Los Angeles Kings Coach Darryl Sutter infamously exhibited indignation when questions were asked about his team's inability to sweep the New Jersey Devils. Then the Devils won Game 5, pushing the series back to L.A. and reducing the Kings' whacks at the Stanley Cup piñata to two. The pressure's on.
That said, the Kings are, without question, in better shape than the Devils. One team is still playing for a coronation while the other is playing for their playoff lives. As New Jersey Coach Peter DeBoer said: "We made a little bit of our own bed there and now we're stuck with trying to get out of it."
They're in better shape than the Devils because the problems they've had, and the challenges they've faced, in Games 4 and 5 losses are readily identifiable.
Sometimes we avoid the simplest answers because they seem too obviously simplistic, but anyone that watched Games 4 and 5 of the Final knows that the Kings hit more iron than Thor fighting Tony Stark in "The Avengers" (with fewer quips, alas).
James Mirtle took a look at the Kings' lack of "puck luck" in the Globe & Mail:
While shots on goal were relatively equal, LA had the puck more often than the Devils in both games, leading in shot attempts 58-45 on Wednesday and then 60-38 on Saturday.
Problem was, a lot of those attempts were either blocked or missed the net (which is what a post would be counted as). In the last two games, the Kings had 33 shots blocked and missed the net with 37 more — drastically higher than the 24 and 16 for the Devils.
Some of that is coming as New Jersey makes a concerted effort to force shots wide, but there's also a puck luck factor here that hasn't gone the Kings way.
Factor in the next topic, and goals have been hard to come by.
Making Life Too Easy On Brodeur
Martin Brodeur is the backbone of this Devils' resurgence, with back-to-back games in which he outplayed Jonathan Quick. For the Kings to close this thing out, they need three things against Brodeur in Game 6 that they've gotten away from in their two losses.
First is traffic, as Dustin Brown showed on that Justin Williams' goal on Saturday night. Create havoc in the slot and, more to the point, in front of the crease.
Second are chances in tight: Throwing pucks at Brodeur's skates and then battling in the scrum to find a loose puck and a gaping net. Alec Martinez's goal in Game 3.
Third is better forechecking to force Brodeur into puckhandling mistakes. The Kings have had a few chances in this series come about by knocking down Brodeur outlet passes or forcing him to play the puck into harm's way. They need more of them against a goalie oozing confidence at the moment. And to make Johnny Quick feel better about his goof in Game 5.
Game 4 will be remembered for the introduction of Ms. Stevens' ample assets into the Stanley Cup Final; so ample, in fact, that they overshadowed a series-changing move from DeBoer: The playoff debut of defenseman Henrik Tallinder on the Devils' blue line, sidelined since Jan. 17 with blood clots in his leg.
He's a player with 36 games of Stanley Cup Playoff experience replacing Peter Harrold, whose biggest asset was not being as jittery as Adam Larsson against the Rangers' shot-blockers in the previous round. Tallinder, meanwhile, is solid in his own zone and a marked improvement when it comes to moving the puck up ice.
But the real asset has been how the defense has reset with Tallinder in the lineup, as he's playing with Marek Zidlicky while Anton Volchenkov and Bryce Salvador are skating as a shutdown pair. From Craig Button of USA Today:
Adding Tallinder allowed the Devils to move Volchenkov to the right side and it has changed the look significantly for the three Kings forwards. Brown, [Dustin] Penner and [Dwight] King are now facing two big defenders in Volchenkov and [Mark] Fayne and it allows Zidlicky to be in situations more suitable to his skill set.
During Game 5, Volchenkov neutralized Brown and made it very difficult for him to move around with any ease. That is the hardship Brown is now dealing with. It's a hardship that Penner and King are dealing with as well.
This single lineup change has helped the Devils thwart the Kings' cycle in a way they could not earlier in the series.
While the Kopitar line has scored in four of the five games in the series, the Kings' second offensive trio has been stymied in the two losses.
In the last two games, Mike Richards had two shots on goal and seven shot attempts; Jeff Carter had five shots on goal and nine shot attempts; Penner had one shot in Game 5 after attempting five of them in Game 4. They were a combined minus-6 in Game 4.
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Game 6 is still very much the Kings' to win. You know Quick will bring it. It's just a matter of time before their puck luck changes. If there's one no-no heading into Monday night's matchup, it's undisciplined play.
The Devils are playing with confidence, sharks in the water waiting to taste frustration. The common move would be to attempt to get them off their game with chippy stuff, but that's playing into their hands.
"We can't change the formula that has worked for us from the drop of the puck the first game of the playoffs," said DeBoer. "We almost didn't make it past the first round because of penalties. We fixed that since then, but that can't change."
The Devils are averaging 8.7 penalty minutes per game, which is third-lowest for the playoffs.
The focus for the Kings should be on winning the on-ice games, not the head games. Besides, it's probably better for L.A. to keep this thing 5-on-5 …