Ultimately the New Jersey Devils were done in by a slow, somewhat unlucky start. And a key penalty call at the end.
Losing two 2-1 overtime games at home to open the Stanley Cup final proved to be too big an obstacle to recover from. A 4-0 defeat in Los Angeles in Game 3 then pushed the Devils to the edge of the playoff precipice.
Coach Peter DeBoer’s team gave it a yeoman effort, winning Games 4 and 5—3-1 in Los Angeles and 2-1 in Newark—before crashing 6-1 Monday night in Game 6 at the Staples Center.
The Devils became the first team since 1945—and only the third ever—to come back from an 0-3 deficit in the final and force Game 6.
“I think the hockey world pretty much wrote us off,” DeBoer said before Game 6, “and I think we feel we’ve played with no pressure because of that.”
But they could not match the 1942 Maple Leafs, the only team to come back from an 0-3 start and win the final (over Detroit).
After Game 5, DeBoer was asked if he thought bad bounces even out over a series.
“I think that’s pretty fair,” he replied.
The Devils coach may be rethinking that. He was livid Monday when Steve Bernier was ejected and given a major for driving Rob Scuderi into the boards and bloodying the Kings defender.
Seconds earlier Jarret Stoll went unpunished for a hit from behind on Devils forward Stephen Gionta.
The Kings scored three times on the ensuing power play.
“You know what, tonight is about L.A. and letting them celebrate,” DeBoer said of the call after the game. “If you want to ask me about that in about a week, I’ll give you my honest opinion on it.”
He said he felt for Bernier.
“You know, it’s a bad spot for him to be in. Everybody knows Bernie’s heart’s in the right place. He’s not at fault.”
Things went from bad to worse in the second period when Devils defenceman Anton Volchenkov got tangled with linesman Pierre Racicot seconds before the Kings made it 4-0.
New Jersey will be due a few breaks when it next plays the Kings.
Still the Devils showed remarkable resilience in the face of imminent Cup defeat. They were 4-0 in playoff elimination games prior to Monday.
“It’s a difficult thing to get yourself ready for games like that,” 40-year-old goalie Martin Brodeur said after Game 5. “Now it’s been two in a row (in the final). It drains you a lot. It takes a lot out of you. But it’s worth it.”
Throughout the playoffs, the resilient Devils got better as the series progressed. New Jersey was 10-2 in Games 4 through 7 through the playoffs.
But in a series where little things turned into big ones, they dug themselves too deep a hole after coming out at the wrong end of the opening overtime games.
Even then, DeBoer believed. And his players proved him right with their comeback in Games 4 and 5 with Brodeur leading the way.
“I’ve been singing the same tune since Game 1,” DeBoer said after Game 5. “I said even when we were down 3-0 (in the series) that I didn’t feel that the series was that lopsided.
“Our best players were our best players tonight. Brodeur and Parise and Kovalchuk. That’s the key this time of year.”
The fact that not all of the big guns were firing at the same time was part of the Devils’ problems. Captain Zach Parise and Ilya Kovalchuk were up and down with speculation that injuries, particularly to Kovalchuk, were taking a toll.
An 0-for-15 power play finally came to life in Game 5, but it took a Jonathan Quick handling error to end the drought.
The Devils beat Quick just seven times in six games (there was also an empty-net goal). Two of those goals bounced in off Kings defenceman Slava Voynov, another was a deflection and then there was the handling gaffe that gifted Parise a goal.
New Jersey had more success as the series wore on, using its speed and passing to force the L.A. goalie to move side to side, opening up angles at net. They also looked to get physical around Quick.
Brodeur’s influence, meanwhile, increased as the series wore on, helping partially negate the Quick factor at the other end.
Brodeur’s composure on and off the ice helped keep the Devils together when other teams might have folded.
“He’s played very well the last two nights,” Kings coach Darryl Sutter said of Brodeur after Game 5. “We hit a couple (of posts).
“We’re probably saying what they said Games 1 and 2 where we got breaks and now they did. That’s how even it is.”
DeBoer made changes throughout the series, shuffling his forward lines and tweaking his defensive pairings. He also inserted veterans Petr Sykora and Henrik Tallinder as of Game 4.
While New Jersey downplayed the cross-country commute, saying the Kings were doing it too, the final marked the first time the Devils had played out of their time zone since mid-January.
Los Angeles also had a week to prepare for the final, compared to four days for New Jersey.
New Jersey, seeded sixth in the East, finished ninth in the league at 48-28-6.
After surviving Game 7 in overtime against third-seeded Florida, the Devils took out the No. 5 Flyers in five games and then the top-ranked Rangers in six.
Playoff pluses include 22-year-old rookie forward Adam Henrique, whose overtime heroics and composure belied his inexperience.
Three of Henrique’s five playoffs goals were game winners and two of them were series-clinchers—against the Panthers and Rangers.
Tallinder’s seamless return to the blue-line after an absence of 58 games and nearly five months due to a blood clot in the leg was remarkable.
And another veteran defenceman, Bryce Salvador, showed an unlikely playoff scoring touch with four goals—including the winner in Game 5—and 10 assists. The 36-year-old Salvador had no goals and nine assists in 82 regular-season games.
The Devils were chasing their fourth Cup after wins in 1995, 2000 and 2003. They lost in seven games to Colorado in 2001.
A first-rate organization from top to bottom, the Devils won points for their classy approach during the final despite the lopsided, chippy finale. DeBoer typified that, showing the same kind of character his team did during difficult times.
Still, New Jersey faces a challenging off-season on and off the ice. The search for investment to help pay for the team’s debt continues while Parise is a free agent this summer.
The out-of-contract Brodeur says he will be back next season.