The 2012 Stanley Cup Finals are set.
With Friday's 3-2 overtime victory in hand, the Eastern Conference champion New Jersey Devils have secured their chance to face the Western Conference's Los Angeles Kings in the NHL's title-deciding series.
The matchup is, indeed, arguably the most unlikely in league history—after all, No. 6 and No. 8 seeds have never before met in the cup final. But the talent and the storylines are no different, and the hockey world, once again, has a fantastic Stanley Cup Finals awaiting them.
The Kings, carried by the momentum an unparalleled 12-2 postseason record and a Conn Smythe-deserving run by goalie Jonathan Quick, seek to become the first No. 8 seed to ever win the cup. The only prior eighth-seeded team to make it to this point was the '05-'06 Edmonton Oilers, who eventually lost to the second-seeded Carolina Hurricanes.
On the other hand, New Jersey will hope to ride the experience of four-time cup winner Martin Brodeur in goal to become only the second team in 17 years to win the cup just one year after missing the playoffs.
However, loaded the intimidating likes of Ilya Kovalchuk, Zach Parise, Patrik Elias and ECF Game 7 winner Adam Henrique, this team is certainly much more potent than their prior struggles suggest.
Indubitably, the 2012 Stanley Cup Finals, slated to begin Wednesday with Game 1, will be an unforgettable series. But which team will walk away with the treasured 35-pound mug of silver this summer? Our predictions for how every game of the 2012 NHL title series will play out are in the coming slides.
Note: All predictions and projections in any of the coming slides are purely hypothetical calculations and are, at least for now, solely theoretical forecasts. They should not be considered factual. Conversely, all referenced statistics are accurate and real figures from the first three rounds of the playoffs.
Ilya Kovalchuk and the Devils will end the Kings' record-breaking 8-0 road record in Game 1.
The Devils' man-advantage unit, converting at a strong 18.2 percent rate this spring, passed beautifully in Friday's Game 6 to set up a Kovalchuk score and should prove to be a deciding factor, yet again, in the cup opener.
Expect Kovalchuk, the club's power-play ice-time leader by a long shot, to add to his impressive stat line with two power-play goals Wednesday night, giving New Jersey a thrilling 1-0 series lead.
Jonathan Quick will stop 34 of 36 on one end and Martin Brodeur will turn away 30 of 31 on the other, but in the end, the Devils' chemistry-laden power play steals the show in overtime.
Ilya Kovalchuk will continue his world-class hot streak with the deciding goal in Game 2 as New Jersey grabs a shocking 2-0 series edge.
After trailing 2-1 at the second intermission despite peppering Jonathan Quick with 29 shots, the Devils seize the momentum in the third and pull out a dramatic victory. No. 17—Kovalchuk—adds a power-play assist on the tying goal and then wins the match with a breakaway beauty in the final minutes.
Travis Zajac, with 12 points in the first three rounds of the playoffs after only six in the entire regular season, also scores for New Jersey, offsetting Kings' scores by X-factors Dwight King and Trevor Lewis. King, with five goals in his last six appearances, and Lewis, whose six postseason points are only one short of his regular-season total, have been secret weapons for L.A. throughout the playoffs.
Quick and Martin Brodeur both remain solid, each making 36 and 25 saves, respectively.
Following two "good, but not great" performances, Jonathan Quick returns to the limelight with a 28-save shutout in Game 3.
The Kings, looking to make a statement as they get back into the series, come out of the gate firing and take a two-goal advantage in the game's opening stanza. Scoring leaders Dustin Brown (16 points, plus-13 rating to date) and Anze Kopitar (15 points, plus-13 rating to date) each light the lamp, and Los Angeles outshoots and outscores New Jersey 14-5 and 2-0, respectively, in the first period.
After that, it's all Jonathan Quick. The 26-year-old netminder turns away 23 Devils shots and four Devils power plays in the second and third periods to preserve the shutout and the win, which is finished off by Justin Williams' empty-netter in the final minute.
Back on October 25, 2011, the Devils stymied L.A.'s offense and penetrated Quick three times in their only regular-season date at the Staples Center, winning 3-0.
Game 4, over seven months since that initial regular-season victory, will follow a similar path.
Dainius Zubrus, who scored twice back in that October showdown, breaks the goose egg late in the second period and gives New Jersey the lead for good.
Then, impactful midseason waiver pickup Ryan Carter, who scored crucial goals in both Games 5 and 6 of the conference finals, adds another score midway through the third and Martin Brodeur stops 26 of 26 to lead the Devils within one win of the NHL title.
Deadline acquisition Marek Zidlicky, one of the more unheralded players in New Jersey's playoff run, also records helpers on both goals.
With the Stanley Cup now truly on the line, the offenses of both clubs finally break through in Game 5.
Goals by Zach Parise, Ilya Kovalchuk and Alexei Ponikarovsky in the first two periods put New Jersey within 20 minutes of the cup at the second intermission, leading 3-2.
But L.A.'s Mike Richards, perhaps the most playoff-tested forward on the Kings' roster, evens the score with seven minutes to play and then sets up former Flyers teammate Jeff Carter for the OT winner to keep Los Angeles alive and kicking.
The Kings' group of top-six forwards, who score all four goals for their team that Saturday, manage to send the series back to California by overcoming a variety of unfavorable statistics—a 40-24 shot deficit, five surrendered power plays and a sub-40 faceoff winning percentage.
However, Los Angeles' penalty kill, whose impressive 92.1 percent kill rate entering the series was crushed in Games 1 and 2, does return to form with a 5-for-5 outing and, in the end, the Kings remain alive into Game 6.
With the energy of another sellout crowd rocking the Staples Center, the L.A. Kings explode in the third period to even the Stanley Cup Final at three games apiece.
New Jersey and Los Angeles stand tied at one apiece after 40 minutes—goals by the home team's Dustin Brown and the visiting team's Patrik Elias being the only highlights of the first two periods—but early in the third, the Kings' extraordinary penalty kill breaks the deadlock with a shorthanded goal that opens the floodgates.
Drew Doughty and Dustin Penner score soon after to transform the contest from a 1-1 dead heat to a 4-1 rout, and Martin Brodeur loses his cool down the stretch as he watches his team fall for the second straight time. The future Hall of Famer eventually finishes the game with an underwhelming .862 save percentage (25 saves on 29 shots) and takes his deflated Devils home for a Game 7 they didn't want to have to play.
Meanwhile, Jonathan Quick remains steadfast with 26 saves on 27 shots to lead the energized Kings back onto the charter flight with an unquenchable hunger—the quest to win their franchise's first ever Stanley Cup in 45 years of existence.
The Los Angeles Kings pull off the miracle comeback with an exhilarating Game 7 at The Rock, eventually holding on for a rousing victory that awards the franchise its first ever Stanley Cup.
A trio of players with prior cup final experience—Jeff Carter (2010 Flyers), Justin Williams (2006 Hurricanes) and Matt Greene (2006 Oilers)—step up to the plate with three critical goals to give the Kings a 3-1 edge with 60 seconds to play.
But with the goalie pulled in the final minute, New Jersey's best clutch scorer, Adam Henrique, adds to his marvelous rookie resume—one that already includes two Game 7 overtime game-winners earlier in the postseason—with a critical goal that pulls the Devils within one. However, Kovalchuk and linemates are unable to pot another in the dying seconds, and New Jersey is toppled, 3-2, to lose the cup on home ice.
Quick finishes the series having allowed no more than three goals in any single game and a spectacular cup final save percentage of .944—almost identical to his .946 save percentage through the playoffs' first three rounds. The Connecticut native becomes the runaway winner of both the Conn Smythe and Vezina trophies, in addition to the one prize he surely cherishes the most: the Stanley Cup.