Kings Can Taste It

“It’s going to happen,” Kings fans have to be saying now. With a two-game lead in the Stanley Cup Finals, things might have gone off the rails. You just never know, and the team has history to show that a stronger team can get a 2-0 lead and then lose a series. This was Detroit versus LA in 2001, and the Red Wings were the higher seed, second to the Kings’ seventh.

The year earlier, the Kings had gone down in round one to the Wings, in four games. In 2000-01, they lost the first two in Detroit and then won four straight, including one in OT on a goal by Adam Deadmarsh, a moment most local fans still remember because up until now, it was the nearest historical high-water mark in the team’s history.

But with a 3-0 lead in this year’s playoffs, there’s no question who’s going to win, or only the slightest statistical one. Now it’s just a matter of when. Will the Cup be presented on home ice Wednesday?

Phil Pritchard will be in the arena, white gloves on, trophy shining and ready for the words Gary Bettman is going to speak in one arena or the other before it’s all over. “Ladies and gentlemen, the Stanley Cup.” Hopefully when that happens, the fans will be gracious to the Commish, or at least, less impolite than the ones in Vancouver were last year, practically booing him off the ice while he smiled and pretended it wasn’t happening, then buried it in his comments to the media after the game.

But if all of that’s inevitable, what’s surprising is how the Kings won Game 3. Of all the winning they’ve done this playoff year, only once have they put an opponent away by four goals, the Coyotes in Game 2. Six of their games have been one-goal affairs, all of which they won. And the two games they’ve lost were by a 3-1 score (Vancouver) and 2-0 (Phoenix). All of which means one thing: Jonathan Quick has to be the playoff MVP, as signified by the Conn Smythe Trophy. Anything else, and someone’s just not paying the proper attention.

Perhaps this decisive a victory says that the Kings are more anxious than ever to get this thing done, leaving nothing to chance. And don’t gainsay it—had New Jersey won, it easy for them to spin the thing. “OK, we’re down 2-1. We take one more game, then go home and win in front of our own crowd . . . .” You’ve seen the drill performed by a hundred coaches. But not this time.

Monday night LA came out and gave New Jersey two power plays in the first period, the second of those being four minutes and creating a five-on-three situation. That was partially annulled by the Devils taking a penalty of their own after they had been on the man advantage for a minute. In any event, the first period saw no scoring.

However, the failure of the Devils to take the lead with two extra men was the first concern of their coach after the game. When asked about the situation, he said, “Yeah, I mean, sure. We need to get the first goal out, absolutely.”

But the fact is, the Kings’ PK has been ridiculous, standing, after this game, at nearly 93 percent. Further, for every goal they’ve given up when a man down, they’ve gained one back (not always in the same game, of course), with five shorties so far this playoff year.

The second period had the Kings score, give New Jersey two penalty chances, then score again, all the while the Devils, as was to be their lot on the night, going without a tally. By the end of period two, the Kings were ahead 2-0, and they would not take another penalty in the game.

However, the Devils would, two more in fact, and early in the third. One came at 3:29; the other was called at 5:30, and on both, LA scored. By this point, the eventual last goal of the game going in at 6:47 courtesy of Justin Williams, the Devils had to know that whatever mojo was working here, it wasn’t in their favor.

Coach DeBoer said what he was expected to after the loss, commenting “No, I’m not disappointed in our team. We played right to the final buzzer. I don’t care what the scoreboard said. We battled right to the buzzer, and we’ll do the same on Wednesday night.”

Of course they will, but there won’t be any point, really, except to be spoilers and have the Cup go back in the case for another day. Then the whole show will transfer to New Jersey, the keeper of the Cup will again do his thing to get it ready, Mr. Bettman will get the vocal cords tuned up once more, and on foreign ice, the trophy will come out and be skated. Hey, there might even be some irony in that, given that New Jersey’s trophies in 1995, 2000, and 2003 were all won in their old arena, but it won’t be as satisfying to LA fans.

But that’s getting too far ahead. On Monday night, neither team poured a ton of shots on the other, with the Kings registering 21 and the Devils 22.

The difference, however, was that New Jersey couldn’t score. The question posed to their Coach after sounded just like the one the Kings’ head men Murray and Sutter have had almost all year: “Do you need more from the guys that got you here offensively, the guys that have scored for you all year long aren’t scoring here. Has that got to change to get back in this thing?” (Well, strike the middle sentence, and it’s pretty much what the Kings have had to explain, at least, what they had to explain in the run-up to the post-season.)

And his answer went like this: “Well, I think that’s pretty obvious. Of course, we need more goals. Is that a question or a statement? Are you giving me your opinion on what’s going wrong? Next question.”

Settle down, man! The real truth came out in the next response, which credited Jonathan Quick without naming him: “We created some real good chances early. He made some saves. The frustrating part is you’re creating some quality chances, you’re getting some quality shots, and they’re not going in.”

So there you have it, to loop back to the point earlier about the Conn Smythe. DeBoer elaborated in his next response, which came as somewhat of a climb-down from his first, aggravated answer: “You have to give their goalie and their team some credit. You know, he’s made some saves. We put up the same number of chances against Philly, the Rangers, we’re getting some goals. We’re not this series. That’s a credit to them. It’s not that our guys aren’t trying or not doing enough. They’re shutting the door. We’ve got to find a way.”

Is there a way? Not likely. To put this thing in a little further statistical perspective, NHL notes give some clue of the impossibility of the New Jersey position, saying that only once since 1939, when the league adopted a best-of-seven format for the Finals, has a team come back from down 3-0, despite 25 clubs being in the spot. That was Toronto in 1942.

When Anze Kopitar was asked about that after the game, he said, “Yeah, we’re a confident group right now. As we all know, the fourth one is the toughest one. We can enjoy it tonight and get back to work tomorrow, refocus, recharge. We want to make sure we’re ready for the start on Wednesday, try to get another win.”

Justin Williams chimed in on this: “We’re going to keep pushing forward. We’re a focused group right now. We’re not going to let anything get in our way. We certainly don’t want to get back on that plane.”

The Kings, in gaining a 3-0 lead four times in one playoff year, are the first team to do so since the current four-times-seven games series format was adopted in 1987.

The LA coach was polite but not terribly effusive in his post-game presser, with his most detailed answer coming at the end. When asked what he credited the win to, Sutter replied: “Penalty killing. Our ability to stay with it. As I said, it’s not easy when you’ve had that many penalties called against you. It’s hard on your team because there are guys that don’t play when they’re killing and there are guys that probably play too much.”

He was referencing his earlier comment that expressed disbelief that the team, which had been drawing penalties like mad earlier in the post-season, now has seen the minutes shorthanded cut way back. He further credited his big guys on the blueline, including Matt Greene, Rob Scuderi, and Willie Mitchell for their contributions. “Well, they’re a huge part of our penalty killing and they’re the veteran guys in the back end. They give us that stability. You know what you’re getting all the time,” Sutter said.

Looping back to the game stats shows some of that strength. The Kings out-hit New Jersey by 55-32, with Greene and Mitchell accounting for nine of those. Dustin Brown, in the fashion that has been seen over the past half-dozen years, again lit up the numbers with eight hits.

When asked to discuss what was called his players’ “business-like” attitude to their win, Sutter said, “I think that’s a credit to the players and the leadership that they have.”

One final stat: the Kings won the faceoff duel by 30-23, a 57% margin. To say, then, that they dominated in all statistical aspects of the game and on the scoreboard would be no exaggeration, and only adds to the sense that they just can’t be defeated this year, or perhaps better, that they just won’t let themselves be.

Why the winning attitude has come on so quickly and so strongly that they are running through the Stanley Cup playoffs in a fashion never seen before (well, once, by the Oilers, who went 16-2 in 1988) is a question for another day.

For more on Phil Pritchard, the Keeper of the Cup, please read my book Living the Hockey Dream. NHL and other media reports were consulted in the writing of this story.

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