Tuesday, June 12, 2012

The series that was: looking back at Devils-Kings

I've decided to use the main page for some of my Devils opinion posts over the coming days.  I'll be looking at individual performances this past season and I'll put my fictional GM hat on and preview the off-season, followed by a special league-wide post, with the help of some of the best bloggers in the NHL.

Well, the season is now over.  For me personally, there's a number of emotions running through my head right now.  I'm extremely disappointed at the result of the Stanley Cup Finals, yet I'm proud of the Devils and encouraged at the future of the team.  I'm a bit saddened, knowing that this group will never play on the same ice again, but I understand how the business of sports works.  But this was a very good season.  The Devils accomplished a lot this season.  They missed the playoffs just one spring ago.  This year, they were a bounce or two away from winning the Stanley Cup.  Not bad.

First of all, congratulations to the Kings and their fans, in case any decide to read this.  I know several die-hard Kings fans who must be thrilled beyond imagination right now, and to those, I hope you enjoy what your team has accompished.

When I think back to this series months or years from now, I'll probably attribute everything back to Games 1 and 2.  The Devils were flat in Game 1, and while they did the same in rounds 2 and 3, they were the home team in this series.  I felt that Game 1 of this series was more important than any of the prior three.  The Kings were comfortable when they scored first, and they never trailed a series this spring.  Had the Devils played better, or converted one of their many failed scoring attempts, especially those that missed the net, they would have won the first game.  They took Games 1 and 2 to overtime, but not getting a bounce here or there, and not winning one of them obviously set the Devils back dramatically.  The Devils were in position to hand the Kings a loss on the road a lot earlier than they did.

The turning point of Game 3 was the failed 5-on-3 power play.  They had the advantage for a full minute, and I don't think they ever got a shot on goal.  They simply didn't do enough to test Jonathan Quick.  They didn't even necessarily need to score on the power play, but the Kings killed it off with ease, and took over the game after that point.  The Devils wasted an opportunity in Game 3.

To their credit, the Devils kept battling in Game 4.  They never gave up.  They played for each other and really did a tremendous job of fighting through adversity.  Even when Patrik Elias finally gave them a lead in Game 4, David Clarkson was called for a terrible penalty that could have ruined the Devils' effort, but despite the Kings tying the game, the Devils battled back again and Adam Henrique eventually scored the winning goal.

I would say that the Devils used up their luck in Game 5.  The Kings had half a dozen goal posts (or so it seemed), and both Devils goals were a bit lucky.  Zach Parise hustled to intercept Quick's bad pass behind the net on the power play, but what people forget is that the play happened because Parise made a bad missed pass to Patrik Elias.  On the second goal, Bryce Salvador's patience opened the shooting lane for him, and while David Clarkson might have scored anyway, Slava Voynov tipped the puck into his own net for the second time in the series.  Still, although the Devils may have gotten lucky, luck was not on their side in any of the other games.

In Game 6, everything that could have gone wrong went wrong.  The refs missed two calls on Los Angeles (and they were obvious calls: Stoll's hit on Gionta and Penner's sucker-punch on Volchenkov), yet they give Steve Bernier the major and game misconduct.  The fact that Rob Scuderi turned his back to Bernier made the hit even worse than it could have been.  It was unfortunate for everyone.  Then the penalty kill, which once upon a time was fantastic for the Devils, failed three times in five minutes, including some more blown calls by the officials.  After the disaster of a penalty kill, the Devils kept pressing, but one puck bounced off Petr Sykora's stick and another by Elias hit the crossbar.  The Devils could have gotten back into the game at that point, but in the second period, the official interfered with Anton Volchenkov that directly led to the Kings' fourth goal.  I'm not sure why the official was standing right in the middle of the ice on a rush like that.

So after the Devils' last push failed, I'm left here thinking about all of the "what ifs."  What if Clarkson hadn't missed the net on the tic-tac-toe play in the first period of Game 1?  What if Clarkson hadn't missed the rebound chance in the second period?  What if the puck hadn't bounced over Mark Fayne's stick?  What if Kovalchuk's shot hadn't tipped off the crossbar in Game 2?  What if the Devils could have won a faceoff on their power play in Game 3?  What if anything had gone right in Game 6?  It's a game of inches, and it was just meant to be the Kings' year, I guess.  The Kings know about one play changing a game or season, too.  Ryane Clowe's play from the bench at the end of the regular season shaped the playoff matchups the way they happened.  One bounce here or there and the Kings could have missed the playoffs completely.

Hockey is a funny game sometimes.  It just wasn't meant to be for the Devils.

When I think back to this series down the road, I'll think about Martin Brodeur's heroics.  Honestly, when these playoffs started, I thought the Devils would have to win and Brodeur would have to be good enough.  Well, he proved everybody wrong.  He truly played at an elite level.  He was the hero in Game 7 in Florida.  He out-dueled Henrik Lundqvist and nearly matched Jonathan Quick.  Lundqvist and Quick are the two best goaltenders in the world right now, so Brodeur, even at the young age of 40, has to still be considered one of the best in the game.  He's proved it, and he's earned that title for now.  He'll re-sign with the Devils and hopefully give it one more shot and one more playoff run next spring.

I'll also think about some of the unlikely heroes.  Bryce Salvador.  Stephen Gionta.  Ryan Carter.  Steve Bernier.  One year ago, none of them were playing for the Devils.  Salvador's career was in jeopardy after he suffered a terrible concussion in the pre-season of 2010.  Gionta was known as Brian's little brother.  He didn't have the skill that Brian did, and was never looked at as an option with the big club.  Carter was put on waivers by the Florida Panthers early in the season.  He didn't know if he would ever play an NHL game again.  Steve Bernier didn't make the team out of training camp in the fall, and at one point, he was a healthy scratch in Albany.  These four players, like many others, persevered and got an opportunity to succeed.  The Devils would never have reached Game 6 of the Finals without them.

Every team battles injuries, but for the Devils this spring, they happened at the worst possible time.  The one that stands out above all is the back injury that plagued Ilya Kovalchuk's postseason.  Kovalchuk proved that he is the ultimate team player and battled through his injury.  His offensive production 5-on-5 was extremely limited, but he still contributed on the power play.  By the fourth and final round, his injury was just too much for him to overcome, and it dramatically marred his production.

Kovalchuk wasn't the only injury the Devils suffered through.  At the end of the regular season, Anton Volchenkov and David Clarkson both sat out for periods of time with injuries, and they never looked the same in the playoffs.  Clarkson scored 30 goals in the regular season, but didn't look like the same player in the playoffs.  Volchenkov was at his worst in the first round of the playoffs, but he battled through the playoffs and was actually pretty solid in the Stanley Cup Finals.

Another key player who looked hurt was Marek Zidlicky.  He started playing really well late in the regular season and through the first two rounds of the playoffs, but in Game 5 in Philadelphia, Wayne Simmonds boarded him from behind, knocking Zidlicky out of the game.  He returned for Game 1 against the Rangers, but he never looked the same after that hit.  It's unfair for me to speculate and say that he suffered a concussion, but clearly, something was not right for him after the Flyers series.

There are a couple other players who disappointed in the playoffs.  I thought Mark Fayne's play declined later in the postseason, but he was terrific for much of the regular season and early in the playoffs.  I believe Petr Sykora's age caught up with him as the season wore on.  He didn't play much last year, so this season was tough on him.

The one player I'm still wondering what happened to him is Patrik Elias.  He quietly had a phenomenal season, posting 78 points and his second-highest assist total of his career: 52.  In the playoffs, he started off strong, scoring the first goal of the postseason for the Devils.  He added another goal in Game 3 against Florida, but disappeared after that.  He finished with 8 points in 24 playoff games, which is very disappointing for Elias.  I don't remember him getting injured during the season or in the playoffs, but looking at his career and what he's done before this year, the 2012 playoffs will probably go down as Elias' worst ever.

That's my last post on the 2012 Stanley Cup Finals.  I'll do a more in-depth season in review later in the week, then a breakdown of each player and the season they had, followed by the NHL season in review, as written by hockey's best bloggers.