It's time to stop underestimating the New Jersey Devils.
Few thought they stood much of a chance against Philadelphia or the New York Rangers in previous rounds, yet here they are with a chance to claim their fourth Stanley Cup.
All that stands in the way is a Los Angeles Kings team that has been the surprise of the playoffs.
There is very little mystery behind the Devils success so far. After surviving a seven-game scare from Florida in the first round, they've taken their game to another level.
Not only is New Jersey brimming with the necessary amount of skill and experience, it also boasts the kind of depth needed to win a championship. The fourth line of Stephen Gionta, Ryan Carter and Steve Bernier was a big difference-maker against the Rangers in the Eastern Conference final.
When you combine that with the leadership of captain Zach Parise and sniper Ilya Kovalchuk, the clutch performance of young forward Adam Henrique, the unexpected production from veteran defenceman Bryce Salvador and Martin Brodeur's fountain-of-youth goaltending, the Devils are a scary bunch.
Of course, the Kings will not be pushovers. They've cruised to a 12-2 record this post-season using a similar template.
Great goaltending by Jonathan Quick and dynamic performances by captain Dustin Brown and heart-and-soul centre Mike Richards transformed Darryl Sutter's team into giant-killers this spring. Dwight King has supplied the surprising offence—he scored four goals against Phoenix in the Western Conference final—while defenceman Drew Doughty showed the form of a future Norris Trophy winner.
Ultimately, the biggest factor working against Los Angeles could be the fact it hasn't been battle tested. With three quick series under their belt, the Kings haven't faced the adversity New Jersey has in winning a Game 7 in double overtime or having to put down a relentless Rangers team that kept digging itself out of early holes.
Those are essential growing moments during the two-month grind towards the Stanley Cup. While the Kings are more well-rested than teams typically are heading into June, they're going to have to find a level of urgency that will have been difficult to manufacture during the week off before the championship series.
Ultimately, the Stanley Cup final could turn on the games played at Prudential Center. The Kings arrived in Newark for Wednesday's Game 1 with an 8-0 record on the road in these playoffs, which means the Devils will be in tough to protect their home-ice advantage.
Pete DeBoer's team should be up to the challenge. Expect it to be a long, hard series that sees Brodeur rise to the challenge—and ends with him lifting the Stanley Cup over his head once again, this time at age 40.
It would be an amazing achievement.
Pick: Devils in six.