The New Jersey Devils are in real trouble.
According to NHL.com, on 44 occasions a team has won both the first and second games of the Stanley Cup Finals. Forty-one times, the team with that 2-0 advantage in the Finals goes on to win the Stanley Cup – a 93.2 percent success rate.
Can they manage the comeback?
The numbers are slightly less bleak if one expands the window to include all playoff series, but they still aren’t good. On 291 occasions a team has trailed two games to none; in 37 of those series the trailing team has come back to win, meaning that the leading team has won the series 87.3 percent of the time.
Still, upsets do happen. Last year’s Stanley Cup champions, the Boston Bruins, lost the first two home games in the first round, yet managed to come back and defeat the Montreal Canadiens. In the Finals, they dropped the first pair of contests to Vancouver, and ended up winning in seven games. The 2009 Penguins did something similar, dropping the first two games in both their second round series against Washington and in the Finals against Detroit; they too walked away with the Cup.
For the Devils to emulate the last two champions from the East, they’ll need to find a way to beat a Kings team that has shown no shortage of killer instinct. Three times in these playoffs, the Kings have led a best of seven series two games to none; they swept the Blues and beat the Canucks and Coyotes in five games.
The Devils have proven a stiffer test to date than any of the Kings’ previous opponents. In the series against Vancouver, Los Angeles won the first two games in regulation by a combined score of 8-4. The first two games against St. Louis were both won in regulation, with a score of 8-5. They outscored the Coyotes 8-2 in another pair of regulation wins. The Devils have forced each of the first two contests into overtime; the total score in the series now rests at 4-2 in favour of Los Angeles.
New Jersey was also much better in the second game against L.A. than they were in the first contest. The Devils were outshot 25-17 in the series opener, and according to NHLNumbers were out-chanced 14-10. In the second game, the Devils actually outshot the Kings 33-32 and the scoring chances were even at 21 each.
The primary problem for the Devils continues to be the Kings’ top line of Anze Kopitar, Justin Williams and Dustin Brown. That trio has played primarily against New Jersey’s top unit – Travis Zajac, Zach Parise and Dainius Zubrus – and in the first two games they’ve dominated the play. In head-to-head action, the Kings’ first line generated three chances more than New Jersey’s in the first game, and two more in the second game. Overall, the Kopitar line is plus-7 in scoring chances through two games against the Devils; the rest of the Kings team is a combined minus-3.
That problem is one that no team in these playoffs has yet been able to solve. In these playoffs, the trio has been unbeatable, with Kopitar especially dominant. In 5-on-5 situations with Kopitar on the ice, the Kings have outshot their opponents at a rate of 40-27 in an average hour. With Kopitar off the ice, the Kings have been outshot 31-26.
Kopitar’s dominance is also reflected in scoring chances. In their third round series against Phoenix, Los Angeles out-chanced the Coyotes 95-65 at even-strength. In the ~83 minutes Kopitar played, the Kings won the scoring chances battle 35-16 (+19). In the ~156 minutes that Kopitar didn’t play, the Kings still won the battle 60-49 (+11), but by a greatly reduced amount. Put another way: roughly speaking Kopitar (and his line-mates) played one-third of the Kings’ even-strength minutes, and generated two-thirds of the Kings’ scoring chance advantage.
If the Devils manage to come back and win this series, it will be because they have done what nobody else has been able to do: contain the Kopitar line.
Other Series Notes
- CBC commentator Glenn Healy noted during Game Two that “one thing [the commentators] don’t talk about is the faceoff prowess of the Los Angeles Kings” before pointing out that the Kings were enjoying a sizeable advantage over the Devils in faceoffs. Interestingly, the Kings and Devils were the worst playoff faceoff teams in their respective conferences; both clubs found victory in the games without finding it in the faceoff circle.
- The Kings’ fourth line has been quite successful in the post-season, and they’ve drawn extra attention because Darryl Sutter has been willing to put them on the ice against virtually anyone (typically, fourth lines play primarily against each other rather than facing the other team’s more formidable lines). Sutter has hedged his bets, however, by being careful about where he uses those players. In five-on-five situations, fourth-line center Colin Fraser has been on the ice for 31 offensive zone faceoffs, as opposed to 35 in all other zones combined (including just 13 in the defensive end). By playing the fourth line primarily in the offensive zone, Sutter helps ensure that those shifts against better opponents don’t come back to hurt his team. New Jersey’s fourth line has received no such help, with head coach Peter DeBoer distributing offensive zone starts more or less evenly throughout the forward lines.
- One item that has yet to have an impact on the series is the Kings’ ability to draw penalties. Through two games, the Devils have had six power play opportunities to the Kings’ three, but that’s somewhat unexpected. Los Angeles has four regulars who have drawn more than two penalties per hour in the playoffs; New Jersey has just one. The Kings have eight regulars drawing at least three penalties per hour; the Devils have only three. Entering this final series, the Kings had been on the power play 17 more times than they had been shorthanded; the Devils had just four more opportunities for than against.