Devils in 6
It was the greatest postseason series in the history of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, loaded with drama and subplots the New York Rangers trying to erase 54 years of futility and the New Jersey Devils trying to just make their mark, with a 22 year old rookie goalie. The Devils and Rangers battled for seven games, three of which went to double overtime, before Stephane Mateau an otherwise NHL nomad became the hero on Broadway. Along the way Mark Messier became a messiah and took the load on his shoulders in one of the most dramatic performance in NHL history. Since then the Rangers have been in a funk, while the Devils have more than made their mark, winning the Stanley Cup three times, as that rookie Goalie, Martin Brodeur became the best of all time. Now18 years later they meet again, the Rangers and Devils have met in the playoffs three times since that legendary series, but none will match the intensity and importance of the next two weeks with a trip to the Stanley Cup Finals on the line.
This year the Rangers and Devils split six meetings, with fights marring one game, while each team’s goalie had one shutout, highlighted by a vintage Marty game in early February. The Devils come in the fresher team having dominated the Flyers in five games, which gave them five days to rest their bruised. The Rangers meanwhile are hitting the ice less than 48 hours after a hard fought Game 7 win over the Capitals. The Rangers come in having needed two game seven wins. No team that has been taken to seven games in the first two rounds has ever won the Conference Finals. The goalie match ups are even as Martin Brodeur who is now a wily veteran at the age of 40 still among the best, while Rangers netminder Henrik Lundqvist had had a MVP season, and should win his first Vezina. Both teams have solid defenses, with the Devils expertly implying a modified form of the trap when they got the lead against the Flyers. Those these are the kill the offense Devils of old, these new Devils have used the forecheck to perfection in their series over the Flyers. If the Devils can repeat that performance they will be the winners of the War on the Hudson. In the end the Devils have more offensive weapons with Ilya Kovalchuk and Zach Parise both capable of having big games, while David Clarkson, Partik Elias and Alexei Ponikarovsky can each deliver a big goal at any time. In addition the Devils fourth line has given them a boost on several occasions this playoff season. The Rangers have had some offensive struggles, and unless Brad Richards and Marian Gaborik have monster series, it will be the Devils who take the series in six games.
Coyotes in 7
If you stood up on March 1st and declared the Los Angeles Kings and Phoenix Coyotes would meet in the Western Conference Finals, you would have been taken to the doctor to see if you were suffering from sun stroke. The Kings and Coyotes combined have made it to one Conference Final before this season, with the Kings winning the West in 1993. The Coyotes were expected to be packing their moving vans to Quebec City, while the Kings were expected to be in the front row at a Lakers game after a day of golf. However, the Arizona desert has learned the joy of ice under the scorching Arizona sun while the Kings have the glitter and glamour crowd learning what hockey is as they waive to the cameras and make sure they are seen at the game, before leaving in the second intermission to beat traffic. Just which one of these Sun Belt cities will be skating in June with a chance to bring the Stanley Cup to the ultimate summer vacation home?
In the NBA, Phoenix and Los Angeles have had rivalry for years and it has already carried over to the ice, as Coyote fans chanted “Beat LA” in the waning moments of their five game victory over the Nashville Predators. The Kings are the hottest team in the NHL, as they beat the top two seeds in the West and have only lost once since the playoffs began, as suddenly Jonathan Quick has become the biggest hockey star in LA since Wayne Gretzky. Both teams are getting exceptional play from their goalies as Mike Smith of the Coyotes and Jonathan Quick of the Kings have been virtual stone walls in the playoffs, letting few soft goals go by as they have flustered their foes with thrilling save after thrilling save.
The Kings and Coyotes were part of a late season scramble for the Pacific Division, which saw four teams battling for three playoff spots, with the best of the bunch getting home ice and the division title. In winning their first ever NHL division title the Coyotes who once were the Winnipeg Jets rode the pads of Mike Smith who in last few weeks of the regular season began a string of incredible goaltending that has carried them to their first playoff series win in 25 years and into the Conference Finals for the first time ever. The two teams split six games during the regular season, with three games ending in shutouts two of which had 1-0 finals. Expect to see at least two 1-0 finals in this series as Quick and Smith put on a seven game goaltending clinic. In the end the Coyotes on a franchise saving run make it the Stanley Cup Finals, with Shane Doan the veteran who has been with Coyotes since their days in Winnipeg providing the difference.