EL SEGUNDO, CA — The bad news for the Los Angeles Kings is that their 3-0 lead in the 2012 Stanley Cup Final over the New Jersey Devils has shrunk to 3-2, after losses in Games 4 and 5. Just as bad is the fact that no team that has led in the Stanley Cup Final by a 3-0 margin has won the series in six games.
Game 6 is scheduled for tonight at Staples Center in Los Angeles (5:00 PM PDT, NBC).
Almost as bad for the Kings is the fact that teams that have led in the Stanley Cup Final by a 3-0 margin, are just 1-1, in a seven-game series.
The Devils’ strength late in a playoff series is also a factor in the series now. Indeed, with their win in Game 5 on June 9, the Devils are now 10-1 in Games 4-7 during this year’s playoffs, compared to their 4-8 record in Games 1-3.
On the bright side, the Kings still have the Devils’ backs against the wall, as they remain one loss away from going back to New Jersey as the National Hockey League’s runner-up.
The Devils are also unlikely to win four straight games against the Kings. In fact, only one team has come all the way back from a 3-0 series deficit to win the Stanley Cup (teams with a 3-0 series lead are 24-1 in NHL history).
Heading into Game 6, the Kings seem to be more composed and more focused than they were going into Game 4, and maybe even Game 5. In fact, they admitted to being a bit distracted by the possibility of winning the Stanley Cup, especially after Game 4, in front of a home crowd, including family and friends.
“I think a lot of us, before Game 4, were distracted with family members and friends, with the Cup coming in the building,” said defenseman Drew Doughty. “[There are] a lot of things we have to put aside. Family always comes first for everyone, but at this point of the year, the team has to come first. We’re a family in the room, on the ice. Right now, we’re number one in everyone’s mind.”
“That’s a lesson learned,” added Doughty. “We realize a lot of us didn’t play at our potential in Game 4. We were nervous, [and] worried about other things. All of us in the room were kind of frustrated that we were thinking about things ahead of time. [Head coach] Darryl [Sutter] made sure that wasn’t going to happen this time. We’ll be well-prepared for Game 6.”
The distractions may have given the Kings a case of the jitters. But veteran center Mike Richards said that was history.
“Everyone was nervous for Game 4, but we’re back to having fun again, like we were throughout the playoffs and the [regular] season.”
The Kings got off to a great start in the first period of Game 5, generating several high-quality scoring chances, despite allowing the Devils to score the first goal of the game off a miscue by goaltender Jonathan Quick behind his own net.
“The first period, first five, ten minutes, we were ready to go,” said forward and team captain Dustin Brown. “It felt very similar to the Vancouver series, Game 4, where we had a really good first period, [but] didn’t find a lead. We kind of almost had a letdown after that.”
The Kings were not as good in the second and third periods, despite getting some quality chances, hitting at least three goal posts.
“Even when we were up, 3-0, we felt it was a tight series,” said left wing Simon Gagne. “[The games were decided] by one goal, by one shot, sometimes. A lucky goal, a lucky bounce sometimes makes the difference between winning and losing. That’s the way it’s been.”
“Last night, I think we hit three [goal] posts,” added Gagne. “That could’ve been the difference between winning and losing. Those didn’t go in, and Devils superstar goaltender Martin Brodeur] made some key saves. He’s been really good for them the last two games. That might be the reason they won the last two games.”
Even with a solid start, the Kings failed to generate enough chances off rebounds and traffic in front of Brodeur.
“He gets a lot of rebounds right in front of him,” said Doughty. “We have to crash the nets and get those rebounds. He’s a great goalie. I think right now we’re making him look a lot better than he should be.”
“We played a pretty good first period,” Brown explained. “They got a break on a goal with Quick mishandling [the puck behind his net], and [Devils forward Zach] Parise making a pretty good play on it. It reassures us that our game plan is the right one, and we need to stick with it. I think we got away from it as the game went on.”
Center Anze Kopitar saw things much the same way.
“It’s going to take a big effort by everybody to finish it off,” he noted. “We need to be a little more consistent. I thought we had a pretty good [first] period last night, but then we got away from [our game plan] a little bit.”
“When you [trail in a game, sometimes] you try to do some extra stuff, and you get away from your program,” he added. “We have to stay with our program, play [a full] sixty minutes, and more than that, if we need to.”
A team’s offensive attack generally begins behind their own net, as they break the puck out of their own zone, and the Kings are no exception. Brown noted that this was where the Kings got away from their system in Game 5, which made it easy for the Devils to slow them down in the neutral zone. In turn, that made it difficult for the Kings to get their forecheck going in the attacking zone.
“I think we’re best coming through our neutral zone with short, hard plays,” Brown elaborated. “You could see us start to stretch out a little bit more. Against a team like New Jersey, I mean, it’s tough to stretch it out and get a forecheck just because of puck placement. If you get it behind the net, Marty is going to make a play. You saw our spacing (puck support) deteriorate a little bit.”
The Kings have now lost two straight games in the playoffs for the first time this season, and the buzz going around in the media is that the Devils now have the momentum, while the Kings are beginning to crack under the pressure, and are experiencing adversity for the first time in the playoffs.
The Kings balked at all of that.
“Is there pressure?” Brown said, smirking. “Yeah, there’s pressure. It’s the Stanley Cup Final. The pressure isn’t any different from Games 4 and 5. There’s going to be pressure in every game. You talk about doubt—we lost two games in a row. That’s something this team hasn’t done in awhile, but we’ve been playing good hockey.”
“I don’t think we’re discouraged at all,” said Doughty. “They won two in a row. We had some good times last night and some bad times.”
“You go through adversity all the time in hockey games, and we seem to overcome that,” said Richards. “I’m not worried about that aspect.”
Neither is their coach.
“There is adversity in every game at some point, always,” said Sutter. “I don’t think not having [any] long series has any bearing on anything. The farther you go, the better the teams are that you play. You know what, that’s why they’re in it. They’re low-scoring games. [If] you look at it, four of the five games were 2-1 hockey games, other than an empty-net goal in the last few seconds. The only challenge with our team is that we’re not scoring a lot of goals. That’s something that we faced, this group, most of the year, right? Every little mistake is magnified.”
“I think, quite honestly, the only pressure the players should feel is just to maximize how they can play, their own skill set,” added Sutter. “I don’t think we feel any pressure. Not at all. New Jersey is playing pretty well, right? But let’s not forget New Jersey [has home ice advantage in the series]. New Jersey is the team that had [over 100] points.”
“You know what, we expected a long, hard series out of the New Jersey Devils, and that’s what we’re getting.”
To be sure, the Kings did not expect to have a 3-0 lead in the series, let alone to be able to sweep the Devils.
“We knew it was going to be a long series,” Doughty indicated. “Before the series started, I don’t think we ever expected to be up 3-0. I think one of the games we clearly deserved to win, the third one. The first two could have gone either way.”
With the Devils coming into Game 6 like the cornered wild animal, the Kings will have to dig deeper than they ever had to, regardless of their bumps, bruises, and fatigue.
“The Cup is going to be in the building again,” said Doughty. “I think that’s enough motivation. At this point of the year, you don’t feel the bumps and bruises, you don’t get tired. You have so much adrenaline running through your body, you want it so bad that you just put it all aside.”
“That’s ultimately what it comes down to, at this time of year—the team that finds the next gear,” said Brown. “It’s going to have to be everyone, collectively. It’s not going to be one or two guys. It comes back to sticking to the game plan. As tired as we are, we all understand what we’re playing for. That’s a [big] motivational boost.”
Part of digging deeper will have to be addressing their puck support problems on their breakout plays, and getting more traffic in front of Brodeur.
“I think we need to stick with [the game plan],” Brown stressed. “Marty is playing a pretty good series. He made some pretty big saves, especially in Games 4 and 5 for them. I think it’s sticking with our system, making it harder on Marty.”
“Our goal last night was [scored because] guys [were] getting in front of the net,” Brown added. “I don’t think he really had a chance to see the shot.”
“He seems to be seeing a lot of pucks, and that’s our fault, as forwards, not getting to the front of the net as much,” said Richards. “We just have to make his life a little more difficult. We have to get traffic in front of him, and not allow him to make those second and third opportunity saves. We also need to challenge their defensemen more.”
Back to the distractions and jitters…the Kings appear to be past that heading into tonight’s Game 6.
“We have an opportunity to win the Stanley Cup on home ice,” said Brown. “That’s an exciting prospect. It’s about preparing today and tomorrow, to put ourselves in the right position to do so. But I think, again, being in front of the home crowd’s going to give us an extra boost in Game 6. I think guys will be a little more relaxed.”
“We’re still in a really good spot,” said Kopitar. “If someone told us we were going to be up, 3-2, going home with a chance to close it out, I think everybody would sign that paper.”
Perhaps most important will be which team scores the first goal of the game.
“The only way to really look at it in the series is the first goal,” Sutter emphasized. “Whoever scores the first goal, that’s the way it’s been. We scored the first goal in the first three. That tells you just really how close it is.”
If the Kings want to avoid another cross-country trip to New Jersey, scoring the first goal in Game 6 is, for all intents and purposes, a requirement.
Raw Audio Interviews: Los Angeles Kings Media Availability, June 10, 2012
(Extraneous material and dead air have been removed)
Simon Gagne (4:17)
Anze Kopitar (2:48)
Mike Richards (7:20)
Darryl Sutter (9:13)
2012 Stanley Cup Final, Los Angeles Kings vs. New Jersey Devils, Game 5 Highlights, June 9, 2012
Used with permission. All videos provided by KingsVision at LAKings.com, or NHL.com require Adobe Flash Player. As such, they are not viewable on iOS devices (iPhone, iPad, iPod Touch).
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Let’s hope the team’s confidence carries through.