Just a few days ago, the Los Angeles Kings were on the verge of history.
The Kings were just about to play game four of their Stanley Cup Finals series with the New Jersey Devils, up 3-0 and looking to sweep their diabolical opponent into oblivion on their way to coronation as one of the most remarkable champions in NHL history. They had bedeviled the Devils in all phases of the game, outscoring them 8-2 and frustrating their offense, defense and special teams in the process. While the Kings’ all-world center Anze Kopitar was stepping up on the biggest stage, flashing past Zach Parise to net a highlight-reel goal during game four, the Devils’ $102 million man Ilya Kovalchuk had vanished, unable to generate a single point and barely able to get shots on net. During game three, Vezina-finalist Jonathan Quick was perched in the crease like a trapdoor spider, while future Hall of Fame goaltender Martin Brodeur was trying to dodge the exterminator.
As the puck dropped in Los Angeles, the champagne was on ice and Lord Stanley’s Cup was in the house. So were 18,867 charged Kings fans, desperate to exorcise 45 years’ worth of futility and frustration. Los Angeles had only reached the Finals twice in their history: the first, 19 years earlier, ended in a 4-1 series loss to the Montreal Canadiens. The second was this series, and this was the night when they hoped it would all finally come to fruition.
Despite the anticipation, their hopes were dashed. The Devils beat the Kings 3-1, forcing a game five in New Jersey. The champagne remained chilled, and the Cup would subsequently be loaded on a plane once again, winging its way back to New Jersey.
In game five, an irresistible force (the vaunted L.A. 10-0 road record in the playoffs) met an immovable object (a battle-tested Devils squad with their backs against the wall). Unlike the ancient Chinese paradox, the two did not cancel each other out. New Jersey won a tense, white-knuckled affair 2-1, extending the series to a sixth game back in Los Angeles. On Monday night, game six will be played, with the Kings’ grasp on the Stanley Cup so tantalizingly close they can almost feel it with their fingertips. They could also imagine the championship, seemingly preordained just five days earlier, slowly slipping away.
Keys to the game
Los Angeles rampaged through the playoffs on the strength of a powerful top line, superior depth, lock-down penalty killing and nearly flawless goaltending. For the Kings to win the series, those facets must return with a vengeance:
The top line: So effective during the playoffs and early in the series with the Devils, the Dustin Brown/Anze Kopitar/Justin Williams line has combined for just a single point over the last two losses. Dustin Brown in particular has been all but invisible, especially considering the explosive hits and dominating net play he displayed in series victories over Vancouver, St. Louis and Phoenix. His pancake hits against the Coyotes so rankled Shane Doan that he angrily went after Brown in the handshake ritual immediately following game five. For the Kings to win on Monday night and finally close out New Jersey, the top line must return to form, both physically as well as offensively. Dustin Brown’s hits can be series-changers, and must return in order to take the Devils out of their comfort zone.
Depth: Jeff Carter and Mike Richards could play on the top line for many NHL teams, and yet in Los Angeles, they are two-thirds of a fantastic second line. Like the top line, however, it has just one point over the past two games. The Dustin Penner/Jarret Stoll/Trevor Lewis third line has zeropoints. Bottom line: the top nine match up with any team in the league and, on paper, are younger, stronger and more formidable than their New Jersey counterparts. Despite the skill and size advantages, the Kings are losing the forward matchups over the past two games. Without question, the tide will have to turn back in their favor.
Penalty killing: It’s hard to get down on Los Angeles when they finally give up a power play goal, which happened during game five. The Kings’ penalty killing in these playoffs remains an absurd 91.9%. The stellar play while shorthanded has become a staple at Staples, as the Kings not only have been all but perfect in killing penalties, but have scored a playoff-high five shorthanded goals. They don’t have to score, but they are going to need to keep the Devils shooters off the scoreboard when not at even strength.
Goaltending: Like the shorthanded goal allowed, it’s not fair to judge Jonathan Quick too harshly for only stopping 38 his last 42 shots against, especially considering one of those shots ricocheted off both Bryce Salvador and the Kings’ Slava Voynov before finding the back of the net. Yet Quick — never known for his puckhandling skills to begin with — made a very poor clearing effort midway through the first period, banking the puck behind the net but not firmly enough to elude Zach Parise, who intercepted it and wrapped it around and into the net before Quick could recover. Needless to say, gaffes like that cannot happen, and Quick must be on top of his game to throttle a still-desperate New Jersey team who cannot wait to take it to Los Angeles and force a game seven back on their home ice.
Of course, nobody knows which Kings team will show up for game six. Will it be the one that laid waste to the opposition, both literally as well as metaphorically, in the first three series? Or will it be
the team that has clutched their sticks just a little too tight and has seen their game-changing hits and fantastic top line all but disappear over the past two games? Oddly enough, I have now officially rated the Kings’ chances to win the series at less than 50/50, even though I have also boldly predicted a 3-2 Los Angeles game six victory.
Go figure that one out. Such is the cynicism of a long-suffering Los Angeles Kings fan. I’ll be imagining the ways the Kings can boot away this historic opportunity all the way until the puck drops, which is scheduled for 5:15 PST on Monday night. I won’t stop sweating until Dustin Brown hoists Lord Stanley’s Cup high overhead.