LOS ANGELES, Calif. – Put the coronation on hold.
The New Jersey Devils are sending the Stanley Cup final back to the swamp, and they believe they’ve planted a seed of doubt in the minds of the Los Angeles Kings.
Rookie forward Adam Henrique played the hero again by scoring with less than five minutes to play in regulation and the resilient Devils pulled out a 3-1 victory on Wednesday.
“It’s been a fun year and it’s not over yet,” Henrique said after his third game-winning goal of these playoffs.
Everything about the atmosphere in Staples Center suggested the Kings were about to hoist the Stanley Cup for the first time in their history. But the Devils forced Cup keepers Phil Pritchard and Craig Campbell to put the trophy back in its case for a cross-continent flight.
Game 5 goes Saturday night at Prudential Center in Newark.
“You know, I think we wanted to make them jump on a plane and come to New Jersey,” said veteran goalie Martin Brodeur, who made 21 saves. “We had to go anyway, might as well get a game over there. I’m sure they’re not happy to make that trip.
“We’ll try to make it miserable for them again.”
There are two things working in the Kings favour: they’re an amazing 10-0 on the road in these playoffs, and they’ve encountered this situation before. They missed out on a chance to sweep both Vancouver in the first round and Phoenix in the Western Conference final before closing things out in Game 5.
On Wednesday night, Los Angeles didn’t seem to skate as well as it had earlier in the series and three Kings failed to convert breakaway chances. The team also had two shots ring off the post.
“We can be sharper,” said Kings defenceman Matt Greene. “I think we played OK but that’s not going to cut it right now.”
Henrique has come up huge for the Devils this spring. Not only did he score overtime goals to eliminate Florida and the New York Rangers, he found a way to get an even bigger one on this night despite taking a pass from David Clarkson that was in his feet.
The 22-year-old calmly turned his right boot to get the puck up to his stick before lifting a shot over Jonathan Quick at 15:29 of the third period.
“It seemed to come off my skate pretty nice,” Henrique said. “Right on the tape.”
The game was fast, physical and full of tension. New Jersey’s Patrik Elias and the Kings’ Drew Doughty traded third-period goals before Henrique rang a shot in off the post to keep it from reaching a white-knuckle overtime. Ilya Kovalchuk scored into an empty net.
Simply getting a couple of pucks behind Quick should provide a morale boost for the Devils. The Kings goaltender has been virtually unbeatable in these playoffs and looked sharp once again—snaring a Petr Sykora wrist shot early in the first period.
But New Jersey remained persistent and Elias eventually opened the scoring on a rebound at 7:56 of the third period. It was the first time the Devils held a lead in the series.
“We finally got rewarded,” said coach Pete DeBoer.
Most impressively, his players kept their composure when Doughty tied the game 63 seconds later after Clarkson had been sent off on a questionable boarding penalty.
The sellout crowd at Staples Center was roaring at that point, with virtually the entire building expecting to see a trophy presentation. There were several reminders of that possibility throughout the evening, including a spine-tingling cheer that went up as “It’s Cup Time!” was splashed on the scoreboard before the opening puck drop.
A number of Kings acknowledged after Wednesday’s morning skate that they had allowed their minds to wander during the day off between games.
“Hey, you know, it’s tough to be 3-0 up,” said Sykora, who is playing in his sixth Stanley Cup final. “I’ve been in that situation before and you have a lot of thoughts about what you’re going to do after the game. For us, it’s perfect now.
“It’s 3-1, we’re going back home and I think we feel good about the game we played tonight. We’re going to bring it again.”
The Devils don’t feel as though they’ve gotten what they deserve in this series. They dropped the opening two games in overtime and were happy with their effort in Game 3 despite getting tagged with a 4-0 loss.
There’s still a mountain to climb, with Brodeur acknowledging that “the road ahead is the most difficult that we could face.” Only the 1942 Toronto Maple Leafs have erased a 3-0 series deficit in the Stanley Cup final.
However, New Jersey isn’t about to lie down in the face of that bleak history.
“They believe,” DeBoer said. “They’re in the fight, they’ve got a lot of pride. … We know we’ve just got to stick with it and it will turn. And it did tonight.”
It kept alive an incredible streak of 43 straight playoff series in which New Jersey hasn’t been swept. The Devils have a proud history that includes three Stanley Cups while the Kings are still chasing one more victory to wipe away 45 years of frustration.
“We’re pretty happy to live another day,” Brodeur said.
Notes: Will Ferrell, Vince Vaughn, LL Cool J, Matthew Perry, Charlie Sheen and Teemu Selanne were among the celebrities in attendance … The Devils are 9-2 in the playoffs when scoring first … New Jersey is 0-for-14 on the power play in the series … Sykora was inserted into the Devils lineup along with Henrik Tallinder, giving him appearances in six of the last 12 Stanley Cup finals.