Part One – A New Hope: In which the Los Angeles Kings, an eighth-seeded playoff team, attempt to pull off the least likely Stanley Cup run in NHL history.
Here’s a short list of things I love: Hockey, playoff hockey, USA hockey, and you. Let’s have a Stanley Cup Final, shall we? Bob Costas is building up the fact that a 6 seed is hosting an 8 seed, which is the line of discussion that eventually leads to a disregard of hockey’s regular season. After all, we hockey fans are not shy to refer to the playoffs as hockey’s “second season”. Anything can happen, even a team everyone wrote off a month into the year (the Los Angeles Kings, who were a popular preseason pick but faltered out of the gate) or a “remember when” team (the New Jersey Devils, a team that was not on anyone’s radar for much of the season, but a team that still employs one of the greatest goaltenders of all time, the 40-year-old Martin Brodeur) can make the Stanley Cup Finals.
In Brodeur, the Devils have pedigree. He’s won three Cups over the past two decades and has more playoff experience than any goalie ever not named Patrick Roy. He is one of the most decorated goaltenders of all time and serves as a constant reminder that when the playoffs come around, you should never count out the New Jersey Devils. They are the establishment. Opposing them are the rebellious upstart Kings, an exercise in mediocrity. They’ve not made the Finals since 1993 and have never won the Cup in the forty-five years of their existence. But they’ve been a surprising juggernaut through the first three rounds, defeating teams they had no business getting past. Or so we were led to believe.
[I know it’s silly, but I love the Canadian national anthem more than I love most of Broken Social Scene’s catalogue, so it’s kind of a bummer that we only get The Star-Spangled Banner for these games, but it is, I suppose, fitting, as the captains of both teams are American. This is a rare thing. Only one American captain has accepted the Stanley Cup from the NHL’s commissioner, 1999’s Derian Hatcher of the Dallas Stars. No matter what happens, we’ll have another. Go USA hockey.]
19:42 – The first “Beat L.A.” chant of the night. Wow, Jersey didn’t waste any time. I’ve always associated that with the Lakers/Celtics rivalry, but the Clippers and Kings have made this officially a thing now. Way to absorb the brunt of the So Cal hate, guys!
14:46 – USA Hockey on USA Hockey violence. L.A.’s captain Dustin Brown lines up Jersey’s captain Zach Parise in open ice so hard. This will continue. Brown is notorious for physical play, and he will hit anything in front of him. The fact that he singled out Parise, however, makes me think it was a statement more than a natural part of the game.
10:30 – Lots of dump and chase. This first period seems super tentative.
10:04 – I clearly have no idea what I’m talking about. Kings goal: Fraser, assist: Nolan. The fourth line, on most teams considered a line that eats up time while the scorers are resting, comes through on a good one-time shot between the circles. Brodeur gets beat low; at 40, apparently his legs aren’t as fast as the appropriately named Kings goaltender Jonathan Quick.
6:53 – On the power play, New Jersey makes a fantastic shot against Quick. He juts out a right pad and steers it away. Cue announcers harping on the advice that players need to shoot high to beat him. This will not end any time soon, I suspect. (They’re wrong, because he can handle the high shot, but I guess they need something to talk about other than repeating “Jonathan Quick is so awesome.”)
3:01 – This is the first time an announcer has referred to one of these goalies as a “third defenseman” because of his stick-handling prowess. It won’t be the last. [Brodeur is one of the best of all time. He’s one of the few goaltenders with a goal of his own on his stat sheet.]
17:35 – Three Kings make three hits in succession behind the Devil’s goal line. After a lackluster first period, welcome to playoff hockey.
14:30 – Smelling salts on the bench. Insert bath salts joke here.
13:53 – According to CBC’s Hockey Night in Canada, Kings defenseman Willie Mitchell “has a good stick, and a long one!”
10:42 – During the faceoff, Darren Clarkson of the Devils and Dustin Penner of the Kings compare playoff beards. They’re both pretty impressive, but Penner’s missing a front tooth. Advantage: Kings.
5:30 – First NJ shot of the period. It accidentally rolled on net as Parise tried to deke past a defender. The Kings defense has been smothering, but neither team seems super excited about trying to score yet. Are they building up the suspense for later acts?
1:12 – Devils goal: Volchenkov, assists: Elias, Clarkson. After being summarily dominated for most of the period [New Jersey has managed only one good shot against Quick in the second], Devil’s defenseman Anton Volchenkov throws a harmless puck at the net, which Quick easily steers aside, straight into his own defenseman Slava Voynov. The rebound bounces into the net and just like that, the game is tied. It’s a heartbreaking goal to give up for the Kings after multiple chances against Brodeur at the other end of the ice were calmly and professionally turned away. But as Quick just showed, even the best goalie can be beat by (un)happy accidents and it never hurts to keep lobbing pucks toward the net.
17:13 – Lone Kings goalscorer Colin Fraser checks Devils defenseman Bryce Salvador into the boards so hard they dislodge the glass. Not unlike a shattered backboard in the NBA, the glass partitions in hockey endure some pretty terrifying punishment. Don’t believe me? Watch this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JWqgizAD4FA
16:03 – After an acrobatic save and rugby scrum in front of the Kings’ net, the puck finds its way behind Jonathan Quick again, but this time it’s guided in by Devils forward Zach Parise’s glove, which is obviously illegal. The Devils have beaten him twice through increasingly unorthodox measures and it seems like that may be the only way they’ll get anything past him. Quick has established himself this season as one of the best goaltenders in the league this year, and the Kings improbable playoff run is cementing his reputation. Have I mentioned he’s from Connecticut? Go USA Hockey.
13:30 – Anze Kopitar’s aggressive play has piqued the interest of CBC’s announcers. He’s been in a bit of a scoring slump lately but is widely considered the Kings’ most dynamic offensive player. “Watch for him to be a game-breaker.” Yes, Hockey Night in Canada, I will do whatever you say.
1:08 – It can be hard to tell if the shots taken are subpar or if the goalies are just that good. Here’s a good indication: the New Jersey fans have started chanting “Marty!” in honor of some stellar saves by the veteran Brodeur. [Usually when a crowd chants a goalie’s name, it’s a taunt. Think Bart and Lisa Simpson chanting Daryl Strawberry’s name when he takes Homer’s spot on the company softball team.] This game is clearly headed for overtime.
First Overtime [Hey you never know, we could be here for a while.]:
14:12 – Just as the crowd seems to settle in for the long haul, Jersey’s Ilya Kovalchuk, the most dangerous scorer on the ice [He’s the only player in this series to top 50 goals in a season. Twice.], has two golden opportunities and ignites the home crowd. Quick is up to the challenge, but he will be under siege from both the fans and the Devils for the remainder of this overtime.
11:47 – “Oh God.” This is what my little brother Trevor says to me as Justin Williams traps the puck against the boards in center ice, then springs a pass to Anze Kopitar just as the Devils defensemen are closing in on him. Kopitar has a clean breakaway, and Trevor and I are watching, stunned, feeling like we’re watching ourselves playing the most recent EA Sports hockey game on his PS3. These kinds of chances aren’t supposed to happen in playoff overtime. Kopitar fakes right, goes left, gets Brodeur out of position, and buries one of the most important goals in Los Angeles Kings history. Kings goal: Kopitar, assists: Williams, Doughty. Doughty smartly plays the puck up the boards, Williams does his best Chris Paul impression with the no-look pass, and Kopitar reminds the Jersey fans that the Kings are for real. This goal legitimizes the improbable run the lower-seeded Kings have made to the Finals. One win down, three to go.
20:00 – Okay, maybe I went overboard a little bit during Game 1. Gimme a break, it’s the playoffs, I’m excited. Let’s get it on.
17:06 – Holy shitballs, I’m not the only one excited. Jersey has come out firing, and the Kings look like they’re on their heels a bit. Kings defenseman Matt Greene stops the bleeding with a two-handed crosscheck to Devils forward Ryan Carter in front of the net. These teams won’t be feeling each other out any more; they’re out for blood.
15:05 – The Kings kill off the penalty after Greene’s crosscheck and throw in a scoring chance or two. Their penalty kill is responsible for more goals these playoffs than their power play. I’m pretty sure that’s not a good thing.
12:11 – Try to stay calm. Try to stay calm. Kings goal: Doughty, unassisted. Teen Beat heartthrob and Kit Harington lookalike Drew Doughty picks up a loose puck in his own defensive zone and decides that he’ll just traverse the entirety of the ice and score by himself. I’m still trying to avoid hyperbole, but when my little brother Trevor says, “Whoa, that was like Niedermayer’s goal,” I counter with “Fuck that! That was Bobby Orr!” [Defensemen aren’t typically goal-scoring virtuosos, but former Devil Scott Niedermayer had a similarly impressive end-to-end playoff goal during which he decided that no one could touch him. Bobby Orr, on the other hand, made a career out of it, solidifying his place as the greatest defenseman of all time, and a constant staple in the Greatest Player of All Time debate. I’m not saying Doughty’s there yet, but he’s only 22 years old.]
11:42 – I’m still freaking out over the Doughty goal.
7:20 – The Devils are showing signs of life. Luckily, Quick is equal to the task, leaping from side to side to block multiple shots from the best sustained pressure New Jersey has yet had to offer. I’ve never seen a goalie swivel from post to post this fast.
17:12 – The Kings have dominated the early part of the period, but Marty flashes a left hand glove that’s so fast, I’m having flashbacks of the playoff runs early in his career. [The previous series for NJ was a spectacular rematch of the amazing 1994 Eastern Conference Finals, during which Brodeur and the Devils battled the New York Rangers to their absolute limit before losing in double overtime of Game 7. This year, the Devils finished it in six, thanks in most part to the veteran’s spectacular performance. He’s certainly not playing like he’s 40.]
14:30 – Kings forwards Justin Williams just did a spin move and passed the puck straight through the crease (in front of his own goaltender) in the face of a New Jersey forecheck. Probably the dumbest thing ever, but it worked flawlessly. These guys are feeling it.
8:30 – The Kings’ power play continues to suck, however. Somehow, they continue winning, but this won’t end well if it doesn’t improve.
2:47 – Darren Clarkson just got tagged in the face by an errant stick, but no whistle from the referee. Mike Richards makes it abundantly clear he think Clarkson is full of shit with a specific hand gesture even the television audience can interpret. The home New Jersey crowd breaks into a chorus of “Aaaaasssss-hole! Aaaaasssss-hole!” I’m not sure if they’re referring to the ref or to Mike Richards, but Richards does have a specific skill to get under the opposing teams’ skin, so it could go either way.
18:42 – These games have been so close, it’s strange to think that the announcers are calling the next goal an all-or-nothing scenario. If the Kings score next, they seem to suggest, it’s the end of the series. Admittedly, they are outplaying the Devils, but they only made it through Game 1 by the skin of their teeth and I’m not totally confident in asking my goaltender, no matter how good he is, to have to be otherworldly excellent, which has been the case so far for Jonathan Quick.
17:01 – Devils goal: Carter, assists: Zidlicky, Bernier. A smart play by New Jersey deflects the puck past Quick’s right side, ties the game, and ignites the crowd. Every shot Quick’s seen straight up, he’s stopped, but Jersey came in with a plan and it was executed perfectly here. The crowd is fucking pumped. Rangers fans can probably hear this arena from across the river.
10:21 – Kopitar forces his way into a one-on-one against Brodeur, which is impressively turned away. The Kings aren’t lacking in offensive pressure, but Marty is reminding everyone he’s one of the greatest goaltenders of all time. The New Jersey crowd’s shit is bananas.
4:08 – Despite the time left in the third period, we are already in playoff overtime hockey. Both teams are exceptionally careful, conspicuously making the safe play at all times. Even the slightest of chances whips the Devils fans into a frenzy. I wish I could stop being so fucking nervous. Playoff hockey, you are a cruel mistress.
First Overtime: [Holy crap, the Devils just hit the post in the closing minutes of regulation, but here we go again, tied after 60 minutes. These goalies are the best.]
15:48 – The Kings are outshooting the Devils 5-1 at this point, but it doesn’t seem to faze Brodeur. I’m becoming increasingly terrified of a man I’ve often argued is the greatest goalie of all time. Is he getting better, or am I paranoid?
11:25 – For the second time this game, Quick’s mask has been ripped off by the physical play of the New Jersey forwards. This hasn’t seemed to happen to Brodeur. Is Quick wearing his mask loose intentionally, a la the legion of teenagers who wear belts but don’t seem to realize the point of them is to keep one’s pants above the ass? Kids these days.
6:18 – Oh thank God. Kings goal: Carter, assists: Penner, Martinez. Jeff Carter takes advantage of a broken play, staying with it, and eventually beating Brodeur high from the slot. As he skates behind the net, he sees the play develop in the same way the goalie does, but Carter’s looking up, while most of the New Jersey skaters are looking down, trying to corral the puck. The Carter-Penner-Richards line has been called “The Redemption Line”, as they all have something to prove, after not living up to expectations from their past teams or the beginnings of their inaugural seasons with the Kings. A better name that’s been suggested is “CPR”, and that’s sure as shit what that line just administered to this team at the right time. Two games up, going back to Cali, I think we all feel like we just got a shot of adrenaline.