There is probably no head coach in hockey that Los Angeles Kings centre Mike Richards knows better than Peter DeBoer.
The New Jersey Devils bench boss was a mentor and a friend to Richards, who played 233 regular-season and 41 playoff games over a four-year junior career for him with the Kitchener Rangers. They won a Memorial Cup together in 2003, and made an unexpectedly deep run two years later. DeBoer was also an assistant coach on Brent Sutter’s staff when Canada won world junior gold in 2005.
The thing is, Richards is used to working with DeBoer, not against him, which is what is about to happen, when the Kings and Devils face off in the 2012 Stanley Cup final, beginning Wednesday in Newark, N.J.
“He’d run you over with his car to win a Stanley Cup,” DeBoer said after Devils practice Monday, “then he’d visit you in the hospital after.”
The Devils finished fourth in the Atlantic Division and began the playoffs as the sixth seed in the Eastern Conference, while the Kings finished third in the Pacific Division and began the playoffs as the eighth seed in the Western Conference. Since the current conference-based playoff system was adopted before the 1994 postseason, the lowest-seeded team ever to win the Stanley Cup was New Jersey, a fifth seed in the lockout-shortened 1994-95 season.
The Kings and Devils played each other twice this season in October. The first came in New Jersey, on the Kings’ trip home after starting the season in Europe. The second came with back-up goaltender Jonathan Bernier in goal, and before coach Darryl Sutter or trade-deadline acquisition Jeff Carter were added to the lineup.
Neither matches were projected as possible Stanley Cup previews back in the first month of the season, but that’s how unpredictable these playoffs have been. L.A. has had the far easier time of it, holding commanding 3-0 leads in all three series and have lost only two games in total.
The Devils, by contrast, were down 3-2 in the opening round to DeBoer’s former Florida Panthers team and needed a double-overtime win in Game 7 to advance. They subsequently needed five games to get past the Flyers and six to get past the Rangers, meaning they are 18 games in, and far more physically spent than the Kings, who were scheduled to arrive in Newark early Monday evening to adjust to the three-hour time change.
For Richards and linemate Jeff Carter, who are making their second trips to the Stanley Cup final in three years, this is an opportunity for redemption. Two years ago, they lost a heartbreaker in overtime of Game 6 to the Chicago Blackhawks on a quirky goal by Patrick Kane.
“You work so hard to get there and then you come up short, it’s tough to swallow,” Carter acknowledged, “but a lot of guys don’t get a second chance. A few guys in the room are getting that second chance and we’re going to do everything in our power to come out on top this time.”
Richards said the two will be far better prepared this time around, for knowing what the circus-like atmosphere of a Stanley Cup final is all about.
“Before, we might have been a little shocked or taken aback by it,” Richards said. “This time, we can just focus on hockey.”
Richards acknowledged that his partnership with Carter took time to get off the ground with the Kings, given how little they’d previously played together during the Philadelphia years. The line didn’t really hit its stride until the third round, when the streaky Carter scored five of his nine playoff points to date, all of them coming in two games.
“Jeff is a natural centreman, so going on the wing, it took a lot of time [for him to adjust]” Richards said. “It’s just a lot of communication, me telling him where I need him, him telling me what he needs me to do.
“Knowing each other for 10 or 11 years, it’s not a situation where you might be a little shy of saying something or telling him where he needs to be or vice versa. Obviously, we have a good relationship, so you’re not worried about stepping on somebody’s toes. You can just be very straightforward with it and he’s the same way with me. So I think that helps out, instead of being shy and timid with it.”