LOS ANGELES, CA - JUNE 06: Ilya Kovalchuk #17 of the New Jersey Devils celebrates his third period empty net goal as Mike Richards #10 of the Los Angeles Kings skates by in Game Four of the 2012 Stanley Cup Final at Staples Center on June 6, 2012 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
With Los Angeles looking to close the door and the Devils trying to fight for survival, which players can be looked at to step up and deliver on each club?
Thanks to the resurgence of the New Jersey Devils' offense (and no small amount of spectacular goaltending from Martin Brodeur), the threat of a sweep was avoided, but their chances of survival Friday are slim.
Each side is looking for a hero to step up, particularly the Kings, who look to repeat history from the first and third rounds and close out the series in five games.
Each team's goals are practically identical: disrupt a goaltender who has been putting on exceptional performances this postseason, engage special teams and lock down their opponent's often problematic offense. The keys within the keys? Some of the major contributors for each team that have gone silent in the Stanley Cup Finals need to make a measurable impact.
So, who can we look at on each club to become an impact player?
Perhaps it's odd to call out the man tied for the overall playoff scoring and goals lead as needing to raise his game, but until Kovalchuk's empty-net goal on Wednesday night, his impact against the Kings was minimal. Skating more than 20 minutes a night but unable to really create separation from the Kings' forecheck, and concerns about possible injuries have followed the Russian star for the past several weeks.
It's entirely likely that Kovalchuk (or almost any player in the Finals) is not at 100 percent, but the Devils need their $7 million man to bring pressure against Los Angeles, particularly on home ice -- even if he just opens up the ice for some of his teammates.
One of the Kings' biggest sparks in the first two rounds of the playoffs, Brown hasn't scored a goal since Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals and has just one assist against New Jersey. As their captain, he's continued to play hard minutes and contribute some key faceoff wins. Delivering a key goal -- particularly if he can break through on special teams, where he harried the Blues and Canucks -- would go a long way for his club.
The big power forward has been a major part of the Devils' secondary scoring for the past three seasons, but his performance in the postseason hasn't been quite as strong as his club might have hoped. Clarkson has produced a fair amount of assists (including setting up Adam Henrique's game-winning goal in Game 4), but has just three goals in the playoffs, the last coming almost a month ago against the Rangers. With a game keyed by going to the net and disrupting the defense around the crease, his style of play should be perfect for getting an edge on Kings goaltender Jonathan Quick, but he has yet to really change the course of a game.
One of the players expected to put the Kings over the top this season, Richards was huge in the first few rounds, but his play has trailed off as L.A. went deeper into the playoffs. Since reaching the Finals, he's stumbled both offensively and defensively, and hasn't managed faceoffs with his normal skill. On the other hand, Richards has been regarded as a "clutch" guy going all the way back to his junior hockey career. What better time than now to show that once again?
If the Devils can keep their hopes alive, there's a good chance that Henrique will be one of the guys driving the bus. The rookie forward has hammered home some of the most important goals for New Jersey in this postseason, including the series winners vs. Florida and New York. Already a dark horse candidate for the Conn Smythe Trophy, another big game would push him into the forefront.