In addition to the ice they skate on, players who want to win the Stanley Cup Finals need to have ice coursing through their veins. Every year there is a hero or two per series; someone who transcends their average role, puts the team on their back and carries his teammates to victory.
It is every young hockey player’s dream to one-day skate a victory lap in front of their home crowd while hoisting the Stanley Cup above their head. But no one ever dreams about being the player who chokes on the game’s biggest stage.
That’s just the way professional sports work. For every jubilant triumph rejoiced there is an equally painful defeat suffered, and for every game-winning hero there is a scorned goat.
While everyone dreams about scoring a walk-off—or skate-off in this case—goal in overtime to win the series, like Patrick Kane did in 2010, realistically, someone has to be the guy who screws up or flat out does not show up.
The 2012 Stanley Cup match up features the New Jersey Devils and the red hot Los Angeles Kings. Both teams have players they have relied on all postseason for point production. In the next two weeks we will see which of those players step up and rise to the challenge. But for now, let’s speculate as to which players’ knees may buckle under the pressure.
When the Devils made the blockbuster trade with the Atlanta Thrashers for Ilya Kovalchuk during the 2009-10 season, it was no secret that New Jersey wanted Kovalchuk to be their No. 1 scoring threat. After a rocky start in the Garden State, Kovalchuck has sufficiently filled the role that the Devils asked him to take on.
During the 2011-12 season, Kovalchuk netted a team-high 37 goals in addition to 46 assists, according to Hockey-Reference.com. Throughout the playoffs, Kovalchuk has maintained his role as the team’s leading scorer with seven goals and 11 assists.
Kovalchuk is certainly one of the superstars of the NHL, however, whether or not the Devils left-winger has the “clutch gene” has yet to be determined.
During his seven-and-a-half seasons with the Atlanta Thrashers, Kovalchuk only made it to the playoffs one time (2006-07) and was eliminated from the playoffs in the first round. In that series, the Thrashers were swept by the New York Rangers and Kovalchuk was only able to muster up one goal and one assist.
In his first season with the Devils, Kovalchuk made his second playoff appearance. Kovalchuk only managed to score two goals and his Devils were knocked off by the eventual Eastern Conference champion Philadelphia Flyers in five games.
With limited playoff experience, the Devils have to feel uneasy relying on Kovalchuk so heavily. Kovalchuk knows that New Jersey considered him a large part of the championship puzzle when they brought him in. It will be interesting to see if he lets the pressure get to him.
After acquiring him from the Florida Panthers early in the season, fourth-line center Ryan Carter saw a limited role. In 65 regular season games with the Devils, Carter tallied only four goals, according to Hockey-Reference.com.
Which player is most likely to collapse under pressure?
However, during the playoffs, Carter has emerged as more of a scoring threat with four goals and two assists. Those kind of statistics do not tend to pop off the page but some of his points have come at ideal times.
In game five of the Eastern Conference finals, Carter scored the go ahead goal in the third period of a game the Devils ended up winning, 5-3. Then, in Game Six, Carter opened up the scoring in the first period of a game that was eventually decided in overtime by a score of 3-2.
Despite his “role-player” status, Carter has pulled through for the Devils in clutch situations in recent games. The Kings have almost certainly taken note of this and plan on bottling Carter up whenever he is on the ice.
Relying on fourth-line players to come up big in the clutch is never an ideal situation for a team entering the Stanley Cup playoff and, in that sense, the Devils find themselves in a sticky situation.
With a less-than-impressive 40-27-15 regular season record, the Kings barely made the Western Conference playoffs with the eighth seed. However, once they got into the playoffs, the Kings could not lose.
With only two losses so far in the playoffs, the Kings look to carry their hot streak into the Stanley Cup playoff against the Devils and they plan to do so by scoring a lot of goals.
The most pivotal part of the Kings’ offense is their leading scorer Anze Kopitar. According to Hockey-Reference.com, the Kings have scored 41 goals this postseason and at least four goals in seven of their 14 playoff games. Kopitar has accounted for six of his team’s 41 goals, trailing only right-winger Dustin Brown (7).
At only 24 years of age, Kopitar has already become a star in Los Angeles. In his six seasons in the league, Kopitar has put up 434 regular season points for the Kings. With five-straight seasons as the team’s leading scorer, it is safe to say that King’s offense runs through Kopitar.
So far this postseason, Kopitar has delivered for L.A., producing a total of 15 points for the potent offense. However, that goal scoring may slow down when that offense has to face a defense led by one of the all-time goaltending greats in Martin Brodeur.
Brodeur, at 40 years old, is an experienced veteran with three Stanley Cup victories already to his name. Sixteen years Kopitar’s elder, Brodeur may cause a long, frustrating series for the young, inexperienced shooter.