By Stu Hackel
This, finally, could be the night that fast-talking Jack Kent Cooke envisioned in 1966 when he plunked down $2 million for an NHL expansion franchise. He called his new team the Kings, dressed them regally in gold and purple (which he'd later call "Forum Blue"), had them briefly play home games at the Long Beach Arena in 1967 before moving them to his new "Fabulous" Forum in Inglewood, and -- as Sports Illustrated's Pete Axthelm reported in a cover story near the end of their first season -- believed they could win the Stanley Cup that spring.
Now, a mere 45 years later, it is possible. More than possible, it is very likely. Whether it happens tonight or Saturday night or some time next week, chances are that the Sun Belt's first hockey team will hoist the Cup for the first time. The Kings' dominance, on full display in their 4-0 shutout of the Devils in Game 3, has turned a dramatic playoff year anticlimactic. All that's left is the coronation.
Before that, however, the Kings must get their fourth victory. Three times this postseason, they have had a chance to sweep a series with a win on home ice. They've only managed to do it once. You know what they say in the playoffs: That fourth game really is the hardest to win.
You'd think it wouldn't be too hard this time. New Jersey has never had the lead in this series and the Devils are as frustrated as they seem. "I thought we played really well in the three games," Marty Brodeur said on Tuesday. "No result. Credit to those guys. They've been playing real well. Everything they touch turns to gold. That's to their credit. We have to find a way, and so far we haven't."
Brodeur has it right. The Devils haven't found a way because no matter how well they play, the Kings have found a way to be better. Some of it is luck, that magical thing that happens when teams win championships and everything breaks in their favor. But some of it is also the things the Kings do that the Devils can't. As we pointed out in our preview of Game 3, the Devils' best players haven't been able to raise the level of their games to that of L.A.s best players. The Kings' penalty killers have been flawless. And as good as Brodeur has been, Jonathan Quick has been better. When your stars, role players and goalie outplay their opposite numbers, you've got a lot going for you.
It would help the Devils if they could finally play with the lead, maybe even get the first goal. In Game 3, they came out strong and were not rewarded. Later in the period, the Kings got into penalty trouble and New Jersey had a 5-on-3 advantage. Jarret Stoll won a big face-off, pushed the puck into the Devils' end to kill about 15 seconds, and then, along with Matt Greene and Willie Mitchell, moved as one to cut off the lanes. Greene blocked shots and the Devils could only get one through. Jonathon Quick stopped it. After Mike Richards' penalty expired and it was a 5-on-4, Marek Zidlicky was called for tripping and the sides were even.
It was, in many ways, the turning point of the game. It gave L.A. a ton of momentum heading into the dressing room for the first intermission. Less than six minutes into the second period, the first goal came, and it was by the Kings' Alec Martinez. Things just weren't going the Devils' way. First, Quick had made a strong save on David Clarkson, and then Brodeur didn't get the call for freezing the puck -- but probably should have -- as Martinez kept banging away with the disc under Marty's leg pad.
And from there, the Devils sagged. Not that they didn't have chances, because the Kings again got into penalty trouble almost right away. First a minor to Anze Kopitar for holding less than a minute after the goal and another against Dustin Penner for interfering with Brodeur. These two kills were just as crucial. Stoll won big face-offs and, rather than defend statically in their own zone, the other penalty killers aggressively jumped on the Devils along the boards, winning battles and clearing the puck. When they have a chance up ice to make things happen, the Kings don't hesitate, as Stoll did to Ilya Kovalchuk while killing the Kopitar penalty.
In their postgame remarks, Jeff Carter and Justin Williams praised Kings assistant coach John Stevens for how well he prepares the team's penalty killers. "He's made changes with what the other power plays are doing," Carter said. "The guys that we got going out there, they're putting it on the line. They're all quick guys who can track down pucks and make it tough on their guys."
The Kings' coaching staff has also figured out that the Devils' penchant for playing along the boards plays into their hands. When the Kings win the puck away from New Jersey's forecheckers, their first pass is invariably into the slot, to their own waiting defenseman, who is unchecked and has lots of options in front of him. The Devils haven't been able to adjust successfully and deny the Kings' ability to break out of their zone with speed. It's a big theme in this series and a big reason for L.A.'s success.
Those two second period penalty kills set the stage for the play of the game, this goal by Kopitar, who started the play and finished it, fighting off Zach Parise along the boards -- no easy task -- and driving to the net to redirect Dustin Brown's pass after Williams had made a very nifty bank back-pass off the boards of his own.
It was a high-skill play made at top speed, the epitome of great team execution and, along with Drew Doughty's terrific individual effort goal in Game 2, the offensive highlight of the series. Both offensively and defensively, Kopitar is playing at a level few NHLers -- maybe only Detroit's Pavel Datsyuk -- can reach. He may lose out in the Conn Smythe vote to Quick as playoff MVP, but Quick's formidable stats -- including an amazing and historic .950 save percentage -- are aided by the Kings' strong play in the defensive zone, which is uncanny in its ability to deny the opposition second chance opportunities. Kopitar, whose backchecking has been so good that videos of it should be used to teach young players the right way to execute defensively, is a major part of that effort.
As if things weren't bad enough for the Devils, the Kings' power play, which has been awful, woke up for a pair of third period goals in Game 3. That isn't going to make New Jersey's task of bringing this series back to Newark for a Game 5 any easier.
Still, the Devils could find some magic of their own before this ends. They've never been swept in a playoff series since they've moved to New Jersey and perhaps they have it in them to avoid it again. But, not to get too biblical here, it seems the handwriting is on the wall.
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