The New Jersey Devils kept their focus and kept playing the solid team defense that’s characterized their work in these Stanley Cup Finals and it finally paid off with a victory as the pulled away from the Los Angeles Kings in a 3-1 win at the Staples Center Wednesday night. With the Kings still needing just one more win in the next three games it’s almost certainly just a stay of execution, but it was something Jersey could feel could about and it’s pointed to areas Los Angeles needs to improve if they’re close out this championship without giving their fans a heart attack.
Game 4 was scoreless through two periods, with neither team doing a lot as far as getting shots. Finally, the Devils got 13 shots in the third period and for the game overall, both Zach Parise and Ilya Kovalchuk got four cracks at Jonathan Quick. The only goal of the eight shots was Kovalchuk’s empty-netter in the final minute, but the increased involvement from the key players spelled good things.
It was Patrik Elias who broke through the scoring barrier with twelve minutes to play, but the Kings countered with a goal from Drew Doughty. The defenseman has played very good hockey in the Finals—indeed, throughout the playoffs—but in the championship round Los Angeles has gotten too reliant on him. While the offensive trio of Dustin Brown, Dustin Penner and Anze Kopitar were a little more active this game than any point in the series, it was hardly a sustained assault. Brown and Penner combined for five shots while Kopitar, merely the team’s best player, did not attempt a shot in a game to try and win a Stanley Cup. Combine this defensive effort with the fact Martin Brodeur came up with a solid night for New Jersey in goal and it spelled a win for the Devils, as Adam Henrique scored with just over four minutes left and Kovalchuk locked it up on the empty-netter.
My comments on the Kings are harsh, given this is a team almost certain to wrap up the Stanley Cup, but I do believe this is the least impressive of their playoff series and that a combination of some good breaks and the superiority of Quick to Brodeur is the only reason it’s 3-1 in games for the Western Conference champs. Of course if Kopitar gets in the game on Saturday night for Game 5 back in the Meadowlands and Quick turns in another lockdown effort, none of the flaws matter anymore. But Saturday’s game is really the last pressure-free game the Kings will play. If they don’t close it Saturday night, it’s suddenly a series again and that’s the last thing anyone in Los Angeles even wants to think about.
You can praise the Los Angeles Kings’ goalie Jonathan Quick for his role in the team’s 4-0 shutout win over New Jersey in Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Finals, putting the Kings up 3-0 in games and one win from their first Cup ever. You’d be right to do so. You can praise the Los Angeles team defense and you’d be right to do so. But as much as New Jersey Devil goaltender Martin Brodeur is an icon, and as much as TheSportsNotebook in particular respects him, last night was about the Devil goalie.
New Jersey played its second straight outstanding defensive game—they’ve been good in all three games, but the last two have risen to the level of complete shutdown. They allowed only 21 shots on goal. Of Los Angeles’ three best players, Anze Kopitar, Dustin Brown and Dustin Penner, they combined for just one of those shots. The fact that this resulted in four goals has to fall on the shoulders of the veteran between the pipes who has three rings and is a lock Hall of Famer, but just appears to be fighting off the effects of time.
The first period of Game 3 went by scoreless before Los Angeles broke the ice (no pun intended). Kopitar, one the one shot from the team’s offensive core, then added a second goal on an assist from Brown. Let’s now also give credit to the Kings’ team defense, which held New Jersey to only 22 shots. And while Zach Parise was able to get four off, Ilya Kovalchuk was again made irrelevant. And with Jonathan Quick young, hungry and locked-in, that two-goal lead might as well have been 6-0. Just in case there was any doubt thought, Los Angeles added a pair of power play goals early in the third period to put it away. New Jersey’s inability to kill either of the two power plays—the only times all night Los Angeles played with the man advantage speak further volumes to how much Brodeur struggled.
Los Angeles will look to put it away in Game 4 on Wednesday night from the Staples center. Although as ESPN commentator Michael Wilbon noted yesterday, with this team being unbeaten in the road, maybe their real ace in the hole is that they still have two trips to New Jersey in their back pocket, regardless of what happens Wednesday.
Is it now a foregone conclusion this series is over? At 3-0, I’d certainly have to say yes. I do follow and root for Boston sports so I know what the Red Sox did in 2004 and what happened to the Bruins in 2010. But those are history-making moments for a reason—they rarely happen. Maybe a better question would be if the Devils’ can just get two wins and make the Finals interesting again. Here I’d be more optimistic. They’re playing outstanding team defense. They just need Kovalchuk to get involved and then the old vet, Mr. Brodeur needs to put the team on his back at least once.
The Los Angeles Kings and New Jersey Devils went to overtime in a clean, relatively penalty-free Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Finals and a breakaway goal from Kings center Anze Kopitar handed Los Angeles a 2-1 win to get the series underway.
Kopitar’s goal is the focal point of the media coverage, but it’s important to underscore that this happened because the Kings defense decisively won the battle against the Devil offensive players when it came to simply getting good shots. Ilya Kovalchuk, the New Jersey forward who has more points than anyone in the playoffs, got just one shot on goal. Zach Parise had three and was a non-factor. As a team, the Devils generated just 17 shots. Given that the man in goal, Jonathan Quick, is merely an elite goaltender who’s playing at an even higher level in the postseason, the miracle is that New Jersey scored at all.
Los Angeles got the game’s first goal in the opening period, New Jersey countered with a tying score in the second period and the teams played scoreless through the third and then eight more minutes of overtime before Kopitar got the puck in the open and was able to beat Martin Brodeur for the game-winner.
New Jersey can take heart in the fact their own defense was sound, allowing 25 shots and with the exception of Kopitar, mostly kept forwards Dustin Brown and Dustin Penner off the puck. Both players have been a big reason the Kings went from an anemic offense to a juggernaut in the playoffs, so the Devils have to be pleased with the defensive containment. Ultimately though, it’s going to take a lot of shots and high-quality opportunities to beat Quick, and New Jersey was nowhere close to being where they need to on offense.
Game 2 will be back in the Meadowlands on Saturday night.
The Stanley Cup Finals begin tonight when the New Jersey Devils host the Los Angeles Kings. It’s not the matchup anyone would have predicted when this postseason began in mid-April, but it rarely is in the NHL. The Devils were seeded #6 in the East, while Los Angeles was #8 in the West, only the second eight-seed to make the Finals since the league went to the current playoff format back in 1994. TheSportsNotebook previews the series…
New Jersey may have been seeded sixth, but that is a little misleading. The Devils did accrue over 100 points in the regular season (2 for a win, 1 for getting to OT), and that’s a general mark of excellence. They happen to play in the toughest division in professional sports. Yes baseball fans, the Atlantic in the NHL is even more ruthless than the AL East in baseball, so the Devils trailed the New York Rangers, Pittsburgh Penguins and Philadelphia Flyers. New Jersey had a much better record than division champ Florida and the Devils finished tied with Boston, the other divison champ. Since league rules require first-place teams to take the top three seeds, Jersey found itself in sixth, but for an 82-game schedule this was at least the #4 team in the East on merit and close enough and only seven points off the lead. All of which is the long-winded way of saying that their presence in the Finals is not some quirk of the playoffs—they are competitive enough that you might play the entire season over and see New Jersey show up as a 1-seed.
>The same can’t be said for Los Angeles. They came out of the Pacific Division, the weakest in the West and had to go to the bitter end just to make it into the playoffs. The Kings played themselves out of the division title and were passed by both Phoenix and San Jose in the closing days. Obviously it didn’t matter in the playoffs, but I don’t think even the most ardent Los Angeles backer would suggest that if you replayed the entire season the Kings could finish on top of the West overall. What they have is a great goaltender in Jonathan Quick, who has been one of the NHL’s best all season long and that single factor alone makes you a tough out in the postseason. What’s been nothing short of stunning is the way the Los Angeles offense has done a complete 180 since the start of the playoffs.
Los Angeles had one of the worst offenses in the NHL all season along, but they were a statistical anamoly. They were good at generating shots, but lousy at scoring and more often than not those two stats coincide, at least over the course of a long regular season. Perhaps it’s taken this long for the Kings luck to even out. More likely though, they are getting their best offensive players the most shots in the postseason. Dustin Penner’s seven goals are tied for second in the playoffs (the leader were Philadelphia’s Danny Briere and Claude Giroux who scored eight thanks to a wild first-round series with Pittsburgh). The Kings have gotten strong production on the opposite wing from Dustin Brown and whatever line is in the game, the center spot has been a source of strength. Anze Kopitar has delivered nine playoff assists and scored six times. And those of us who’ve charted each box score since mid-April (wait, did I really admit that in public? Never mind, forget I said it) know that Mike Richards and Jeff Carter have been consistently involved. LA’s also gotten some good passing and occasional scoring from defenseman Drew Doughty.
This offensive attack faces a New Jersey defense that spent the regular season as an elite unit in shot prevention. In the first round of the playoffs against Florida, the Devils seemingly forgot this and nearly lost to a Florida team they should have beaten in their sleep. After going to overtime of Game 7 to survive, New Jersey’s team defensive efforts have started to come back to form. They still gave up a decent number of shots to Philadelphia, but part of that is due to the Flyers being a great offensive team. By the last series against the Rangers, the Devils’ defense looked as good as new.
New Jersey is another team who has enjoyed an offensive awakening in the playoffs, albeit not as dramatic as Los Angeles. If the Kings’ turnaround was about better luck and better players taking the shots, we can focus on the latter reason for New Jersey’s revival. The Devil attack is top-heavy, very reliant on the forwards Ilya Kovalchuk and Zach Parise to make things go. Over the course of the regular season, that’s not enough balance. But just like a pitching rotation in baseball that has two great starters gets magnified in the playoffs, so too does a hockey attack. Kovalchuk has seven goals and combined with his 11 assists, he’s the best offensive player in the postseason. Parise also has seven goals and the Devils are also getting consistent play from the center spot, with Travis Zajac having seven goals of his own and Adam Henrique doing a nice job.
The Kings’ defense will be tested and this is a unit that’s met every test thus far. It was the D that carried LA into the playoffs and once the postseason started they’ve been the best in the game. They were also one of the elite in shot prevention during the season, although that stat has been mediocre in the playoffs. This may also be conscious strategy though, to play more aggressively in offense, expose yourself on defense and rely on Quick to bail you out. To again cross sports for an analogy think of a basketball team with a great shotblocker that knows they need easier baskets in the offensive end. They go for more steals and know if they get beat, their mistakes can be wiped out. Nobody’s wiped out mistakes better than Quick, who’s got an amazing 94.6% save rate.
This brings us to the big storyline of the series and it’s the up-and-coming Quick looking for his first championship, against the veteran Martin Brodeur looking for his fourth in net for the Devils. Regular readers of TheSportsNotebook’s coverage know I’ve harped ad nauseum on the fact that Broduer is not the goaltender he once was and all the numbers bear that out. I’ve also harped on the fact that he’s a winner and somewhere along the line he can give you at least one big game where bails out an entire team. He’s done that in each series thus far, and against Florida and New York those were the series’ clinchers. The longer this series goes, the more the goalie situation shifts from an LA advantage to a wash.
Los Angeles is looking for its first Stanley Cup, the one pro sports championship the city has never won (they won the Super Bowl in 1983 when the Raiders were in Hollywood). New Jersey is after its fourth Cup and first since 2003. You know I tend to default to the team with the better goalie in the playoffs and that’s clearly the Kings here. But the way the Devils are playing, I feel like they can extend the series and if we reach a sixth game, I like Brodeur to again steal a win for his team late. In yesterday’s walk-through of recent Cup history, TheSportsNotebook noted that six of the last twelve years have seen Game 7s. I think we’ll see another one this year and New Jersey is the team that hoists the Cup high.