Commentary

No man's advantage in Cup finals

Updated: June 3, 2012, 8:25 PM ET
By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com

EL SEGUNDO, Calif. -- Ask a player on a team with a power play that is junk how to fix it and it's like asking for the answer to the riddle of the Sphinx or the recipe for Colonel Sanders' 11 herbs and spices or how to get the caramel in a Caramilk bar.

There's a lot of talk of simplicity, harder work, better bounces, being more relaxed and almost every other hockey chestnut you can think of. And in the end, it would be easier for the New Jersey Devils to come up with answers to those universal puzzlers than to explain why their power play is killing their chances of winning a Stanley Cup.

Maybe there will be something in the California Dreamin' to ignite the Devils' power play now that the Stanley Cup finals have moved West for Games 3 and 4. Maybe boarding a jet for the first time since April 26 (Game 7 of their first-round series against Florida), the Devils will find some new resolve, some new wrinkle that will allow them to emerge from their man-advantage stupor and get back in a Stanley Cup finals series they now trail 2-0, having dropped twin 2-1 overtime games to the Cup-hungry Los Angeles Kings.

The Devils have gone 0-for-6 on the power play in the finals, including 0-for-4 in Saturday's Game 2.

Frustrating?

"Yeah it is. But sometimes you try to push too hard, sometimes. Sometimes you [do] too much thinking, 'We have to score from power play.' Sometimes it's better just play the power play like usually and just try to score. You don't need to think 'We just need to score right now,' so that's the key, I think," New Jersey defenseman Marek Zidlicky said Sunday when the Devils arrived at the Kings' practice facility.

Funny how it goes, the keys to gaining traction in a series, the ebbs and flows of a playoff season and how what is inconsequential to one team might be life and death for another.

For the Los Angeles Kings, the power play has become an annoyance, a fly buzzing in their collective ears as they march resolutely toward their first-ever championship. It's not like they don't care that their power play stinks, but it hasn't mattered to them.

It hasn't mattered because the Devils haven't made it matter.

If the Devils managed at least one power-play goal on the six opportunities they've had in two games, this series would be tied.

But they haven't, and forward Ilya Kovalchuk called the team's effort with the man advantage "embarrassing" after Game 2.

"A little harsh. Hopefully a little's lost in translation," New Jersey coach Pete DeBoer said with a laugh Sunday.

"I think when we reflect for a day, when you look at the tape we did a lot of good things. Obviously there's some areas we have to do a better job at. I really liked our game. Game 1 to Game 2, I thought we were 50 percent better. I still think we have some more in the tank."

This spring, the Kings scored on the power play in the first two games against Vancouver, then managed one goal in their next eight games. They have gone without a power-play marker in their past five games, including going 0-for-3 in the finals.

They are currently humming along at 7.8 percent efficiency.

Captain Dustin Brown noted that it's not necessarily about efficiency but timely use of the power play.

"Sometimes [with the] power play, you look at the percentage and you're looking at it struggling," Brown said. "The flip side of that is we have seven of our eight goals on the power play all season, five of them are big goals, that's a big part of it."

Is it possible their dearth of power-play productivity could come back to bite the Kings?

Kings defenseman and power-play point-man Drew Doughty feels it could.

"I know we're definitely disappointed in our power play," Doughty said. "Every single individual that's on that power play we're not happy with how we're producing. … When we get those chances that's the opportunity to put teams away.

"We've got a lot of work to do. Tomorrow, if we get a power play, it's mandatory that we've got to score."

Ultimately it will be up to the Devils.

Nine times this spring the Devils have won a game in which they have scored at least one power-play goal. That would be nine of their 12 wins. They are 3-6 in games in which they do not score with the man advantage, including the opening two games of this series.

Get it going and all of a sudden the pressure on the Kings to respond gets ramped up, they get out of their considerable comfort zone.

"I think we have to be simple," Kovalchuk said Sunday. "At this time of the year, the power play has to be one pass and shot and screen, those kind of goals will go in.

"Because we're trying to do fancy, one-touch, saucer in the middle, it's not going to work. We talked about it today and I'm pretty sure we'll be different tomorrow."

No one is suggesting this is easy, although one top NHL coach told ESPN.com on Sunday that's part of the problem. Teams think it will be easy because they have a power play. Playoff teams are blessed, for the most part, with good to great talent. Teams feel a certain expectation that they will score when they get a power play. But it's not easy.

The coach pointed out that during the playoffs, defending teams understand attacking teams' tendencies more readily because they see them over and over.

"The PK gets a real bead on the PP. They know where the puck is going because they see it so often. Entries are a real problem. PP players are nervous, they feel the pressure," the coach said.

The answer, if there is one, is to simplify and work, the coach said.

Last year, the Boston Bruins became the first team in NHL history to win a seven-game series without scoring a single power-play goal as they rallied from a 2-0 series deficit (both losses coming at home, something the Devils can take solace in) against Montreal in the first round.

They would go on to score a power-play goal in just seven of their 25 postseason games, finishing with a power-play efficiency of 11.4 percent.

The Devils did seem to work their power play differently in Game 2, trying to avoid the predictable passes across the point, trying to find Kovalchuk for the one-timer either at the point or along the left faceoff circle. There were times interior passes were attempted into the slot, but the results were the same in that there were no results.

The yin to the power play yang is that the Kings are spectacular on the penalty kill -- just as the Devils have for the most part been very good since the end of the first round.

The Kings have scored five shorthanded goals and allowed just five goals on 63 attempts all spring.

And the Devils are learning this the hard way.

It is a lesson that right now threatens to cost them a championship.