By Stu Hackel
After an underwhelming opening night performance by both teams, the stakes have suddenly gotten quite high for Game 2 of the Stanley Cup Final. Two opposing trends will be on the line when the teams face off in Newark on Saturday evening.
The Kings have taken a 2-0 series lead on the road in each of the three rounds they've played so far. Their Game 2s have been strong outings all spring.
The Devils, conversely, have lost the first game in the last two series they've played and come back to win the second and the round. They say they are quite comfortable being down 0-1 and they've played well in their Game 2s.
Both trends can't continue. One will end on Saturday and that should have a lot to do with the course this series takes. A win by L.A. in this one will send the Kings back home for the fourth straight series with a chance to make this one a quick affair and hoist the Cup on home ice.. A win by New Jersey could at least mean that what many prognosticators expected, that we're in for a six- or seven-game series, will indeed ensue.
Although they've played 68 minutes and 13 seconds, it's still pretty hard to get an accurate gauge on what the competition between these teams is about. Neither club was at its best. The Devils, from coach Pete DeBoer on down, acknowledged they played so poorly that they didn't deserve to win. DeBoer said his team lacked in all areas. Was it suffering from a letdown after the emotion of beating the Rangers? Perhaps. From inside the Prudential Center, it certainly seemed as if the home crowd had difficulty getting into it. But some of that was because the Kings played a good "road game," keeping it simple and not trying to give the Devils any openings that would get their game started and fire up the crowd. Yet even the Kings' Darryl Sutter admitted to his guys playing sluggish and dealing with some Cup final jitters.
So Game 1 turned into a match in which not a lot happened for long stretches of the first two periods, which wasn't satisfying for the teams nor to anyone watching. The teams seemed too concerned with not making mistakes, and when you have a pair of defensively sound teams like L.A. and N.J., that can result in pretty boring hockey. It also means that when you do make a mistake, it can end up in your net, which is what happened on Anze Kopitar's game winner.
There were two Devils who got caught on this play, best seen in the last replay angle from the end zone. Marek Zidlicky (number 2) gambled on trying to stop Dustin Brown inside the Kings' zone instead of backing out. When they got tangled up, Zidlicky essentially took himself out of the play. Drew Doughty of the Kings made a great little chip pass off the boards to Justin Williams, and Zidlicky's partner, Bryce Salvador, had to come over to cut off his path, leaving the middle of the ice open. the other error was by Dainius Zubrus (8), who had played a pretty good game. He also came over to check Williams and with both Devils on the wall, the middle was clear for Kopitar. Williams, who all night had made some very good passes that no one on his team could finish, merely had to throw the puck into open ice and Kopitar had a clear path to the net.
Afterward, DeBoer excused Zidlicky and Zubrus for their aggressiveness, saying they were just trying to make something happen to win the game. Maybe so, especially because the Devils showed an inability to get anything going offensively for long stretches. Between shots on goal, blocked shots and shots that missed the net, New Jersey attempted only 34 shots in Game 1 compared to 54 for Los Angeles. The Devs didn't manage a shot on Kings goalie Jonathan Quick for the first 14:30 of the second period. It's going to be a major problem if they can't generate scoring chances. Some of that was because of the Kings' defensive posture and how little they allow, but some was the Devils' difficulty in following their own game plan. They are going to have to get pucks behind L.A.'s defense and fight to recover them -- and once they do that, they face yet another challenge in getting players free in the slot to get off shots on Quick. Then they have to beat him.
It's the middle part of that equation -- getting a player free in the slot -- that could prove most challenging. As we've noted often this spring, the Kings are proficient in taking charge of the slot at both ends of the ice. It's not necessarily physical domination, and it's not as if they just stand there and wait for teams to come at them. But they know the right times to swarm or outnumber the opposition in the middle of their own zone. If they don't get the puck first, at least there's more of them than the other guys and they do a good job of disrupting the attack. They're not flawless, however, and TSN's Bob McKenzie showed video of how the Devils were able to get players free in the slot during Game 1 (video); it's just that they didn't capitalize on the chances.
That video also has Ray Ferraro talking about the Kings' breakout, especially early in the game, which was very effective. Up in the press box, my SI.com colleague Michael Farber remarked repeatedly how many "easy outs" the Kings were getting (and, clever as always, Mike said on his CJAD Montreal radio segment on Thursday that the Kings had "almost as many 'easy outs' as the Chicago Cubs lineup."). Watching the Kings in their own zone, when they capture the puck along the boards or below the goal line, they like to make the first pass to a teammate stationed in the defensive slot. He's usually uncovered and from there, L.A. can attack in any direction. The Devils play a very strong game along the boards, so that's a good way for the Kings to exit their zone quickly and it gives them lots of options to launch an attack.
Jim Fox, the Kings' TV analyst, told us that this isn't a new wrinkle from Sutter, but something the team did regularly under his predecessor, Terry Murray. It can be particularly effective against New Jersey and it certainly was during the first half of the game because the middle of the ice was open for that pass. You can expect the Devils to adjust their forechecking pattern in Game 2 to not overload along the wall and keep someone in the middle to play against that first pass.
Those X's and O's are important, and a big part of what the coaches focus on when they prepare their teams for these games. But there's also the mental and emotional sides of the game, and perhaps that might play a significant role as well.
When we wrote last week that the Kings had not experienced much adversity in the playoffs compared to their two possible Eastern foes, the Devils or Rangers, it was with the thought that resiliency can be an important ingredient in Stanley Cup success. It certainly was for the Bruins last year. We also wrote that it could be the Kings are really that good and can continue to dominate their opponents, or if they face adversity of their own in this round, they'll have no problem overcoming it. You can't know until it happens.
Well, that moment is now here for New Jersey in Game 2 and we'll see if their experience this spring coming back from 0-1 in the first three rounds really will be an advantage for them.