When Anze Kopitar beat New Jersey Devils' goaltender Martin Brodeur on a breakaway at the 8:13 mark of overtime to give the Los Angeles Kings a 2-1 triumph, it was nothing new for New Jersey to find themselves trailing 1-0 in a series.
After winning their initial postseason game against the Florida Panthers in the opening round, the Devils began both rounds two (4-3 overtime loss to the Philadelphia Flyers) and three (3-0 loss to the New York Rangers) with defeats before bouncing back and advancing in each.
That may prove to be a taller order against the Kings than in previous rounds, as Los Angeles is flirting with a bit of history this spring. Wednesday night's victory was its ninth consecutive on the road, just one short of the NHL record.
Neither club played its best hockey, as the layoff between the respective Conference Final and Game 1 of the Cup Final seemed apparent. Both teams appeared tentative and were feeling each other out, but L.A. broke through midway through the first using a similar tactic to one perfected by New Jersey in prior series.
Using a fierce forecheck, Jordan Nolan hit Andy Greene and took the puck away from the Devils' defender behind the net. Nolan then wheeled and fired a perfect pass to Colin Fraser in the slot, and Fraser's quick one-timer seemed to fool Brodeur as it snuck through the netminder.
New Jersey didn't have much going offensively and failed to exhibit the tenacity and hard work that defined its triumphs over its previous playoff opponents. It's been well-known the two clubs employ much the same style of play, and for the better part of two periods, Los Angeles played the Devils' game better than they did.
When it did get opportunities, New Jersey appeared it had a game plan in mind. With the way that goalie Jonathan Quick spreads his pads out to cover every inch of space down low, the obvious alternative is to try to pick the top of the net over top of the netminder. That tactic was evident as forward David Clarkson had a couple of golden chances, only to shoot just over the crossbar in an attempt to be a bit too fine. Quick's play will do that, and he may end up getting into the Devils shooter's heads as this series moves ahead.
N.J. wasn't able to generate many shots as the Kings held possession of the puck for the majority of the first two periods, but one sequence late in the middle frame appeared to light a fire underneath the Devils. Zach Parise got tangled up with Quick at the edge of the Los Angeles crease, and the captain's combative nature seemed to wake New Jersey from its slumber.
Shortly thereafter, Quick made the initial save on an Anton Volchenkov point shot, only to have the rebound bounce off defenseman Slava Voynov and carom into the cage with just over a minute remaining in the second period.
New Jersey fed off the momentum and nearly took the lead several times. Parise appeared to give the Devils a 2-1 lead early in the third, only to have the goal disallowed when video review clearly showed the captain knock the puck into the net with his glove.
Defenseman Mark Fayne had an open net midday through the third, only to have the puck bounce over his stick.
"There were a couple of decisions there," said Devils' head coach Peter DeBoer of the choices made that led to Kopitar's game-winning tally in the extra session. "You know, we made a mistake, they capitalized."
With the puck moving along the right wing wall, defenseman Marek Zidlicky stepped up and pinched. The puck ended up on Drew Doughty's stick, and he sent a bank pass up the boards that ended up on Justin Williams' stick. The winger sent a backhand pass to the center of the ice at the Devils' blue line, hitting Kopitar in full flight in alone on Brodeur.
After not playing its best hockey and nearly puling out the victory, there is no reason for New Jersey to panic. In the Eastern Conference Semifinal, the Devils shook off an overtime loss to Philadelphia by grinding out a 4-1 win, and in the Conference Final, came back with a 3-2 victory following a Game 1 3-0 whitewashing at the hands of Henrik Lundqvist.
Much like in the previous series, New Jersey just needs to stick with the game plan and outwork the Kings, gaining more of a territorial advantage and getting traffic in front of Quick, just as they did when things didn't go well against other opponents.
"I think our group has done a pretty good job of self-analyzing, you know, looking at the game and realizing, both individually and collectively, where we have to get better," DeBoer said, obviously proud of the job his club has done along the way to the Cup Final. "We have two days to do that. We'll be better on Saturday night."
Stick with SB Nation's dedicated NHL hub for full Stanley Cup finals coverage. For more on the New Jersey Devils, check out Devils blog In Lou We Trust. For more on the Los Angeles Kings, check out Jewels From The Crown and SB Nation Los Angeles.