On paper, the difference between the Los Angeles Kings and the New Jersey Devils is vast – the Kings are up 2-0 in the Stanley Cup final with the next two games in their arena and the historical comfort of knowing that nine of the 12 other NHL teams with the same lead won the championship. On the ice, though, the difference between them is razor-thin. Both games went to overtime and both ended in 2-1 wins. The Devils were the better team for much of Saturday's loss, winning the battles along the boards for the puck after a slow start, but Kings head coach Darryl Sutter noted the difference (sort of) in his under-stated way.
"Yeah, I think we weathered the storm in the first period and withstood a pretty strong fore-check," Sutter said. "We made some mistakes. Our goalie made some saves, same as theirs."
"Our goalie" is 26-year-old Jonathan Quick. He showed once again Saturday that if the Kings skitter the rest of the way along this tightrope and win their first Stanley Cup since they joined the league in 1967 there is no other choice for the Conn Smythe Trophy, which goes to the most valuable player of the post-season.
The Devils' ageless wonder, 40-year-old Martin Brodeur has been sensational in the playoffs. He has a .924 save percentage in 20 games and a 2.00 goals-against average, both superb numbers. On Saturday night, Brodeur stopped 30 of 32 shots, a .938 save percentage, many of them spectacular, such a glove save on Mike Richards in overtime or when he stacked his pads and dove across his crease to rob Anze Kopitar.
But it wasn't good enough. Not when Brodeur's teammates cannot solve Quick. Or, more correctly, get through the Kings defence often enough to solve Quick. They did get through more in Game 2 than they did in Game 1 but, as the taciturn Sutter noted, "our goalie made some saves."
He made 32 on 33 shots by the end, including one on Devils star Ilya Kovalchuk with about a minute left in the third period when he just managed to get his shoulder to tick the puck enough that it bounced off the crossbar. A couple of millimetres difference and the Devils would have tied the best-of-seven series.
A razor-thin margin to be sure, but one that opened a vast gulf in front of the Devils going into Monday night's third game of the series.
As good as Brodeur's numbers are, Quick's are simply other-worldly. After 16 playoff games, he has a 1.44 goals-against average and .947 save percentage. He's stopped 48 of 50 Devils shots in the two games of the Cup final. No wonder the Kings have not lost a playoff game on the road this spring.
It's the most amazing stretch in goal since, well, since a year ago. Tim Thomas stymied the Vancouver Canucks with a 1.15 goals-against average and .967 save percentage that had everyone agog and won the Stanley Cup for the Boston Bruins and the Conn Smythe for himself.
Quick is not the sole difference, of course, just the biggest. He is able to be the biggest difference because his teammates seize on the few opportunities afforded the scorers in this series while the Devils have not.
And the hockey cliché is right. To win a championship, your best players have to be your best players. For the Kings, aside from Quick their best players are their stars, defenceman Drew Doughty and forwards Dustin Brown and Kopitar.
For the Devils, alas, their best line is their fourth one – Stephen Gionta, Steve Bernier and Ryan Carter. This is great if you're looking for secondary scoring and the odd big goal. It is not so great when it continues in the long-run.
So far in the Cup final, the Devils' biggest star, Kovalchuk, has been ordinary. He had a few chances to shine, such as that shot late in Saturday's game, but the Kings have had an easy time keeping him to the outside, something the New York Rangers could not do in the Eastern Conference final.
The rest of the Devils' top scorers, Zach Parise, Travis Zajac and Patrik Elias, have run into the same trouble. They managed to slap around Ranger goaltender Henrik Lundqvist and distract him enough to win a tight seven-game series but it is not happening against Quick.
If the Devils can't find a way to break through, then this final will go the same way as the one in 1968, the year the Kings joined the NHL with five other teams. It was a 4-0 sweep by the Montreal Canadiens over the St. Louis Blues in four one-goal games. A close one on the ice but not in the record books.