By Stu Hackel
You may want to fit the Devils' Steve Bernier for goat's horns after his five-minute major in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final, the penalty that essentially handed the championship to the Kings with their 6-1 victory. But there are many other people who deserve a share of the blame that history will unfairly heap on New Jersey's fourth-line left wing for costing his team a chance to get to Game 7.
First off, however, no one should argue that the Kings were not the better team in this series. As slim as the margins of victory were in the first five games -- these teams were rather evenly matched -- Los Angeles always seemed to make the play or take advantage of the situation that was handed to them slightly better than the Devils. As good as Marty Brodeur was, Jonathan Quick was better. The Kings got better play from their top players all series and more timely plays by their depth guys, too. As good as Bryce Salvador was in raising his game, New Jersey still has no one on their defense corps to rival Drew Doughty for the high level of his all-around play.
And L.A.'s special teams play was better, both on the penalty kill and the power play. That was the major story in the decisive Game 6, especially after Bernier's penalty -- five minutes for boarding and an automatic game misconduct -- that opened the door for the Kings to take control of a game that was only 10 minutes old. After the way this series had developed, first looking like a potential dominating Kings sweep, then a potential stirring Devils comeback, it brought the proceedings to a screeching conclusion. Well, that's the way the playoffs are. You can never tell what will happen, this year more than most.
The Kings were carrying the play in the early going, and had drawn a penalty that the Devils killed, but they kept pressing. At around the midway point in the period, this is what transpired: Bernier hitting Kings defenseman Rob Scuderi, first from the CBC Hockey Night in Canada telecast....
...and the NBC telecast.
You can see from both that the Devils are unhappy with the call, and we'll get into that below. But it certainly seems as if their displeasure with the officiating distracted them and got their focus off the task, which was to kill the upcoming five-minute power play. Instead, their penalty killing fell apart against a power play that had hardly set the tournament on fire. For a team that had done a magnificent job all spring of turning the other cheek and showing discipline and mental toughness in the face of adversity, the Devils let this penalty throw them off their game -- and that's a team failure, not one player's.
It's hard to know if the New Jersey coaches were too angry with the refs to help the players reset after the call and get them back to the task at hand, or if the players were just too rattled. Yes, credit the Kings for seizing the moment and running an effective power play. No team in finals history had ever scored three goals on a major penalty before. But once the puck was dropped to start Bernier's five minutes, the Devils made it increasingly easy for them.
Here's the first goal, and this was just good execution by the Kings. As Ray Ferraro on TSN noted after the game (video) the Kings made some adjustments on their power play during this series, putting Mike Richards up high at the top of the slot in an umbrella formation with right-handed Drew Doughty on the left so he could one-time shots and have a good angle to pass the pucks that Richards fed him. That's exactly how the first goal happened as Doughty got the pass from Richards and swiftly shoveled it into the slot, picking out Dustin Brown cutting to the net.
But on the second goal, as you can see from the video below, the Devils were just too soft in the corner during the puck battle right before Brown's shot was deflected by Jeff Carter. Adam Henrique is beaten to the inside by Alec Martinez. Henrik Tallinder actually has the puck on his stick for a moment before Richards jumps in, just takes it away from him and passes through Marek Zidlicky to Brown, who moves to the slot untouched as three Devils were caught behind the play. Brown's shot was deflected by Carter right before it would have been snagged by Brodeur, but that was not great execution on the PK.
That might have been a good time for Peter DeBoer to call time out, but, as NBC's Pierre McGuire reported from next to New Jersey's bench, the coach was expressing his anger and frustration at the referees.
Then on the third goal, as the penalty wound down, the Devils defense melted. Dwight King carried the puck and beat Mark Fayne to the net. Marty Brodeur -- who had little chance on the first two goals -- went for the poke check and missed. The puck slid through the crease, but he couldn't glove it and Trevor Lewis beat Andy Greene to the far side post and was able to tap the puck into the net to make it 3-0.
The Kings had all the extra jump on that play and it carried over to the remainder of the evening. Things would get even worse for the Devils before it ended, reminiscent of some noteworthy deciding-game playoff collapses, like the Penguins 8-0 win in Game 6 of the 1991 final...
Now, let's go back and examine the penalty itself. Did Bernier deserve the major and misconduct? That was the judgement of the refs. If you look closely at the hit, as Bernier is lining Scuderi up, it looks like it's going to be a shoulder to shoulder hit, but Scuderi turns his body to make a pass an instant before Bernier makes contact, shifting to reverse the puck behind him up the boards. In real time, you can see that Bernier has already committed to the hit when Scuderi turns. Bernier can't pull out of it.
Rule 41 gives the ref latitude on this call. It reads: "There is an enormous amount of judgment involved in the application of this rule by the Referees. The onus is on the player applying the check to ensure his opponent is not in a defenseless position and if so, he must avoid or minimize the contact. However, in determining whether such contact could have been avoided, the circumstances of the check, including whether the opponent put himself in a vulnerable position immediately prior to or simultaneously with the check or whether the check was unavoidable can be considered. This balance must be considered by the Referees when applying this rule."
Perhaps the balance here came out in favor of the Kings because Scuderi was injured on the play, and we know that injury often plays a big role in how decisions are made on the ice and in supplemental discipline. The fact that Scuderi was hit so violently likely caused the refs to assess Bernier's action as reckless, and they had no choice when they saw blood to make it a major and misconduct instead of a minor, which might have been more fitting, given Scuderi's own action that contributed to the hit. But it's really a close call, and for a team like the Devils that thrived on a hard forecheck all playoffs, it is something of a cruel decision.
In one sense, you have to give the refs credit for making the call on Bernier. So often in the history of the Stanley Cup playoffs we've seen officials swallow their whistles on obvious infractions. They didn't when it came to Bernier. They know that the contest's -- and the series' -- outcome can rest with their judgement and it takes a fair amount of conviction to make a strong call. In this case, they made it without hesitation.
And yet, as the videos show, shortly before Bernier hit Scuderi, the Kings escaped being penalized when Jarret Stoll drove Devils forward Stephen Gionta into the boards from behind. That went uncalled by the referees (replayed at 39 seconds of the CBC clip above and at 1:08 of the NBC clip). If that boarding penalty is called -- and it probably should have been -- what happens next with Bernier and Scuderi never takes place. Gionta wasn't injured at all, compared to what was inflicted on Scuderi, but the league has made a point this season of trying to get boarding out of the game and that was apparently missed on Stoll's hit on Gionta.
Furthermore, as the play goes back into the Devils' end after the Bernier hit, the Kings' Dustin Penner punches Anton Volchenkov in the face as they race for a puck that Penner has put into the corner. There are no calls there, either, although a ref is looking right at it (11 seconds into the CBC clip; 20 seconds into the NBC clip). Perhaps in the course of a heated game, the refs don't take a little smack like that as much of a transgression, but we've seen that roughing minor called before and it wouldn't have been out of line. That would have made it 4-on-4 for the first two minutes of Bernier's major penalty and, once again, what happened next wouldn't have taken place.
Referees can make or miss calls; it happens all the time. But, especially in the playoffs, the manner in which a team responds to something that doesn't go its way is often the difference between winning and losing.
When doing a complete autopsy of what happened to them in Game 6, the Devils might want to question the call on Bernier and the non-calls as well. They may have a point. But the way the Devils as a team responded also has to be considered strongly before anyone blasts the officiating or hangs the goat horns on Steve Bernier.
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