By Steve Silverman
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It’s not about opening the show. It’s about closing it the right way.
That’s what the Devils learned when they defeated the Flyers in the second round of the playoffs and the Rangers in the Eastern Conference finals. They lost the opener in both of those series but came back to win with relentless speed, determination and forechecking.
They will try to replicate that scenario after dropping the opener of the Stanley Cup Final to the Kings. The Devils pushed the Kings to overtime, but Los Angeles sharpshooter Anze Kopitar ended the drama in the extra session when he took a quick pass from Justin Williams, moved in alone on a breakaway and beat Martin Brodeur with a slick backhand-forehand move that gave the Kings a 2-1 victory.
In truth, the Devils showed plenty of grit in battling the Kings on even terms before Kopitar ended the show – at least on the scoreboard. As far as scoring chances go, the Kings had the better of it through the first two periods and it was only Brodeur’s outstanding work that allowed the Devils to keep the deficit to one goal until Anton Volchenkov’s shot bounced off the chest of Kings defenseman Slava Voynov and got past Kings goalie Jonathan Quick to tie the score at 1-1 with 1:12 remaining in the second period.
The best of Brodeur’s saves came when he stopped defenseman Drew Doughty’s drives from between the faceoff circles by stacking his pads and deflecting the puck to the corner.
But once the game reached the third period, the Devils found their skating legs and played the Kings on even terms. They had a great chance to take a late lead when defenseman Mark Fayne found a bouncing puck on his stick with a wide open net in front of him, but he shot it wide and gave the visitors a chance to push the game into overtime.
The Stanley Cup Final is not a one-act play. The Kings have been the dominant team in the postseason to this point, having lost only two games and both were at home. The victory over the Devils gives them an unprecedented 9-0 mark on the road this playoff season. But there were signs in the second half of the game that the Devils may have the right formula for pushing the Kings that none of their previous opponents were able to do in the first three rounds.
When the Devils are playing their game, the forechecking comes at the defense with such speed and precision that it makes it quite difficult to move the puck out of the zone without hesitation. That’s just what the Kings have done with ease during the earlier rounds of the playoffs. That has allowed them to gain speed through the neutral zone and then make decisive plays in the offensive zone.
But the Devils’ forechecking started to bother the Kings in the third period and overtime. The Kings were able to get the puck out of their own zone, but it was a struggle. Their speed through the neutral zone was eliminated and the Devils were able to blunt the Los Angeles attack with ease.
Earlier in the game that was not the case. The Kings asserted themselves with speed and hard hitting. The most decisive of those was Dustin Brown laying out Zach Parise with a solid shoulder early in the first period. But the Devils withstood the physical play and gradually tilted the ice in their favor.
On the game-winning play, Williams won the battle with Dainus Zubrus and Bryce Salvador for the puck. Williams chipped the puck to a wide open Kopitar, and he made no mistake with the puck. Kopitar had too much time and space and it’s unlikely any goaltender could have stayed with his creative move.
So the Devils find themselves in a familiar position. They came close but they have lost home-ice advantage to a team that is loaded with confidence. But there is no loss of confidence in the Devils’ lockerroom. They spend most of the season in the large shadow of the New York Rangers and they don’t let it bother them. They trail in the series and that deficit is likely to bring out their best hockey in Game 2.
Steve Silverman is an award-winning writer, covering sports since 1980. Silverman was with Pro Football Weekly for 10 years and his byline has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Playboy, NFL.com and The Sporting News. He is the author of four books, including Who’s Better, Who’s Best in Football — The Top 60 Players of All-Time. Follow him on Twitter (@profootballboy).
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