LOS ANGELES -- As they returned to Tinseltown for Game 6, the Devils desperately needed starring roles from Ilya Kovalchuk and Zach Parise, their ace forwards who combined for 68 goals during the regular season. Whether Kovalchuk has been hobbled by the bad back he downplays and Parise has been distracted by the impending free agency he won't discuss, the pair has been largely AWOL in losses and vital in victories.
Coach Peter DeBoer usually plays his two top snipers on different lines, but he has put them together during the Stanley Cup Final to spark the Devils' struggling offense.
New Jersey's leading scorer, Kovalchuk tallied five points in the Devils' final three wins against the Rangers in the Eastern Conference Final, but he has been unable to stride with his usual gusto because of the ailment that slowed him earlier in playoffs. He produced only an empty net goal in the first five Cup final games against L.A. On New Jersey's abysmal power play, DeBoer has left him on the point though he has often been too timid to shoot, allowing the Kings to pack in their defense around goalie Jonathan Quick.
"I need to shoot more," says Kovalchuk, who had never won a playoff series in his previous nine years in the NHL. "You have to rise above what challenges you."
The term "new jersey" has a double meaning for Parise, the league's top offseason unrestricted free agent whose financially troubled team is unlikely to keep him. The normally cheery captain has refused to talk about the situation and several times has snapped, "I'm not answering questions about free agency," when asked about his potential movement.
After amassing 14 points in his first 17 playoff games this spring, Parise went pointless in five straight outings. In Game 5 against the Kings, he showed signs of coming back to life, especially by using sheer hustle to turn an errant pass into a first period goal. The Devils' power play was still scoreless in the series when Parise led Patrik Elias too far in the Kings zone, but followed up his flub by chasing the puck. Quick came out of his net and bounced an exit pass off the end boards too slowly for his defense to reach it. Parise swooped in, snatched the puck and tucked it into an open corner on the opposite side.
After Saturday's victory, DeBoer joked that recent criticism might have fueled Parise's solo dash. "I go into every game expecting Zach to do something big," the coach told reporters. "He's that type of player. I think you guys just pissed him off. That's all. Keep doing it."
Last week, with his team down three games to none, Parise consulted a good source for comebacks. Three teams in NHL history have rallied from 3-0 deficits to win a postseason series. One was the 1975 Islanders, whose first-line left wing helped New York win four straight against Pittsburgh.
"It can be done," J.P. Parise told his son. "We're living proof."