary mentions such as Zach Parise, Dustin Brown, Adam Henrique, Jeff Carter and Mike Richards).
The two Devils dynamos out-classed the Rangers’ one-two punch of Brad Richards and Marian Gaborik by an embarrassing margin. While it’s easy to point to Parise’s “hustle” and perhaps a heightened versatility, Kovalchuk’s all-around game has come a long way since his dark, one-dimensional days with the Atlanta Thrashers. Despite Parise being in a contract year push, Kovalchuk leads playoff scores (18 points to Parise’s 14) and had more points in the regular season (83 to 69) despite playing in five fewer contests.
To me, it comes down to Kovalchuk vs. Kopitar, then. Much like his edge over Parise, Kovalchuk scored more in the regular season and playoffs, although the two forwards are very close point-per-game-wise. Kopitar is also a little more versatile; he’s a center so he generally takes on a bigger defensive responsibility and obviously takes faceoffs and all that good stuff.
Feel free to disagree, but from a fantasy perspective in particular, I’d give the edge to Kovalchuk. I’ll always question his lifetime $100M+ contract, but there aren’t any players who are truly worth that kind of risk. Injuries, complacency and the aging process makes those deals albatrosses in the making.
With the Sedin twins split in round one, you can argue that the Kings haven’t faced the kind of firepower that the Devils sport in the postseason. It’s one of the reasons that, despite a gut instinct, it was actually pretty uncomfortable to make the Kings “Team X” and the Devils “Team Y.”
BRYCE IS WRONG
While I’d argue that this year’s postseason provides evidence that Doughty might be a high-end fantasy pick among defensemen once again next season, some might wonder if Devils blueliner Bryce Salvador (second among playoff defensemen with 11 points, one more than Doughty, a +10 rating and 16 PIM) might be worth drafting next year.
Although I’m happy for Salvador, my answer is no. Salvador's +18 rating and 66 PIM from the season means he might have some marginal value, but his 11 playoff points is more than he scored through all of the regular season. In fact, a strong enough Cup finals could eclipse his career-high of 16 points (2008-09) or at least approach his second-best output (14 in 09-10).
The most glaring number that shows he's playing over his head is his 14.3 percent shooting percent. His career average is 4.7 and he peaked at 73 SOG in 2002-03 with the Blues so ... yeah, he's not likely to duplicate this effort.
Still, if you want to at least keep an eye on him next season, go for it.
ROTOWORLD LEAGUE UPDATE
1. Jimmy Hascup - 418.60 points
2. Jared O - 249.30
3. Corey Abbott - 243.80
4. Michael Finewax - 238.60
5. Marc Lapierre - 206.60
6. My team - 171.60
7. Ryan Dadoun - 144.20
8. Brian Rosenbaum - 138.50
9. Gus Katsaros - 106.70
10. Kevin Brown - 89.80
The three-team race for the “silver and bronze medals” remains the most interesting match since Hascup is so far ahead of everyone else while the rest of the field has thinned out. The interesting thing is that Jared, Corey and Michael all have six players left. Jared’s best remaining player is Parise, Corey’s team is powered by Brown and Michael has Brodeur, Travis Zajac and if things continue the way they've been, Dwight King.
On a personal note, by my best pick might have been Kovalchuk (second round, 17th overall). I figured he’d make it through perhaps two rounds, so getting to the Cup finals was an overachievement and one of the few pleasant surprises in the pool (Mike Richards was a decent bargain too).
It seems more and more likely that Roberto Luongo will indeed be traded. That should be a fun off-season story to watch … Justin Schultz’s saga with the Anaheim Ducks is kicking off. Not sure how long he’ll take to make a fantasy hockey impact, despite Schultz drawing (probably unfair) Doughty comparisons … I doubt we’ll see him, but keep an eye out for Simon Gagne updates as a semi-healthy Gagne could be a rare late-in-the-postseason pickup where that’s applicable … There is some word that GMs might “reset” the obstruction standards from after the lockout. That would be huge for fantasy because, let’s face it, the rampant clutching and grabbing limits overall scoring chances and generally ruins everything … Henrik Tallinder received medical clearance to play, but probably won’t be back in the Devils lineup tonight. (Click here for the full injury list.)