By Stu Hackel
The fat lady in this 10 month-long hockey opera hasn't started to sing yet, but she's put on her makeup and is warming up in the wings.
A Game 3 win by the Kings tonight in Los Angeles will leave us within one game of the Stanley Cup championship. They've won the first two games and not really played their best hockey of the postseason -- and that's fine: You don't get style points in the playoffs.
Four times now, the Kings have put a team that had the supposed home ice advantage at a distinct disadvantage by forcing it to win twice at the Staples Center to draw even in a series. No one has done it yet, not Vancouver, St. Louis, or Phoenix. It's a remarkable achievement.
...the series then moved to Boston, where the Bruins were buoyed by the Gah-den crowd. They demolished Vancouver, putting some big doubts in the Canucks' heads that ultimately paid off in Game 7. This time, the guys trailing 0-2 are leaving home, and it's hard to conceive of the Devs winning four of the next five games to stage an historic comeback. But these have been unpredictable playoffs. The Devils certainly can play better than they have in the opening two matches, so you can't count them out until they've dropped four games.
And yet, this barreling freight train of a Kings team that Darryl Sutter has driven so well since the end of December shows no signs of slowing down. In Game 2, the Kings demonstrated that they are capable of winning games in which their engine is not firing on all cylinders -- and it certainly wasn't for sizable stretches, especially the third period.
Unlike the first game, when the Devils attempted only 34 shots (the grand total of their shots on goal, ones that were blocked, and those that missed the net) compared to 54 for Los Angeles, New Jersey did what it wanted to do in Game 2: put pucks behind the Kings' defense, grinding it out along the boards, getting the puck back to the point, and working for deflections and misdirections. They generated a good deal of offense with 67 attempts, compared to the Kings' 53. They did a better job of getting traffic in front of Jonathan Quick, and they worked hard at getting players in the slot -- where the Kings dominated Game 1. That's how the Devils scored their only goal, on Ryan Carter's deflection.
This is what coach Pete DeBoer wants them to do. They did it well. They played better. But it didn't change the final score.
That's a funny thing about the Devils: They also outplayed the Rangers through the first four games of their Eastern Conference Championship series, but were only 2-2 in games at that point. So how well they play isn't translating into wins. Why? It could be because their best players have not been their best players. And it's also the funny thing about the Kings, for whom everything is going right. That's what happens when teams win championships.
With these teams as closely matched as they are -- two straight OT games is evidence of that -- the best players should rise above the equilibrium of the competition and be the difference-makers. And L.A.'s best talents have gotten the job done while the Devils' have not. It's telling that three of the four goals scored by Los Angeles so far belong to Anze Kopitar, Drew Doughty and Jeff Carter. The two New Jersey tallies came from Anton Vochenkov and Ryan Carter. No Zach Parise, no Travis Zajac, no Patrik Elias, and no Ilya Kovalchuk, who hit the crossbar late in the third period of Game 2 and seems to have suffered a recurrence of the back injury that slowed him earlier this spring. That quartet has played well for the most part, but it hasn't broken through on the scoresheet. Carter's fourth line with Stephen Gionta and Steve Bernier (the CBGB Line, their combined last initials are similar to the famous New York music club) that has been most effective while DeBoer has shuffled his top forwards in hopes of getting goals from them.
Lots of observers have examined what the Devils have done wrong to put themselves in this 0-2 hole, but let's look at what the Kings have done right. It starts in goal, of course, as it always does in the playoffs. Quick outdueled Martin Brodeur in the first two games. It's not that Marty has been bad; on the contrary, he's been very good and was truly stellar in Game 2's overtime, keeping the Devils in the game when the Kings, playing their best hockey of the series, had New Jersey on the ropes. Through two games, Quick has been at his flexible and technical best, and this second period save combined elements of both, showing why he's gained support this spring from those who now consider him the best in the game.
And in the third period, when the Devils played their best hockey of the series, it was Quick who kept the score tied and gave his team a chance to take the game to OT, where Carter settled matters on a low shot to Brodeur's stick side. That's where the Kings may have detected some weakness, and after the game on NBC, Pierre McGuire asked Carter if the Kings were aiming there.
Carter kind of ducked the question. But on TSN2, ex-NHL goalie Jamie McLennan was able to break down why Brodeur can be exploited there, namely because he's trying to get opposing shooters to go glove side where he's strong, and by anticipating those shots, his stick side can be exposed (video). It's some pretty smart stuff from McLennan. He also looks at Quick's style (video) and if he's got a weakness -- and most think it's high shots -- the Devils haven't been able to take advantage of it yet.
Then there's Doughty, whose game-opening goal may end up being the signature play of the final.
It was a tremendous play by the 22-year-old former Norris Trophy finalist, who first raced back to bail out his partner, Rob Scuderi, who got trapped at the offensive blue line along the boards. Then he circles in his own zone and heads the other way. But a lot also went wrong for New Jersey on this play, starting with David Clarkson subsequently abandoning the backside pressure and heading to the bench for a change. Carter then does the olé with the charging bull Doughty at the blue line instead of forcing him to the outside, where Doughty's angle to the goal would be more difficult. Gionta can't get to him in time and Doughty uses Bryce Salvador for a screen as he releases his wrist shot that Brodeur perhaps should have stopped (on TSN2, McLennan called it "a stinker").
The fact is, as we noted in our preview of the final, the Devils don't have anyone like Doughty, who combines an ability to create instant offense from the back end with a rugged physical dimension, as the NBC intermission crew illustrated.
The Kings have also passed the puck better than the Devils, continuing to get good breakouts through the middle. It has relieved the pressure on Quick, who hasn't had to face too many second chance opportunities and helped settle L.A. down when the Devils do penetrate their zone, giving them some sort of rhythm to their game.
A lot of that has come from Kopitar, whose all-around excellence in all three zones has never gotten the attention it deserves. He's got size, hands, speed, plays a sound defensive game, and pretty much does everything well. McGuire likes to compare Kopitar to Ron Francis, the Hall of Fame center for Hartford/Carolina, Pittsburgh and (briefly) Toronto, for the way he plays. Like Francis, Kopitar is an overlooked superstar. If his Game 1 OT winner showcased his skills with the puck, in Game 2, he seemed to be there every time the Kings needed someone to help Quick blunt the Devils' attack. Should the Kings go on to win the Cup, Kopitar is going to be seriously considered for the Conn Smythe Trophy.
Kopitar's linemate, Dustin Brown, got a lot of Conn Smythe buzz heading into the final, but he hasn't been the same player he was in the first three rounds. There's some belief he may be banged up, considering that he's not delivering the big hits he did earlier and he made some egregious giveaways in Game 2. But he's still valuable on the Kings' penalty kill, which has erased 18 consecutive man advantages dating back to Game 3 of the Coyotes series. The LA PK has been a major part of their success this spring.
The Devils aren't dead yet. A win in Game 3 puts them in position to join the 1942 Maple Leafs and the 1966 Canadiens as the only teams to drop the first two games at home and still win the Cup. But it increasingly looks like we could see another sort of history made -- the end of another long championship dry spell. The Kings haven't won one since coming into the NHL in 1967. In 2010, the Blackhawks won their first Stanley Cup since 1961. In 2011, the Bruins took their first since 1972. And in 2012, as Marvin Gaye once sang, the next stop just might be L.A.
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