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Roughly two years ago, the Los Angeles Kings and New Jersey Devils were the finalists in the free-agent market battle for Ilya Kovalchuk.

The Devils won the right to keep the high-scoring Russian with a bid of $102 million.

Wednesday night, the teams will start fighting for a much bigger prize, the Stanley Cup. In this contest, skill, heart and desire will decide the outcome. Nothing else.

And it doesn't matter that the Devils and Kings aren't the two teams most experts expected to be left standing after three rounds of the playoffs.

''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 finals. The 2004 Calgary Flames, coached by Sutter, were the other.

Riding the goaltending of Jonathan Quick, the Kingsovercame 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.''

While this isn't a glamour series that boasts the likes of a Sidney Crosby, a Steven Stamkos or even a Henrik Lundqvist, it has elements that should help the NHL, and prove entertaining on the ice.

To start, this is an East-West series featuring two of the nation's biggest media markets: Los Angeles and the New York metropolitan area.

The Kings and Devils also present great story lines.

Los Angeles, which heavily courted Kovalchuk in free agency, is making only its second appearance in the Cup finals, having lost in 1993 to Montreal. The Kings are back after a midseason shake-up that saw Sutter replace Terry Murray just before Christmas and a late trade that added skilled scorer Jeff Carter to the lineup. Still, they didn't clinch a playoff berth until the final week of the season.

The Kings have been virtually unstoppable since then. They have posted a 12-2 record in the playoffs and knocked off the three top seeds in the Western Conference - Vancouver, St. Louis and Phoenix. They have never trailed in a series, winning the first three games in each round.





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