THN at the Stanley Cup: Unstoppable Kings on track to end 45-year drought

LOS ANGELES – Hockey players, the smart ones anyway, are generally loathe to provide their opponents with what is known as “bulletin board material” and the Los Angeles Kings are no exception. In fact, the only board the New Jersey Devils will refer to for answers in what has become an almost hopeless situation is the drawing board.

Going into Game 3 of the Stanley Cup final, the Kings were guarded and the Devils were quietly optimistic, both well-armed with the knowledge that a few bounces the other way and the Devils could have won both Games 1 and 2 on home ice. But when the Kings look back on their Stanley Cup championship – something they might be able to do as early as Wednesday night – they’ll be able to harken back to Game 3 as the one where they established complete control and utterly dominated the Devils.

For a group that is so young and unaccustomed to winning championships, the Kings were not about to start gloating about their accomplishments so far. Of course, they’ve had a fair bit of practice with this 3-0 stranglehold thing, having been in exactly that position three times already in this year’s playoffs. But if they didn’t sound so genuine, you might be tempted to accuse them of false modesty.

“I don’t think we’re ever going to sit up here and say we played a flawless game,” Kings winger Justin Williams said after his team’s 4-0 victory in Game 3. “It’s impossible.”

Really? Certainly could have fooled us. The Kings continue to make a mockery of their competition in these playoffs and Game 3 might have been their most dominant effort of all. They killed off a 5-on-3 and drew a penalty while doing it. And the one flaw they had going into the game, a power play that was limp, came to life with two goals of its own.

Most importantly, though, the Kings are demolishing the Devils at their own game. Going into the series, the Devils were dominating play along the boards and winning battles for pucks. The Kings have taken that game away from them completely. Prior to the series, most would have expected the bigger and more physical Kings to dominate in terms of possession and get their chances off the cycle, while it was expected the faster and relentless Devils would have manufactured most of their chances off the rush.

That has been turned completely upside down in this series. The Devils are holding onto the puck and doing a tremendous job of passing it around in peripheral areas from where even the best shooters in history would have trouble scoring goals. The Devils are passing up all kinds of shots, a clear indication that future Conn Smythe Trophy winner Jonathan Quick is so deeply imbedded inside their heads that the Devils may all have to have their helmets resized for Game 4.

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The Kings, on the other hand, are content to take the scoring areas away from the Devils, knowing full well that nothing, absolutely nothing, below the top third of the net is going to get by Quick. When they get the puck, they turn it around on transition with breathtaking speed and efficiency, something that is giving the Devils fits.

“It’s little tiny plays that players probably notice more than anything else,” said Kings captain Dustin Brown. “Taking a little hit, finding a way to chip it out. Those are the types of plays that probably happen three, four, five times a shift. It goes a long way when you have your best players doing that. They’ve had a lot of puck possession, but in saying that I think we’ve defended pretty well considering how much time we’ve spent in our zone.”

That the Kings will end 45 years of frustration and leave the Toronto Maple Leafs and St. Louis Blues as the only two teams who have been around since 1967-68 to not win a Cup is a foregone conclusion. The Kings are rolling, perhaps like no team ever before in NHL history, and the Devils have all the body language of a beaten team. (Speaking of body language, Ilya Kovalchuk’s tells me that his back is killing him. It’s gotten to the point where he’s not even trying to make plays anymore, unwilling to carry the puck over the blueline or go in any area of the ice where he’s going to have to take a healthy dose of punishment in exchange for a scoring chance.)

The Kings can certainly taste victory and have to be at least quietly confident they’ll become the first team to sweep the Stanley Cup final since the Detroit Red Wings in 1998.

“I don’t know what 45 years of pent-up energy sounds like,” Brown said. “But if we play our game, maybe we’ll find out.”

Ken Campbell will file daily from the Stanley Cup final.