By Stu Hackel
The Stanley Cup Final moves to an unlikely Game 6 on Monday night as the Kings get a second chance to close out the Devils at home and win the hallowed chalice. Usually if you blow a chance to wrap up a series on home ice, it can be fatal and if L.A. coughs up a second opportunity and we get Game 7 on Wednesday night in New Jersey, anything is possible.
Well, anything is possible tonight as well, especially after real entertainment actually broke out in Newark on Saturday, a terrific Game 5 that finally saw these two evenly matched teams open things up a bit. The shot totals weren't dramatically higher and the final score, 2-1, was just like three of the other outings in this round (one of which was actually a 3-1 final as the result of an empty netter). But the quality of the chances was high, the nastiness level rose a bit, the goaltending was good with gusts of excellent and there is now a sense of something building here after it appeared that the Kings would prevail in the minimum number of games.
History is guaranteed in the outcome of this series: If the Kings win one of the next two games, they'll celebrate their first Stanley Cup. If they do it Monday night, it will mark the first time a team that trailed in the final by three games -- the Devils -- bowed out after six games. If it goes to seven, it will mark the first time in 67 years (or 66 final series) that a team that trailed that far behind came back to tie the round. New Jersey will be given a chance to become only the second team to rally from 0-3 for the championship. The 1942 Maple Leafs did it when they came all the way back to defeat the Red Wings; the 1945 Wings tried to return the favor, but lost the seventh game, 2-1, on home ice to the Leafs.
What accounts for the Devils' turnaround? In one sense, that's sort of a bogus question because they were never that inferior to the Kings, The first two games were decided in overtime where one shot is all it takes, and in both those games, New Jersey nearly won late in regulation. Mark Fayne was unable to finish into an open net in Game 1 and Ilya Kovalchuk hit the crossbar in Game 2.
But Devs coach Pete DeBoer has made some in-series adjustments that have paid off. First, he inserted veteran Henrik Tallinder into the lineup for former Kings blueliner Peter Harrold in Game 4. Tallinder hadn't played since mid-January, due to a blood clot in his leg, but at 6-foot-4, he's a very reliable shutdown defenseman. "I thought Tallinder was fantastic again tonight," the coach said in his post-Game 5 remarks. "Skated the puck out of trouble, composure. He was the most rested guy we've got. He was out for five months. You can see the fresh legs and how he looked."
As Craig Button pointed out right after Game 5 on TSN2 (video), adding Tallinder allowed DeBoer to move the 6-foot-1, 225-pound Anton Volchenkov from the left side defense to the right, where the 6-foot, 190-pound Harrold had been. The Devs were somewhat smallish on the right side with Harrold and 5-foot-11, 190-pound Marek Zidlicky there, but now the added size has been a factor in keeping the larger Kings wingers from driving to the net. Button's contention -- with video examples to back him up -- is that Tallinder's combination of size, skating and puck handling more easily thwarts the Kings' attackers while Volchenkov can better defend against their physical left wingers like Dustin Brown and Dustin Penner than Harrold, who looked like the weak link on the Devils' back end earlier in the series, especially when handling the puck.
Another DeBoer move in Game 4 was getting Petr Sykora back in the lineup in place of rookie Jacob Josefson, who had replaced the veteran for six games. Having Josefson in allowed DeBoer to play Patrik Elias on wing, where Elias is more comfortable, and give the Devils some fresh legs. But going back to Sykora provides the experience of a two-time Cup champion who has always clicked with Elias. Sykora hasn't figured in the scoring, but DeBoer has been happy with his play, saying he's given the Devs "good minutes."
A third change was an adjustment that DeBoer made to the Devils' forechecking pattern, the subject of Aaron Ward's remarks with the TSN panel on Sunday (video) and he, too, showed video examples of what the Devils have done. The Kings broke out of their zone with great ease at the start of the series, but Ward noticed that the Devils have been more aggressive with their first forechecker to take away time and space. The other forecheckers have done a better job anticipating where the puck might go, taking away those options and forcing turnovers, sometimes overloading on one side to frustrate the Kings before they can get started. He also mentioned that the Devils have pressured the Kings' puckcarriers much more in the neutral zone as the series has progressed.
These don't seem like much, but in a final that is so even, one in which subtleties matter greatly, they have made a difference. On his daily CJAD Montreal morning commentary on Monday, SI.com's Mike Farber called it a "whiteboard series," saying that the way each team runs its breakouts and forecheck will continue to determine the outcome. There's much truth in that and both Devils goals in Game 5 came as a result of pressure on the forecheck.
Their opening goal was on a power play, their first of the series against the Kings' outstanding penalty kill and it might not have happened had goalie Jonathan Quick not mishandled the puck, trying to clear it around behind the net to Drew Doughty. But he did, and it allowed Zach Parise -- who later said he'd made an errant cross-ice pass in the neutral zone and just continued skating his normal forechecking route -- to beat Doughty to the puck and scoop it into the net before Quick could scamper back from the other side and seal it off.
And after the goal, if you continue watching the video, you get more examples of how the Devils' forecheck now works as they don't allow a clean Kings breakout, and even when the puck does get to the neutral zone, the New Jersey continues its pressure there.
The Kings, however, were the better team in the first period, directing 21 shots at Brodeur (adding up shots on goal, shots that missed the goal, and those the Devils blocked) compared to only 11 by New Jersey, just four of which were on net. DeBoer said afterward that his team wouldn't be able to afford another period like that in the series and it started right off the hop when Brown cut in on goal with less than a minute played. But Brodeur pokechecked the puck away before the Kings' captain could get a shot off.
The Devils turned over the puck repeatedly in the early going and had it not been for Brodeur bailing them out repeatedly in the first period, they might not have scored first -- and the team that scores first has won every game so far. But they got out of the period and started the second period strong, with Quick scrambling to make a big stop early on Parise (video).
Then momentum swung again as the Kings' Justin Williams, especially, on his game and making things happen all night, tied the score on an excellent play. He was able to break in along the right side as the Devils all got caught on the other side, the Kings breaking out unchallenged and with large swaths of ice open in the middle. Williams' speed also backed New Jersey off, especially once he entered the zone and cut along the top where he eluded Andy Greene (who should have tried forcing Williams to the outside). As Williams got to the top of the slot, Fayne kept backing in, giving Williams too much space. Brown made a strong play cutting to the net, taking Parise with him, and the confluence of bodies in front when Williams launched his shot rendered Brodeur helpless.
The Kings got life and once again Brodeur had to bail out the Devils.
But slowly, New Jersey got into a better rhythm, settling down and seizing better control, taking the body -- especially Brown, who the Devils seem to relish pounding, as most teams in the league do. David Clarkson got him with a good one here.
The Devils went back to work and the forecheck paid off for them again on the game-winner by Bryce Salvador, which Clarkson made possible by going to the net and forcing Slava Voynov to be there with him. The puck went off Voynov and past Quick, which also happened in Game 1 on Salvador's goal in that contest.
Lots more happened. The Kings' Jarret Stoll had a goal waved off, correctly, because he was batting the puck like it was a high fastball above the crossbar, the legal limit for such things. The Kings also hit the post twice early in the third period. Brodeur and Quick both made fine stops -- Quick even stopped one with his head (video). Brodeur was especially sharp while the Devils were killing a penalty and that got the Newark crowd as excited as it would get all night. Both goalies had pile-ups on their doorsteps and fists briefly flew, raising the temperature of the proceedings. But New Jersey held on and got itself another game.
It's tempting to say that this series has now become a test of character: Which team will find the extra gear to propel it over the other -- the Kings, who are being pushed for the first time this spring, or the Devils, who have no margin for error, have played more games and, as Brodeur acknowledged after Game 5 (video), have to dig deep to combat the draining effects of battling back from their 0-3 hole?
And are the Kings losing their composure? Williams said after Game 5 that they were "pissed off" that they had been unable to get it done in the last two outings. That strays a bit from the Darryl Sutter narrative that his team never expected this to be a short series and is just keeping at it, business as usual, and hoping to prevail.
These psychological states are certainly significant, but they're all intertwined with a pair of other big factors, because so much of this series so far has come down to execution and luck. The execution aspect is huge. The coaches and players might hope for a mistake-free game, but that's just not realistic. It is, as often has been said, a game of mistakes, and the team that can exploit the other's errors best has been the one that wins.
But luck has been just as big. Pucks have hit posts and crossbars at big moments, they just roll wide or stop short of entering the net. It seems to have been as important a factor as any in this series. Depending on which team gets the bigger share of luck tonight, some sort of history will result.