NEWARK, N.J. – If the Los Angeles Kings win the Stanley Cup, no one will remember the heat, or the bad ice, or the broken plays, or all the assorted ugliness Wednesday night. But the winning goal – now that will be replayed on the highlight montages, another amazing moment on an amazing run, a thing of beauty.
On a night that belonged to the grinders, at a time when neither team was at its best, it was superstar Anze Kopitar who ended Game 1 of the series 8:13 into overtime by finishing a breakaway with skill and style, lifting the Kings to a 2-1 victory over the New Jersey Devils.
Justin Williams backhanded the puck into the middle of the ice. He said he "just kind of threw it over there." He called it "just an area pass where you hope the guy skates into it." When he saw Kopitar collect the puck at the blue line and skate into the slot all alone, he stopped hoping.
"It just felt like he was going to score," Williams said.
It has been that kind of spring for the Kings. Devils goaltender Martin Brodeur said he thought Kopitar would go backhand. Kopitar said he once tried that against Brodeur in a shootout in L.A., so he decided to mix it up. He faked a shot. A lefty, he went forehand, backhand, forehand. As Brodeur flailed, he fired the puck past the New Jersey netminder’s outstretched right pad, then jumped into the glass in celebration, arms up.
"Worked out pretty well," Kopitar said.
What hasn't for the Kings? They're 13-2 in the playoffs. Thirteen and two. They're 9-0 on the road. Nine and oh. They're 6-0 when tied after two periods, 3-0 in overtime. Sixteen players have contributed a goal. Though they were the eighth seed in the Western Conference, they knocked off the top seeds – one, two, three – and now they have the early lead on the Devils in the Stanley Cup Final.
"Knock on wood, we've got to keep playing the way we're playing," said Kings center Jarret Stoll. "We're just finding ways to win, however it may be."
Looking exhausted as he sat in the dressing room, Kings captain Dustin Brown called this "probably the toughest game we played." It was tough to play in the conditions, as the puck bounced all over the place, and it was tough to watch at times.
[Devils: 'We made it way too easy for them']
Coming out of a TV timeout about midway through the game, NBC listed its top three storylines. First was the Kings' Colin Fraser, who had scored the first playoff goal of his career. Second was the Devils' Dainius Zubrus, who had a game-high five hits. Third was Kopitar, who was 5-for-8 on faceoffs.
Yes, that was the best NBC could do. All those American hockey fans from Idaho to Alabama must have been glued to their flatscreens. Kopitar is 5-for-8 on faceoffs? Stay tuned! See if he can go 6-for-9!
The Devils failed to muster a single shot for the first 14:30 of the second period, which is one way to keep Kings goaltender Jonathan Quick from making a save, but certainly not the best one.
And when the Devils finally did record a shot, it was more charity than anything else. Captain Zach Parise lost control of the puck, Quick covered it up, and a digit was added to the board. Maybe the New Jersey scorer was being extra nice to Parise. After all, he is a pending unrestricted free agent.
"I don't believe we deserved to win tonight," said Devils coach Pete DeBoer. "That's the bottom line."
The Kings didn't necessarily believe they deserved to win, either.
"We just know we can be better than what we were tonight," Stoll said. "It was some sloppy play on our part."
Neither goal scored in regulation should have been scored. Fraser beat Brodeur midway through the first period with a relatively routine shot from the right circle. Brown had no problem saying "probably Brodeur wants that one back." The Devils tied the game late in the second when defenseman Anton Volchenkov fired from the left point, Quick made a left pad save, and the puck bounced in off Kings defenseman Slava Voynov.
There were several scoring chances that were just plain botched, especially by the Devils. David Clarkson missed two open nets. Parise fanned on a rebound, then desperately tried to swipe in the puck with his glove amid a scramble, as if no one would notice he was cheating. Mark Fayne let a glorious chance slip off his stick while staring at a yawning cage.
And sometimes there were saves, like when Brodeur stacked the pads on Kings defenseman Drew Doughty in the third period. There was little room for the stars to work their magic. The Ilya Kovalchuks and Jeff Carters were quiet.
"It could have easily been 0-0 going into overtime," Brown said.
[Related: Kings continue dominance on road]
But then came overtime, and Williams' blind-faith pass, and Kopitar's keep-the-faith goal, and that's all that mattered. As Kopitar and Quick made the long walk from the Kings' dressing room to the interview area afterward, they passed coach Darryl Sutter coming the other way.
"Good job, you two," he said.
In the morning, when asked about raising the profile of hockey in L.A., Sutter talked about raising the profile of stars like Kopitar, Quick, Brown and Doughty, that they might be recognized in a different light.
"It's about winning, right?" Sutter said. "That's what creates it. Anything else is just B.S."
As Kopitar and Quick continued their walk, Kopitar joked about how the L.A. media had been making so many mistakes in its playoff coverage. Kopitar has the ball! Kopitar scores a touchdown!
Well, with that goal, Kopitar made an extra point.
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