Haggerty: Previewing the Cup Finals

753750.jpg

Haggerty: Previewing the Cup Finals

NEWARK, NJ -- The waiting is over, and the rest-vs.-rust arguments will cease.

The NHL will drop the puck on a true East Coast-vs.-West Coast Stanley Cup Finals with the sixth-seeded New Jersey Devils hosting the eighth-seeded Los Angeles Kings, and it all starts Wednesday night.

You dont know if youll ever get the opportunity to play in the Finals, said Devils captain Zach Parise. If you get an opportunity you never know whether youll get the chance again, so you have to make the most of it. Given the circumstances, I dont think there will much of a feeling-out period like there is during the regular season. You have to hate your opponent. I dont think thats going to be a problem for us.

With the Kings making the same kind of noise, and with plenty of storylines on both sides, heres a quick series preview and a fearless prediction:

Goaltenders
Its the kind of master-vs.-the young apprentice tale that any Star Wars fan would love. Martin Brodeur, the veteran of five Stanley Cup Finals and a three-time champion, has done it all in a Hall of Fame career, and knows the end is near at 40 years old. There's little doubt he could reach back for something extra with another Cup on the line so close to retirement, and he has a respectable .923 save percentage, along with a 2.04 goals-against average, so far in the playoffs. He also has four assists while hes sliced and diced opposing forechecks. It will be difficult to conquer the goaltending lion in winter, but Jonathan Quick has been Mr. Everything for the Kings at the other end. He leads all playoff goaltenders with a .946 save percentage and a microscopic 1.54 goals-against average, and has looked unbeatable. But hes never played in the Stanley Cup Finals spotlight before, and hell have to prove he can handle it after looking like Eminem with his hood shrouded over his face at Stanley Cup Media Day on Tuesday. Edge: Devils

Defensemen
Bryce Salvador. Marek Zidlicky. Peter Harrold. Mark Fayne. Who are these guys? The New Jersey Devils' blueline crew has been outstanding while going about their business anonymously, but theres been a sense the balloon could burst if they faced withering forecheck. Enter the Los Angeles Kings, who are led by the closest thing Ive seen to Ray Bourque in todays NHL in Drew Doughty. Doughty has 10 points in 14 games with a plus-10 and is playing 25-plus minutes every night. The rest (Matt Greene, Slava Voynov, Alec Martinez, Willie Mitchell and Rob Scuderi) are decidedly Jersey-like in their No-Name Quality, but an elite defenseman like Doughty could dominate in a best-of-seven series for the Cup like Niklas Lidstrom before him. Edge: Kings

Forwards
Plenty of talent and firepower on both sides. Ilya Kovalchuk has been a consistent force during New Jerseys playoff run and Zach Parise seemed to finally discover his footing in the Eastern Conference Finals against the Rangers. For L.A., Dustin Brown has been a one-man wrecking crew with his relentless forecheck and gritty nature, and has 16 points and a plus-13 in only 14 games. Anze Kopitar has been equally dominant at the offensive end. But the Kings' biggest strength is that effective postseason players like Dustin Penner, Mike Richards and Jeff Carter stand behind them, and nearly every single one of them has something to prove over the next two weeks. Dont underestimate the fact that many of the Devils forwards have played in the minus through the postseason. They can be exposed offensively and the Kings have the dogs to get the job done. Edge: Kings

Special Teams
This could be where the Devils could do some damage in the series. Kovalchuk has five power-play goals, more than all players on either team, and he is a force of skill on the man advantage. Meanwhile the Kings have gone 6-for-71 while tallying a Bruins-esque 8.1 percent success rate during the playoffs. Their man advantage has been a liability throughout the postseason, though it hasnt been an issue quite yet. Meanwhile, Jersey is humming along at 18.2 percent and has scored twice as many PP goals in the postseason as the Kings. It should be noted that the Kings are also killing 91.2 percent of their penalties while the Devils are under 75 percent effectiveness. Methinks if the Devils win, it will be on the strength of special teams: Edge: Devils

CoachingIntangibles
Peter DeBoer managed to survive three years in Florida. For that he gets bonus points. He also has stared down John Tortorella on multiple occasions and bit back at the rabid dog of a hockey coach. For that, an entire New York Rangers media corps wants to give him a hug. Hes squeezed everything he could out of the Devils while surprising many along the way, and surviving injuries early in the season that looked like they would sink his hockey club into the Jersey shore. Beyond the coaches, the leadership of Zach Parise is impressive and the Devils have Stanley Cup Final warriors in guys like Martin Brodeur and Patrik Elias. You have to like that. For Los Angeles, Darryl Sutter likes to say things like Strap on the feedbag and any other manner of farm euphemisms, but under that country-boy exterior the man is crazy like a fox. Edge: Devils by a slight margin

Prediction
It will take the Kings a couple of games to get going after taking seven days off between the Western Conference Finals and the start of the Cup Finals, but they are fast, strong, relentless and explosive. The depth of Los Angeles -- with Carter and Richards coming after Brown and Anze Kopitar -- is exactly the kind of firepower that will give some defensively suspect Devils players fits. In the end Los Angeles will find ways to expose Kovalchuk when hes out on the ice, and the Kings will finally break through against Brodeur. The pick: Kings in six

Chara: 'A great honor' to be nominated for Masterton Trophy

Chara: 'A great honor' to be nominated for Masterton Trophy

It takes only the highest levels of perseverance and dedication to the game to log over 1,300 NHL games and to play past your 40th birthday. Bruins defenseman Zdeno Chara has both of those qualities in overflowing amounts as the fourth oldest player in the league behind Florida Panthers forward Jaromir Jagr, Arizona Coyotes forward Shane Doan and Pittsburgh Penguins forward Matt Cullen. Chara is also the second longest tenured captain in the league behind Doan, who has been the captain of the Coyotes since 2003.

For all those reasons and more, Chara has been voted by the Boston Chapter of the PWHA (Professional Hockey Writers Association) as the Bruins nominee for the Masterton Trophy given to the player that best exemplifies “the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to hockey.”

The Bruins captain has also been the embodiment of good sportsmanship in his 11 years as captain of the Black and Gold while leading teams with his steady, hard-working hand through both epic highs and lows. Chara is always at the forefront of the Bruins charitable efforts and has shown his dedication to the game by nearly always participating for his Slovakian homeland whether it’s world championships, the Olympics or the World Cup as the setting for the International tournament.

It all comes back to Chara’s love for the game, his dedication to setting an example as a professional and his enjoyment of the hard work required to play in the NHL for 18 plus seasons.

“From my first day in the NHL until today it is an absolute thrill to play in the league,” said Chara. “It’s a great honor to be nominated. I always take a lot of pride in doing my job as a professional, and doing it right. Doing all of my work on and off the ice. I’ve always felt really humble about being a part of this league and this game. It’s a game that gives you so much in life, and helps you become a better person and a better hockey player each day.

“I’m just enjoying my time with team and my teammates, and cherish the memories of winning. I just try to work every day on my game and improve. I enjoy every day whether I was 20 years old or 40 years old. I love the game, and I love everything about it.”

Chara had missed only 41 games for the Bruins in his first 10 seasons with the team in a remarkable show of durability and toughness while playing the role a physical defensive stopper. He's never shied away from the big hits, the big players or the big ice time totals. The veteran D-man is having a banner season as a 40-year-old that started out by leading Team Europe to the World Cup Final against Team Canada, and it’s continued with his season-long mentoring job helping develop 20-year-old rookie defenseman Brandon Carlo.

Chara has changed a bit from his Norris Trophy days while adjusting his game to reduced levels of physicality and out-and-out dominance, but the ability to still call on both of those qualities at 40 years old is unique for an intimidating 6-foot-9 force out on the ice. Equally impressive is his standing as a No. 1 defenseman at this point in his 18-plus year career while constantly dedicated to improving himself, and learning, both on and off ice. Perhaps Chara’s most underrated quality is his ability to move the puck and chip in offensively, a set of skills that will see him pass the 600-point milestone this season after a career built in part on a big slap shot from the point.

It’s also a great example of Chara remaking himself into more of a puck-mover and power play point producer when he was projected to be a good defense/limited offense shutdown defenseman all those years ago working his way through the Islanders’ ranks.

Chara continues to be a strong lead-by-example personality within the Bruins dressing room, one who demands hard work and total dedication to both the game and the team concept when it comes to his Boston teammates.

Cassidy quells goaltender controversy: 'Tuukka's our No. 1 goalie'

Cassidy quells goaltender controversy: 'Tuukka's our No. 1 goalie'

BRIGHTON, Mass. – While the sequence of events over the past couple of days could understandably lead one to wonder who will start between the pipes for the Bruins on Tuesday night vs. Nashville, interim coach Bruce Cassidy tried to quell any hint of a goalie controversy.

The vote of confidence was certainly needed after Anton Khudobin’s fifth consecutive win halted the B's four-game losing streak with a huge 2-1 victory over the Islanders on Saturday night in the wake of Rask’s absence while tending to a short-term lower body issue.  

“[Rask] had a good practice today. I spoke with him. We’ll see how he wakes up tomorrow and we’ll make our decision. He’s our No. 1 goalie, so there’s no way we can skirt our way around that issue. He’s our No. 1 and his health is very important. When he’s physically ready to go and he tells me that, then we’ll make that decision,” said Cassidy. “He’s a guy that’s played a lot of hockey this year...and he’s not a 240-pound goaltender that can handle all of the games, all of the workload every year. We know that. I’m not going to put limitations on him, but we probably overused him at the start of the year. At this time of year, it gets tougher and tougher with any player that’s been overplayed.

“That’s why we have two goaltender, and [Anton Khudobin] has really stepped up in that last stretch and done what’s asked of him. He’s fixed that area of our game. It’s nice to have a guy that’s your No. 2 that can win you hockey games and play well. It’s a great problem to have, to be honest with you. But Tuukka is our No. 1. But Tuukka is our No. 1. He’s our guy.”

Rask declared himself fit to play after going through a full Monday practice with no issues, but said he’s still waiting to hear the final word on whether he’ll play on Tuesday night vs. the Predators. The Bruins franchise goalie also said he isn’t worried about any recurrence of the lower body injury that “popped up” in the Tampa Bay loss Thursday night, which really doesn’t bring any clarity to the entire situation.

“It was a good day back on the ice. I feel good. We’ll see what the decision is [for the Nashville game], but I feel good today,” said Rask, who is 8-8 with a .892 save percentage and a 2.91 goals-against average since the All-Star break, compared to Khudobin’s 2-0-0 with a .920 save percentage and 1.98 goals-against average. “You need to put the best lineup out as possible, and I wasn’t in any shape to play. So, there are no easy decisions this time of year, but I’ve played a lot of hockey and injuries happen. We talked to the training staff and managers and came to a decision that [Khudobin] was going to play the game, and that’s it.

“It’s obviously tough from a personal standpoint, but it’s never about one guy or two guys. It’s a team game and I feel confident that we’re going to get the job done as long as we play the way we did. It was great to see.”

Clearly, it looks like Rask is going to play vs. Nashville and that’s the safe, easy decision when it comes to a No. 1 goalie getting paid $7 million a season and perhaps it all works out with a fired up Finnish netminder after sitting out Saturday night. But nobody is going to be faulted if they wonder what’s going to wrong with Rask ahead of the next gigantic game Boston will have to play with the Stanley Cup playoffs on the line.