NEWARK, N.J. — The New Jersey Devils are in danger of becoming the latest team to be steamrolled by the Los Angeles Kings.
The Devils played one of their worst games of the postseason in dropping the series opener 2-1 in overtime Wednesday night here, and they can’t afford another sub-par effort.
Lose two games at home to a team that has posted a 9-0 record on the road this postseason, and the guys who lug around hockey’s biggest prize might start shining it in earnest after Saturday night’s contest at the Prudential Center.
The situation is desperate for coach Peter DeBoer’s team. While they missed chances to win the opener, they also made a slew of mistakes that ranged from bad dump-ins of pucks, being tentative on the ice, failing to shoot when the shot was there, and leaving the Kings open. The most glaring error came in the overtime when Anze Kopitar scored on a breakaway.
The problems can be fixed. The bad news is that the Kings weren’t exactly at their best either … and still won.
And if you’re a Devil, here’s a scary fact. The Kings have played some of their best hockey in Game 2s of their three previous series, beating Vancouver, St. Louis and Phoenix by a combined 13-4 margin to take commanding 2-0 series lead back to Los Angeles each time.
“The comforting thing for me is when I listen to the comments of our players last night, they were dead-on,” DeBoer said. “We weren’t good enough. We have to be better. We got over the early-game jitters. We started to play a little bit better. But, you know, as a group, we’ve got to bring more to win this time of year.”
The Devils carried the play in the third period and had two great chances to take the lead. Captain Zach Parise failed to put a bouncing puck in the net four minutes into the period and defenseman Mark Fayne missed a wide open net with roughly 10 minutes left in regulation.
“We didn’t play at our best, I think,” Devils center Travis Zajac said. “We were a little nervous in the first period, a little tentative. You could see that. We weren’t making plays. We were throwing the puck away a little too much. We weren’t moving our feet and getting on the forecheck like we usually do. For us, we felt that, yeah, we missed an opportunity because we were able to hang around against this team, you know, not playing our best game. Still having a chance to win, that makes us feel pretty good that we can play better, be a little bit more successful.”
Kings captain Dustin Brown said that the Darryl Sutter-coached team has done a good job of not being satisfied after winning Game 1.
“In Game 2, it’s been our starts,” Brown said. “We’ve jumped on teams early, most noticeably against St. Louis, we had a 4-0 lead after the first and that goes a long way. Some teams get a win and they are satisfied. This group hasn’t been and it goes a long way when you come out in Game 2 and really put it to them.
The Devils have done an outstanding job of battling back from 1-0 deficits against the Flyers and Rangers. They won four straight after losing the opener in overtime against Philadelphia and four of five against the rival Rangers. This is different team though. The Kings are playing better than any team in the NHL now, posting a 13-2 postseason record.
“I think they bring a little bit of all of those teams into one,” said Devils rookie center Adam Henrique. “They’re a deep team. They have puck-moving defensemen, solid goaltending. But that’s to be expected. Obviously, they’re here for a reason. I think 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. We were throwing pucks away. We weren’t hanging onto the pucks. We weren’t making plays. I think there’s a lot of room for improvement on our side.”
The Devils were at their best in the opener when they got their forecheck going and cycled the puck down low in the third period. Their mistakes, however, led to chances and only a good game by Martin Brodeur kept New Jersey in it.
With the arena scheduled to hold concerts by the British rock band, Radiohead, on Thursday and Friday, DeBoer gave his players Thursday off. He and his coaching staff watched the game again and worked on corrections.
“The game starts in your own end breaking out clean, getting through the neutral zone with speed, putting the puck in the right place, running good forecheck routes, keeping pucks alive with pinches,” he said. “There’s no clean answer to it. We’ve got to be a little sharper in all our areas.”
Sutter gave his players the day off, as well. The players who did not participate in Game 1, did skate, however.
If there has been a key to the Kings’ record success on the road in the postseason, it might be scoring the first goal. They have only trailed for 58:08 in nine road games.
“We have been focused in on starts and our starts have been pretty good,” Kopitar said. “It always helps when you are not playing catch-up hockey. Everybody knows it is easier to play with the lead.”
True in a game … or a series.