You just figured, the way the puck was bouncing wildly all over the place - with nobody able to settle it down to make any kind of creative play - that Wednesday’s opening game of the Stanley Cup final would be decided by a strange one. By a fluke.
Not by the sort of goal that Anze Kopitar ultimately scored 8:13 into overtime that gave the Los Angeles Kings a 2-1 victory over the New Jersey Devils and a 1-0 lead in the best-of-seven series.
Clear breakaway. Great move. The sort of move you practice all season long to prepare for shootouts. How did that happen in a Stanley Cup final playoff game against a team that practically invented shutdown defence?
Somehow, the Devils, usually so good at shutting things down defensively, lost Kopitar in coverage. It'd be like leaving Michael Jordan open for a three-pointer at the buzzer. Kings winger Justin Williams had the puck on the boards, outside the blue line, but saw Kopitar - with all that room, in open ice - out of the corner of his eye.
“I was just throwing an area pass there,” said Williams. “Hopefully, he skates into it. Hopefully, it’s timed right and thankfully it was.”
It was a plough horse game decided by a thoroughbred play, Kopitar skating in on goaltender Martin Brodeur, freezing him with a move and then scoring with a deft move to the forehand.
“Anytime you see your own guy going in on a breakaway in overtime, it’s nice,” said Williams, “and especially No. 11. I just felt like he was going to score. He made a great move.”
Kopitar’s goal ended a seesaw battle, which could have gone either way. The Kings, who won a record ninth consecutive game on the road in these playoffs, carried the play for two periods. The Devils pushed back in the third. It was up for grabs in the extra period, what Williams described as a “grinding game. It’s a team that doesn’t give you much, and we’re not expecting to give an inch either. It’s supposed to be hard - and tonight, it was.”
It unquestionably looked like a hard game to play - the building hot, the ice gluey. Skilled plays were at a premium until the end.
“It was sloppy,” said Kings centre Jarret Stoll. “I think both teams would say that. There were a lot of turnovers in the neutral zone. Pucks were bouncing everywhere. There were a couple of pushes from us. There were a couple of pushes from them, with both sides trying to get their games going.
“We were sluggish, I’m not going to lie to you. It’s not the game we wanted to have on the ice tonight. Hopefully, we’ll be better for Game 2.”
Teams that win Game 1 in the Stanley Cup final have gone on to win the championship in 55 of 72 seasons, so that gives the Kings an important leg up. Still, the Boston Bruins came from 2-0 down in last year’s playoffs to defeat the Vancouver Canucks, so nothing is lost yet. Also: When Kings’ coach Darryl Sutter led the Calgary Flames to the 2004 Stanley Cup final, they won the first game on the road but ultimately lost the series in seven games.
Sutter, a contrarian to the end, didn’t want to hear about the team’s nine-game road winning streak. In his mind, it’s one in a row. The first eight wins, over the first three series, don’t count anymore.
It was the first time since 2002 that the opening game of the Stanley Cup final went to overtime. That year, the Carolina Hurricanes knocked off the Detroit Red Wings only 58 seconds into the extra period.
Last night’s game, the 24th overtime game of the 2012 Stanley Cup playoffs, the third highest total for one playoff year, went considerably longer.
Kings’ fourth-line centre Colin Fraser and Devils’ defensive defenceman Anton Volchenkov traded goals in regulation, both scoring for the first time in these playoffs. The fact that it was a low-scoring, tight affair, featuring solid goaltending from both Quick, a Vezina Trophy candidate, and Brodeur came as no surprise.
The scoring chances were few, but they were there. In the third period, the Devils’ Mark Fayne was in alone, facing an empty net, but the puck skipped over his stick blade, harmlessly into the corner. A few minutes later, defenceman Drew Doughty sifted through a seam to get a point-blank chance, but Brodeur went all old-school on him, stacked the pads and kept the puck out.
Another time, Devils captain Zach Parise tried a little bit of sleight of hand, hoping to fool the referees. Lying flat on the ice in Jonathan Quick’s goal crease, Parise slipped the puck into the net with his gloved hand. Luckily, referee Dan O’Halloran had a clear view of the proceedings and immediately waved it off.
Devils’ coach Peter DeBoer said Quick represented more of what his team had already seen in the playoffs from the New York Rangers’ Henrik Lundqvist.
“This isn't anything new,” said DeBoer. “You have to get traffic, bodies, shots. You can't get frustrated. Lundqvist shut us out the first two games of that series despite, I thought, a pretty significant territorial edge on our part. We stuck with it.
“You're not going to get to guys like this easily. They're going to frustrate you at different parts in the series. It's battling through. We have that experience now.”
The Devils were singularly unimpressive in the second period, failing to get even a single shot on goal in the first 14:20 of play. But in the fickle nature of the game, the Devils managed to get back to even terms with just 1:12 to go in the second, when a harmless-looking shot from Volchenkov caromed crazily off Slava Voynov’s chest and into the net behind a helpless Quick.
In between, the Kings had oodles of missed chances that could have given them a cushion, but when they weren’t shooting wide, they had a hard time settling the puck down on the sort of soft ice that you generally see in games played on a humid day at the end of May.
But this loss wasn’t about a bad bounce for the Devils as much as it was about a missed assignment - and a brilliant response from Kopitar.
“Marty’s a world-class goalie,” said Kopitar, after the game ended, “but I think I got the best of him tonight.”
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