You are Peter DeBoer, and this is your challenge.
It’s pretty simple, really. You are the head coach of some of the most talented hockey players in the world – Russian superstar Ilya Kovalchuk, American Zach Parise, who sent the 2010 Olympic gold-medal game against Canada into overtime, Czech Patrik Elias, the New Jersey Devils’ career leader in goals and points, Canadian Adam Henrique, finalist for NHL rookie-of-the-year honours – so just how hard can it be to slide a chunk of vulcanized rubber an inch-high and three inches in diameter across a thin red line painted over slippery ice?
You yourself, coach, said that “the story of game” Saturday was obvious. “We played a real good hockey game, we lost – we’ve got to find a way to score a goal.”
Twice in three games the New Jersey Devils, by far the better team on the ice for those who never glance up at the scoreboard, have been shut out by the New York Rangers. After Saturday afternoon’s 3-0 loss, the Devils are in the position of having to win Monday on the alien ice of Madison Square Garden. Fail, and the Rangers would go ahead 3-1 in this Eastern Conference final and become all but a lock to reach the Stanley Cup final. Succeed, however, and the series would be tied 2-2, with momentum finally on the side of the roster that seems on paper more likely to be a Cup contender.
“Their goalie was the difference,” DeBoer said Saturday, again stating the obvious. Henrik Lundqvist has been brilliant for the Rangers. Martin Brodeur, who can statistically claim to be the greatest goaltender ever, not so great. But not so bad, either, to be blamed for his team’s utter failure to penetrate, first, the musk-ox blockade of blue-shirted players that surrounds Lundqvist and, second, the majesty of Lundqvist’s play when he must deal with a puck that somehow squeaks through.
It is by no accident that the signature call of several play-by-play announcers this spring has become “MISSED THE NET!” – but that, sadly, is indicative of a shift in game strategy that is not only sucking goals out of the game, but fun itself.
No matter, if you are head coach, you must deal with it. DeBoer, it needs to be pointed out, is ably assisted in his planning by Hall-of-Famer Larry Robinson, who once set the standard for impenetrable defence, and by Adam Oates, who should be in the Hall of Fame as one of the game’s most inventive playmakers. No Adam Oates, no Brett Hull in the Hall.
New York head coach John Tortorella said this weekend that “it’s no secret” how the Rangers succeed. “We know who we are and how we have to play.” If it is indeed no secret, then DeBoer, Robinson and Oates should know how they have to play if the Devils are ever to stop this New York grind to the Stanley Cup final.
“We don’t want to change anything,” Kovalchuk said following practice. “We just have to do what we were doing all three games.”
But he is wrong. The Devils’ leading scorer with six goals and seven assists, Kovalchuk should have had two more on clean chances on Lundqvist Saturday, one on a clean breakaway in which Lundqvist first guessed wrong but then made a snow-angel stop just as Kovalchuk thought he was firing the puck into the open side of the net.
DeBoer moved Kovalchuk to right wing Sunday on a line with Henrique and Elias. The rationale was obvious: Elias, who has been flat all series, can be a superb Oates-like playmaker at his best. Kovalchuk needs good passes, Elias needs a shooter to set up.
“He’s a great playmaker,” Kovalchuk said of his new linemate. “He’s always in a great position. So I think we can help each other a lot and create a lot of chances and hang in there.”
DeBoer also put Parise, who has played fairly well but been frustrated by the Rangers’ style, with Dainius Zubrus, a solid if unspectacular forward whose game never changes, and Travis Zajac.
This combination speaks well of DeBoer’s self-image. Prior to the new coach’s arrival, they were a line that worked. “They had some chemistry,” DeBoer said. “I think they enjoyed playing together. Hopefully, that translates.”
Nor was DeBoer finished with his tinkering. He replaced Petr Sykora, largely a spent force in NHL hockey, and replaced him with Jacob Josefson, a 21-year-old centre who has recovered from a broken wrist.
“Fresh legs,” DeBoer explained. “It can never hurt.
“I think the easy thing would be to stick with it and just hope you come out the next game, do the same thing, and score. But we’ve decided to shuffle some things around – and I think we’ll get some results in that.”
And if they don’t …