Sunday, June 10, 2012

Brodeur, Parise lead Devils back to LA for Game 6

One common saying, repeated ad nauseum by Devils GM Lou Lamoriello is that your best players have to be your best players. While Martin Brodeur did his part in the first four games of the series, captain Zach Parise hadn't put up a point yet in the Stanley Cup Finals, leading to a testy exchange between him and the media before last night's Game 5. However last night both men did their part, as Brodeur made twenty-five saves en route to being the first star, while the captain was all over the place - blocking shots, backchecking and taking advantage of a puck-handling gaffe by Johnathan Quick to get the all-important first goal (and first power play goal of the series for the Devils) in a 2-1 Devils win that sends the series back to LA yet again.

Much has been said about the Devils' attempt to make history in this Stanley Cup Finals. Twenty-six teams have been down 3-0 in the final series, of those twenty six, twenty three of those series ended in four or five games. Last night, the Devils became the first team since the 1945 Red Wings to even force a Game 6 in a SCF down 3-0 (the Wings lost in 7). Clearly this team believes it can be just the second in history to win a Stanley Cup after trailing 3-0, as coach Pete DeBoer said, you'd have to figure someone's going to do it in the next couple hundred years...why not us? Unofficially, that's become our second slogan of this year's postseason after Ilya Kovalchuk coined 'swarm it up' at the start of the playoffs.

Belief isn't going to be enough however, especially against a good team like the Kings. LA came out at the start of this game like they meant business, dominating play until an interference penalty on Willie Mitchell gave the Devils their first power play. After going 0-15 with the man advantage in the first four games of the series, the Devils perhaps needed a break to get them going. Quick gave it to them, trying to play the puck backwards off and around the boards, but instead the puck caromed out front towards a vacated net. Parise pounced on it and just barely was able to beat Quick, who nearly was quick enough to atone for his gaffe. Looking at the replay afterward, I'm stunned Quick even got that close to saving it but fortunately things are finally starting to go our way now. Parise's goal at 12:45 gave the Devils a home lead in the series for the first time and the captain his eighth playoff goal.

Even that goal didn't deter the Kings, who continued to dominate in the first period and early into the second. Fortunately Brodeur's stellar goaltending and some timely shot-blocking from guys like Parise, Adam Henrique and Anton Volchenkov (who swatted a dangerous floater out of harm's way with a high stick) kept the LA onslaught at bay...until early in the second period, when Justin Williams caused a breakdown in the Devil defense juking by Andy Greene, and then taking advantage of the red sea parting in front of him by firing home a wrister from the slot at 3:26 of the second. Perhaps not so surprisingly, Williams (one of the few prior Cup winners on the Kings) was their best player last night, and he nearly got another one later in the period when Brodeur somehow managed to stop him on the doorstep with an instinct save.

After the Kings tied it however, the Devils stayed the course and eventually caught another break when David Clarkson found himself between Quick and the net, clearly in the crease but he somehow managed to scoot out of there without making contact on the Kings' goaltender. Clarkson cleared out just in time to set a moving screen for a Bryce Salvador shot that hit off the shoulder of Slava Voynov and went past Quick at 9:05 for the amazing Salvador's fourth goal of the playoffs. Salvador's fourteenth point of the postseason tied him with the Kings' Drew Doughty for the scoring lead among defensemen in the playoffs, simply astounding for a guy who had no goals and eight points the entire regular season.

With the lead back, the Devils played their best hockey of the night in the latter half of the second period, despite having to kill off back-to-back penalties by Mark Fayne and Salvador. Most of our best even-strength shifts of the night took place at this juncture, with the Devils registering twelve of their nineteen shots in the second. Unfortunately our best chance to really establish some breathing room hopped over the stick of Ryan Carter when he was all alone in front of Quick late in the period. Clearly, the Kings needed the horn to sound on the second period and they came out in the third just like they did in the first - peppering Brodeur and hemming us in our own end. On more than one occasion last night, I said to my fellow sth next to me that this seemed like a Ranger game. Get pinned in your own end for much of the game, get great goaltending with timely shot-blocking and score just enough to win.

After getting six shots in the first six minutes though (without any for us), a penalty on Dustin Brown slowed the Kings' momentum. Perhaps that's one reason why the captain didn't see the ice in the final few minutes of the game. Kovalchuk had a great chance to score soon after, but a quick glove save by the Kings' goaltender again prevented us from getting an insurance goal. Fortunately the Devils' defense clamped down after that, only allowing three more shots the rest of the way with a few crucial shot blocks in the final minutes helping the cause. Maybe the Kings' frustration started to show last night, with a couple of after-the-whistle scrums near both goaltenders punctuated by an unnamed King on audio calling Volchenkov a '****ing p***y' after going down on a high stick that caused blood to flow, and the Kings' bench also accused Elias of diving while Mike Richards went down quicker and easier than anyone last night on an attempt to draw a call in the third.

One of those scrums led to a four-on-four in the final minute and a half of the game when Alexei Ponikarovsky and Dustin Penner got matching roughing penalties after Henrique battled for position in front of the net and wound up on his stomach, head facing towards the King goalie. For his trouble, Henrique got a rabbit shove to the head and chaos nearly ensued. With more open ice, the Kings' Alex Martinez got a couple of one-timer chances at the left side of the net late but fortunately Brodeur stood his ground and a couple more timely blocks helped us hang on to a hard-fought 2-1 win that now puts us just two wins away from history. Despite the increased number of Kings fans who made the weekend trip up to New Jersey (including Matthew Perry, who got obligatory boos when he was shown on the jumbotron) hoping to see history, the Rock was rocking last night much more than even the first two games.

It's really bizarre just how much time the postseason encompasses. We're almost in the middle of baseball season and I've paid scant attention to the Mets so far, not even realizing Johan Santana had thrown a no-hitter until after the game was over. It's early June, getting humid outside last night and still we have playoff hockey going on. Last night when my sth neighbor was counting the number of home games and I realized it was in double digits - Saturday was the eleventh postseason game of the playoffs in Newark to be exact - I was stunned at that. To put it in perspective, there's just twelve days until next season's draft takes place (almost certainly without a first-round pick for the Devils) and free-agency is just three weeks away. If this playoff run becomes a blur to the fans, imagine what it must be for the players. Henrique put it well when he said, 'You travel here and there between games. You lose track of what day it is, but that doesn't really matter. I guess you either know it's game day or it's not game day. That's all that matters'

At least the Devils didn't go down like the Kings' other three opponents, without winning a home game. Last night finally ended the Kings' spotless road streak, giving them their first loss in eleven road games. Now they return home with another chance to hoist the Cup in front of their fans. Meanwhile, the Devils hope to give the Cup even more frequent flier miles with one more cross-country trip. If last night was a hard game to win, Game 6 will be even harder. Fortunately the guys in the room know exactly what it'll take. Parise himself said the team has to play better going forward than they did last night, and I agree with him. I've said this already but whatever happens from here the Devils can be proud of their reslience this postseason.

All that said, now the pressure's clearly on LA to win it at home before they completely blow a 3-0 lead and face a winner take all Game 7 back in Newark on Wednesday night, despite Darryl Sutter's lame attempt to say we had the pressure because we had home ice and finished with more points in the regular season. If this playoffs has proved one thing it's that this regular season has been completely irrelevant for the sixteen teams that made the cut. Particularly the sixth-seeded Devils and eighth-seeded Kings. All that matters is being ready to play and executing. Both our teams will be ready to play tomorrow night. We're going to need to show the same poise and execution we've exhibited throughout this postseason to have a chance to see another home game and a Stanley Cup presentation in Newark on Wednesday.

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