By Stu Hackel
Maybe it ends on Saturday night and maybe not. The Kings, who were juuuust good enough to win two overtime games and then ride their home crowd to a more decisive Game 3 victory, dropped Game 4 to the Devils on Wednesday night in another close outing and now must build on their incredible undefeated road record to win the Stanley Cup this weekend.
The Devils, meanwhile, look to extend their season. Twenty-six teams have lost the first three games of a Cup final. New Jersey is just the sixth to reach Game 5. Only two have pushed the series to a Game 6; both, in fact, went to Game 7. The Maple Leafs came all the way back to win in 1942 against the Red Wings, Detroit nearly returned the favor in 1945, losing to Toronto 2-1 on home ice.
Although it seems the hockey gods changed allegiances on Wednesday, bestowing a larger share of good luck on New Jersey than they did in the first three contests, the Devils also benefited from better execution. They finally took their own advice and exploited the flaw they detected in Kings goalie Jonathan Quick -- shooting high. L.A. meanwhile, played tentatively at times and missed the Devils' net entirely with their shots on over 20 occasions, the nervous prospect of winning the Cup at home perhaps in their minds. All that should make Game 5 rather interesting.
Of course, "interesting" is about the best one can say about this final match-up. You can't call it exciting, at least not yet, unless you have a rooting interest. The quality of play has not thrilled; "proficient" might be the best description. Some people no doubt find these games boring, but at least they beat the neutral zone trapfests of the pre-lockout days. It hasn't helped that the state of the ice in both Newark and Los Angeles is sub-par, making skating a chore and puckhandling risky. Regardless of the conditions, both teams often employ a "heavy" game. They're adept at shooting the puck into the offensive zone, cycling and banging away until they can make something happen. Both are also quite good defensively, so long stretches can go by without something happening. But they keep at it and, eventually, someone gives way, someone cracks, and a quality scoring chance emerges. But it ain't firewagon hockey, that's for sure.
This is the type of game that Canadian icon Don Cherry loves best, however, as he trumpeted on his first period Coach's Corner segment Wednesday over CBC (video). He lavished praise on the Kings, for being so good at it, and (never one to not laud his own opinions) also congratulated himself, reminding his audience that he predicted L.A. would win the Cup because of that ability. But with Quick and Devils goalie Martin Brodeur stealing the show for most of Game 4 (as we noted Thursday), it was New Jersey that broke though first with their heavy game when it was still scoreless early in the third period. The tally came from Patrik Elias, one of the Devils' many top players who had previously been held off the scoresheet in the final.
Watching the way New Jersey keeps possession of the puck along the wall, then gets it back to the point for a shot by Bryce Salvador that Elias converts off a rare Quick rebound, you can see the essence of this final's style right there. It's trench warfare, necessitated by the fact that play along the boards, away from dangerous scoring areas, is about all the defending team will allow the team that has the puck. Unless there is a breakdown or a penalty, and the ice opens up -- and some of that always happens during the course of a game -- we don't often see the exceptional skill that these players possess.
It was on the power play, only a minute after Elias' goal, that the Kings tied the score, following a penalty on David Clarkson for just nudging Kings captain Dustin Brown, whose career-long ability to draw more calls than anyone is so well known that his nickname back in junior hockey with the OHL's Guelph Storm was "Fall Down Brown." As former NHL ref Kerry Fraser wrote on his latest TSN.ca blog post, that one shouldn't have been called, but it was, and Drew Doughty immediately tied the game.
That was a terrific response by the Kings and it looked as if luck had rejoined them as the party started revving up throughout Southern California.
But with under five minutes remaining in regulation, the Kings tried to break out of their zone. They have often preferred to go through the middle of the ice, and Jarret Stoll was in position to take that pass, but this time, unlike earlier in the series, two Devils were nearby taking that option away. So Willie Mitchell threw it up the boards to Dwight King. Right away, Devils defenseman Mark Fayne met him with a bump and the puck squirted loose. Alex Ponikorovski quickly backhanded it to Clarkson going the other way. Three Kings were trapped skating south as Clarkson made a nifty move going north to elude Mitchell, enter the zone and spy Adam Henrique across the ice with lots of space in front of him. Mitchell's partner, Slava Voynov, couldn't close in on Henrique fast enough and, even though Clarkson's pass was in his skates, Henrique kicked it to his stick and fired it high stick-side where Quick, who was dropping down on the shot, could not get to it.
Henrique's goal was his third game-winner of the postseason, a highly skilled play that took advantage of the slightest breakdown by the Kings. That's how small the margin of error is in this series, how narrow the difference between winning and losing is for these teams. Ilya Kovalchuk added an empty-net goal in the last minute (video), another Devils star who had been kept scoreless until Game 4, and that's how we got here.
Up until then, it was supposed to be Coronation Night at the Staples Center, with Kings fans primed for a hockey celebration like L.A. has never seen after 42 years of emptiness. Yes, they'd been to the final once before, in 1993, but have never gotten this close. After '93, the Kings missed the playoffs five of the next six seasons and failed to qualify 11 times in the next 18. They won only one playoff series and lost seven in that time. So even though there is a committed hard core of fans who have been around for decades, this is really all new for a good chunk of Angelenos, who love a good trend as much as anyone, probably even more.
After Game 3, they had poured out of the Staples Center for an impromptu rally behind the NHL Network's set.
And the optimism spilled over from Monday to Wednesday. ESPN hockey analyst Barry Melrose, the Kings' coach in '93, proclaimed before Game 4, "It's over!" (video). The Kings made special arrangements to have their long-time television announcers Bob Miller and Jim Fox -- preempted by the league's national TV deal -- create a special broadcast of the clinching game exclusively for their fans. The Los Angeles Times graphics editor/columnist Chris Erskine had written the obligatory piece introducing the region's hockey newcomers to the Stanley Cup, what it means and where its been. And on the KTLA-TV morning show, giddy hockey hijinks ruled the airwaves.
Instead, New Jersey pooped the party and fan reaction to the setback itself became newsworthy.
In The Los Angeles Times, Erskine was forced to acknowledge that "This improbable season is frozen for at least a few more days." The letdown was strongly reminiscent of what Rangers fans went through in 1994, after 54 Cup-less years, when they came home for Game 5 leading the Canucks 3-1 in games. Madison Square Garden was filled with Blueshirt boosters ready to revel. After falling behind 3-0, the Rangers stormed back to tie the game in the third period, only to give up three more goals and kill the party. The series moved back to Vancouver where the Canucks won again to force a Game 7 that New York is still celebrating 18 years later. Securing the Stanley Cup is never easy.
"Unfortunately, we have some spoiled people that think that everyone wins 16 in a row or something," Kings coach Darryl Sutter groused, as only he can, on Thursday. A hockey lifer who understands well how unusual the Kings' domination has been, he mumbles and grumbles and is about as un-L.A. a coach as this team could possibly have hired. His task Saturday will be to settle his club, keep it focused, and hope the breaks once again go their way. If the Kings' road winning streak ends and they are forced to go back to L.A. for Game 6, anything can happen.
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