A little less than two years after battling for the services of high-scoring free agent forward Ilya Kovalchuk, the New Jersey Devils and Los Angeles Kings are going after a bigger prize -- the Stanley Cup.
To tell the truth, hardly anyone picked the Devils and Kings to get this far.
The odds were lottery like, and the teams beat them with authority in reaching a series that will open tonight at the Prudential Center (8 p.m., Ch. 2 & 5).
"You hear it every year, but it doesn't get old: Once you make it in, you have a chance to get here," Kings coach Darryl Sutter said. "I think that's one thing that the prognosticators don't consider. I always put it this way -- when the playoffs start, the clocks should be reset. Because everyone's starting over, and all 16 teams have a shot to win it all.
"I think both teams would agree with that this year."
Led by Kovalchuk and a 40-year-old Martin Brodeur, the Devils are just the second No. 6 seed to reach the final. The 2004 Calgary Flames, who were coached by Sutter, were the other.
Riding the goaltending of Jonathan Quick, the Kings overcame even bigger obstacles. They are only the second No. 8 seed to make it since the conference-based NHL playoff format was introduced in 1993-94. The Edmonton Oilers were the first in 2006.
"It's all about winning here, and eliminating distractions and doing what it takes to be successful," said Brodeur, who led the Devils to Cups in 1995, 2000 and 2003. "That's worked for us this year, and really my entire career. For me, to be a part of that is great. To come to the rink every day during my career, knowing we had a chance to win every night is something special.
"I've had that my whole career here, and that's been a great ride."
Los Angeles, which heavily courted Kovalchuk in free agency, is making only its second appearance in a Cup final, having lost in 1993 to Montreal. The Kings are back, though, after a midseason shakeup that saw Sutter replace Terry Murray just before Christmas and a late trade that added skilled scorer Jeff Carter to the lineup.
In the postseason, the Kings have been virtually unstoppable. They have posted a 12-2 record and knocked off the three top seeds in the Western Conference -- Vancouver, St. Louis and Phoenix. They have never trailed in a series.