Given how the 13-2 Los Angeles Kings have rolled through the 2012 Stanley Cup playoffs, it’s not overstating the matter to say that Game 2 on Saturday night in Newark is a must-win for the New Jersey Devils. The Kings are a league-record 9-0 on the road this spring, and a win in Game 2 would pretty much put a lock on the Kings’ first-ever Stanley Cup championship.
Here’s a look at some of the keys for both teams before the series shifts west for Games 3 and 4 on Monday and Wednesday.
1. The Forecheck: Early and Often
The ability of the Devils to roll four lines that can make life difficult for opposing defenses has been key to their success this spring. In Game 1, that vigorous forecheck, one that creates turnovers and scoring chances, was visible only in spurts. In the Eastern Conference finals, they managed to establish that forecheck early on in games against the New York Rangers pretty much every night. Getting into the rhythm early in Game 2 will be a crucial factor in unsettling the solid Kings defense and soothing any leftover Devils jitters from Game 1.
2. Been There, Done That
One thing that has remained consistent about this Devils team throughout the spring is that they almost always respond to poor performances with strong ones. They trailed Florida 3-2 in the first round and closed the Panthers out with two overtime wins. They dropped the first game against Philadelphia, then won four straight. They dropped the opener in the Eastern Conference finals against the New York Rangers and trailed 2-1 before winning three straight to advance to this final series.
“I think familiarity, absolutely. We know we've been here before,” Devils head coach Pete DeBoer said in advance of Game 2. "I think also after looking at the tape, we think we know what we have to fix. I think there's a comfort level there that we can get that done."
3. No-Name Corps
As poorly as the Devils believed they played in a 2-1 overtime loss to the Kings in Game 1, the Kings were equally unhappy with their play. That means the Devils' defense, unheralded as it may be, must be prepared for a lot more physicality in Game 2. The ability of guys like Peter Harrold, Bryce Salvador and Marek Zidlicky to effectively move the puck to the Devils forwards or out of the zone in the face of what can be expected to be a better game from the physical Kings will be crucial. Zidlicky especially will have to be better than in Game 1. He was guilty of a number of turnovers and was caught out of position on the overtime winner by Anze Kopitar.
4. Matchup, Smatchup
We know that neither head coach -- DeBoer or his counterpart Darryl Sutter -- is particularly concerned about matchups, and that’s not likely to change in Game 2 even though the Devils’ top point producer, Ilya Kovalchuk, had an off night in Game 1.
“We played Girardi and McDonagh against the Rangers, same thing,” DeBoer said. "If they're going to match those guys up, you know, in order to get him away, we're going to have to get away from a four-line game, which has been another strength. Two, if they're matching up against Kovalchuk, then they're not matching up against Parise or other guys.
“The matchup game isn't something that I'm interested in or worried about. For me, it isn't relevant."
That said, we saw a lot of Rob Scuderi and Drew Doughty against the Kovalchuk line late in Game 1. If DeBoer is comfortable with that matchup, Kovalchuk will have to do more to generate scoring chances. He had just one shot on net, and while he is a deceptively strong playmaker, he needs to unload the bomb of a shot he possesses to keep the Kings honest. He did not do that in Game 1.
“You know, we're capable of surviving on nights when he doesn't score or isn't at the top of his game, just like we're capable of surviving nights that Elias or Parise or other guys aren't,” DeBoer said. "I think that's the strength of our team."
5. Make Special Teams Count
With so little separating these two teams, it is incumbent on the Devils to take advantage of what should be an edge with the man advantage. They were 0-for-2 in Game 1 and didn’t really get much going against a solid Kings penalty-killing unit. The Kings, meanwhile, had only one power-play opportunity and failed to score on that, continuing a trend that has seen them struggle with the man advantage. The Kings have scored a power-play goal in just two of their last 13 postseason games (3-for-63). While they are a dangerous team shorthanded with five shorthanded markers, if the Devils can win the special-teams battle their chances of evening this series go up exponentially.
1. Nullify the Devils’ Forecheck
New Jersey has had tremendous success in these playoffs forcing turnovers off its forecheck. That’s harder said than done against a Kings team with three defense pairings that get the puck out with real quickness and effectiveness. The Kings have a puck-mover on each of their three pairings in Drew Doughty, Slava Voynov and Alec Martinez, and it shows because it’s not just about getting the puck out, but rather putting it on the stick of a Kings forward to start the transition the other way. Vancouver, St. Louis and Phoenix all struggled with their forecheck because of this. The Kings must do the same to the Devils.
2. Get Another Gem From Jonathan Quick
OK, he faced only 18 shots in Game 1, but he looked poised and comfortable, as if it were he who was playing in his fourth Stanley Cup finals and not Martin Brodeur. The Kings lead the NHL playoffs with only 1.53 goals against per game (the Devils are eighth at 2.32) and Quick is obviously the biggest reason. When the Kings do break down, he’s been a wall all postseason. No reason that won’t continue in Game 2.
3. More From the Top Line
Yes, Anze Kopitar scored the overtime winner in Game 1, but the reality is that until that point, his top unit with Dustin Brown and Justin Williams wasn’t very noticeable. They’ve been a dominant line all playoffs long and if they get back to that kind of game -- with Brown hitting everything that moves, Kopitar providing dangerous rushes and Williams dangerous around the net -- the Kings will win Game 2.
4. Shorthanded Goals
The Kings lead the NHL playoffs with five short-handed goals. It just so happens that Kovalchuk plays the point on the Devils’ first power play. This is something the Kings can exploit with dangerous penalty killers such as Kopitar, Brown, Mike Richards, Jeff Carter and Jarret Stoll. Get a shorty Saturday night and you know it’s a Kings victory.
5. Rising To The Occasion
L.A. has had the juice for the deuce all postseason. It’s uncanny how the Kings have actually raised their level of play in each Game 2 of their three opening rounds. Just when most of the hockey world thought the Canucks would come back and win Game 2 at home in the opening round, the Kings actually stepped it up and made it a 2-0 series lead. The Blues thought they’d come out harder in Game 2 after losing the opener at home to the Kings. Um, Game 2 in St. Louis was over in about 10 minutes. Game 2 in Phoenix last round? Forget about it; 4-0 whitewash for the Kings. So yes, the Devils will be a better team in all likelihood Saturday night, but recent history suggests the Kings will be much better as well.