The Los Angeles Kings might have been an eighth seed in the Western Conference, and the New Jersey Devils a sixth seed in the East, but it's no fluke the two teams are facing off in the Stanley Cup Final.
They were two of the NHL's hottest teams down the stretch of the regular season, have stayed remarkably healthy through the postseason, are deep from top to bottom and have ridden tremendous goaltending -- Jonathan Quick with the Kings and Martin Brodeur for the Devils.
Ken Hitchcock, the NHL's likely Coach of the Year, saw the Kings and Devils late in the year during his capacity with the St. Louis Blues and realized instantly both were special.
"We went into L.A. [March 22] and we lost 1-0 in a shootout," said Hitchcock, whose Blues eventually would be swept by the Kings in the second round. "I know we all left the rink saying, 'That's a heck of a hockey club.'
"A month earlier, we were in Jersey. I kept saying after every period, 'Are we this slow or are they that fast?' We ended up winning the game, but man oh man, they played at a tempo and a speed that was very, very quick. It surprised me. You knew they were both good and deep."
The Devils, looking for their fourth Stanley Cup since 1995, and Kings, who have not won a Cup in their 45-year history, are built differently -- the Devils with speed and tenacity, the Kings with sheer physicality from a bunch of large, lean-on-you type of players.
But they're similar, too, highlighted by the fact Kings coach Darryl Sutter and Devils coach Pete DeBoer can roll four lines, have well-defined blue lines and great goalies.
Brodeur, at age 40, is playing so well, he's rethinking retirement as he searches for his fourth Stanley Cup. Quick, 14 years younger, has followed a brilliant regular-season campaign (1.95 goals-against average, .929 save percentage) with an incredible postseason (1.54 GAA, .949 save percentage).
Los Angeles has steamrolled through the postseason, jumping to 3-0 series leads in all three rounds, holding opponents to 1.57 goals per game and going 8-0 on the road.
New Jersey has gotten off to a bunch of quick starts and shocked teams with its speed, but it's had the tougher road, too. Remember, the Devils went to double overtime in Game 7 of the first round against Florida. They were that close to being eliminated. With the Eastern Conference finals tied 2-2, they coughed up a 3-0 lead in Game 5 before White Bear Lake's Ryan Carter rescued them by scoring the winning goal in the final five minutes against the Rangers.
But, one can say the Devils know how to handle adversity while the Kings have faced none. Plus, after the Kings made quick work of Phoenix, how will this eight-day layoff affect them?
They had long layoffs after the first two rounds, but even Kings center Mike Richards says, "not with the built-up excitement of going to a Final."
Both teams are ridiculously deep, with second lines that are better than most first lines.
Consider: The Kings' second line is technically Dustin Penner with reunited former Philadelphia Flyers Richards and Jeff Carter. Lethal goal scorer Ilya Kovalchuk plays on New Jersey's second line with rookie Adam Henrique and Alexei Ponikarovsky.
The Devils' top line of Zach Parise, Travis Zajac and Dainus Zubrus has combined for 17 goals, while L.A.'s top trio of Dustin Brown, Anze Kopitar and Justin Williams has combined for 15 goals in four fewer games.
And if you're a Wild fan, there's plenty of reason to watch this series.
First, there's former Wild defenseman Willie Mitchell, who is vying for his first Stanley Cup. He has given Los Angeles a hard-nosed, rock-steady influence on the back end. Second, there's Marek Zidlicky, who orchestrated a power play to get traded from the Wild in February and might get rewarded for that with a Stanley Cup. After struggling dramatically with the Wild, Zidlicky has been a key contributor for Jersey.
And lastly, there's Parise.
If he becomes a free agent July 1, the Wild will be in hot pursuit. But many fans in Minnesota are quivering over Parise's future and how winning a Stanley Cup or losing one could affect that.
Parise is determined to guide the Devils to a championship, which also should have the Kings quivering.
"Parise for me is a special player," Hitchcock said. "He's got the push in every place all over the ice. He's got the push offensively, defensively, killing penalties. There's certain players in the league that just make you nervous when they're on the ice, and it's their speed and work that makes you nervous.
"Parise makes you nervous all the time."
Michael Russo firstname.lastname@example.org