Heartbreaking – the best adjective for the first two games of the Stanley Cup Final if you’re a Devils fan. Playing the Kings evenly, watching shots go wide or over the net, and then getting beaten on a variety of simple mistakes take their mental toll on the team and the fans. None of the games were blowouts, and each team seemed to carry play in a game (Kings in 1, Devils in 2). End results, though, have the Devils going to Hollywerid down 2-0.
Win Game 3 and this is a repeat of the Rangers series. That’s the season on the brink, in a sentence. The Devils were shut out in two of the first three games in that series and yet managed to find offense to win in six.
What needs to be different? Individual accountability; small improvements from all corners. I feel the need to make a list, since it’s what I’ve done in the first few rounds, and none of my other hockey talismans seem to have retained their mojo (lucky t-shirt, jersey, pre-game meal and seating choices, along with wearing Ernie’s lucky tie in abstentia, even looping it around my head in OT — all resulted in what my grandmother called gernesht – not just nothing, but nothing with headaches).
Five things the Devils need to do differently, starting in 24 hours:
1. Kovulchuk needs to stop overplaying the puck. Pass or shoot, and if passing, look first. Too many blind passes and bad turnovevers. Not being double-shifted would help. He doesn’t look 100% all of the time, and his backchecking is miserable half of the time. There are flashes of brilliance followed by splotches of laziness. If I could channel Jean Singer (the late owner of Super Duper Bagels in Livingston, a wonderful hockey fan, huge fan of all Russian athletes, and a Ranger-hater until the day she died), I would, and she’d have some choice words about effort. They need to be heard right now.
2. More movement on the power play. The Kings are significantly more aggressive in backchecking on the power play than any other playoff opponents. Holding the puck at the half boards, or short passes to the point aren’t going to work. More movement down low, and more shooting from inside the circles, especially if the Kings continue to clog the shooting lanes from the point with forwards up high. That’s how the Kings picked up shorthanded goals in the early rounds — picking off or blocking plays from the point. It’s the opposite of the Rangers approach (playing five skaters like goalies), so the offense has to adapt as well.
3. More shots, less complicated passing. The Kings are too quick to get drawn into tic-tac-toe plays, and the Devils are then getting caught on the ensuing breakouts.
4. Stop trying to pick corners. Between shots over the top, and missed open nets going to the weak side, everyone watching groans at least five times a game. Simpler is better. Less fancy, more direct. When Quick is out of position, just bury the puck.
5. Nobody skates through the middle untouched. Not Kopitar, not Doughty, not Carter. Body on body. Carter’s goal in overtime came after he collected the puck and curled to the top of the circles; Doughty’s in regulation happened when he skated into three guys — someone could have stepped up with a body. When you’re outpaced (and I think the Devils are the slower team), you need to use body position to your advantage.