NEWARK, N.J. – Even though the Los Angeles Kings faced the New Jersey Devils only twice this season, and not since October, they knew exactly what to expect from the Eastern Conference champions.
Like the Kings, the Devils grind out games and rely on a strong forecheck to set the tone. Puck possession is important, and bottling up opponents is another key to success.
The Devils blew a coverage in overtime in Game 1, and it cost them the game as Anze Kopitar turned the breakdown into a breakaway that produced the winning goal in Los Angeles’ 2-1 victory Wednesday night.
“When you play the Devils there is not a whole lot of room out there, especially in OT, but I’ll gladly take it,” Kopitar said Thursday, the first day of a two-day break in the series before Game 2 on Saturday night.
The Kings took a 1-0 lead in the first period, and didn’t score again until Kopitar won it 8:13 into the extra period. In between, Anton Volchenkov got the tying goal for the Devils in the second period.
“We knew what we were getting into,” Kings defenceman Matt Greene said. “They came out hard. We knew they were going to be hardworking, hard physically, get on the forecheck, and they were. We did our best to get ready for them. We didn’t handle it as well as we could sometimes, but you’ve got to give them a lot of credit.”
While the Kings didn’t appear to take the best shot from the Devils yet, they will look to take advantage of them again on Saturday night before the series shifts to Los Angeles for two games. The Kings led their first three playoff series 3-0.
“After we got the first win, we’re just thinking it was a 0-0 series,” Kopitar said. “Focus on the next start and do it all over again.”
TOO FRIENDLY? The Devils are in a unique spot as they take on the unfamiliar Los Angeles Kings in the Stanley Cup finals.
In the previous two rounds, New Jersey took on and took out its two biggest rivals: first, the Philadelphia Flyers in five games, and then the hated New York Rangers in six. Both Atlantic Division rivals play relatively close in distance to New Jersey and both tend to overshadow the Devils, even though the Devils have had much more success in recent years than either of those clubs.
There is no little-brother syndrome facing the Devils in this round like they dealt with in the conference finals against the Rangers, so forgive New Jersey if takes a bit of time to develop some animosity toward the Kings.
That could change as early as Saturday’s Game 2.
“I think so,” New Jersey forward Adam Henrique said on Thursday. “Obviously, they’re a team that we haven’t seen very much over the year. There’s not that big rivalry like the Rangers or Philadelphia.
“It’s the Stanley Cup finals. I’m sure it will ramp up. Maybe not the chippiness, but just the physical play all around. I think it was there last night for the most part. I’m sure that will continue throughout the series.”
Through one game, both teams are still going through the feeling-out process. The Devils won both regular-season meetings that took place just 12 days apart, including one in a shootout.
“They’re a different team than the Rangers or other teams we have faced so far,” Henrique said. “They bring a little bit of all of those teams into one. They’re a deep team. They have puck-moving defencemen, solid goaltending. But that’s to be expected. Obviously they’re here for a reason.
“We need to focus on our game, how we need to play. Maybe we were a little nervous coming out at the start of the game (Wednesday). We were throwing pucks away. We weren’t hanging onto the pucks, making plays. There’s a lot of room for improvement on our side.”
DIFFERENT D: On the day star defenceman Nicklas Lidstrom announced his retirement from the NHL after 20 seasons with the Detroit Red Wings, many on the New Jersey Devils and Los Angeles Kings shared their thoughts and feelings about the seven-time Norris Trophy winner and four-time Stanley Cup champion who is destined for an easy trip into the Hockey Hall of Fame.
Kings coach Darryl Sutter is quite fond of his star defenceman Drew Doughty, but he doesn’t see a carbon copy of Lidstrom in him.
“No. Because they’re not similar in style of play,” the stoic Sutter said Thursday.
“He’s an awesome player,” Sutter continued about Lidstrom. “Everybody talked about the changes to the game, the rule changes, all that. The top players still remained the top players. The coaches adjusted to it. You look at a guy like Lidstrom, literally produced through it all, as a young player, an old player.
“He’s still playing if he wants. He’s still a top player in the league if he wants to be. That just shows you the status that he has. He was a frustrating guy to coach against because you could never get to Nicklas Lidstrom. He was one of the few guys ever that could control a game from the defensive standpoint. You think of how many of those guys there are, recent history, maybe (Ray) Bourque, Lidstrom, not many. As a kid you thought Bobby Orr could do that.”
TUNING IN: Say what you will about the popularity of hockey and the NHL—or lack of it—but viewers are being drawn in by the ongoing Stanley Cup playoffs that are getting close to producing a new champion.
Through the first three rounds of the post-season, more than 70 million viewers have watched at least part of the playoffs.
Though the national TV ratings for Game 1 of the finals between the Devils and Kings was down 33 per cent compared to last year when Boston played Vancouver. According to Sports Business Journal, NBC had a 1.8 rating and 2.9 million viewers for Devils-Kings on Wednesday night.
Still, the NHL is feeling good about the attention it has been getting.
For the first time in the United States, every game of the conference quarterfinals, semifinals and finals were available nationally on a variety of channels. More than 47 million people watched at least a portion of the games on NBC, NBC Sports Network, CNBC, NHL Network or on a regional sports network (RSN).
“We had a tremendous season with NBC Sports, which provided outstanding coverage,” NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said in his annual Stanley Cup finals address. “It is clear that the strategy of having every playoff game broadcast nationally in the United States created unprecedented interest.
“In addition, we had record ad sales, record sponsorship activation, connecting our sponsors’ brands with our brands and with our fans on a deeper level than ever before. We look forward to an even brighter future in traditional and nontraditional media.”
The broader spectrum of broadcasts helped viewership rise more than 22 per cent over last year. In Canada, where hockey is much more popular, more than 23 million also watched. NHL Network games don’t factor into those figures.
AP Sports Writer Tom Canavan contributed to this report.