For every game, no matter how big or how small, a head coach must identify a factor in the game that, if executed, will lead his or her team to victory.
It’s always in the game plan to score as many points as possible while allowing your opponent to score as few points as possible.
However, sometimes winning a game is not so simple.
By examining trends and tendencies, strengths and weaknesses of both his own team and his opponent, a coach may spot a specific niche in the game that the team needs to focus on in order to win.
In the sports world, that niche is often referred to as the “X-Factor.”
When it comes to the 2012 Stanley Cup Final, featuring the No. 6 seed New Jersey Devils out of the Eastern Conference and the No. 8 seed Los Angeles Kings out of the Western Conference, specific “X-Factors” can be drawn out.
The Devils have battled their way through the playoffs, playing 18 games in the first three rounds, five of which have gone into overtime. Led by a strong core of aging veterans such as 40-year-old Martin Brodeur, 35-year-old Patrik Elias, 35-year-old Petr Sykora and 33-year-old Dainius Zubrus, much of the New Jersey roster has plenty of experience under their belts.
The Kings have rose from mediocrity to become the most dominant team in the Stanley Cup playoffs. Their 12-2 playoff record is a product of their high-scoring offense led by young stars such as forward Anze Kopitar, defenseman Drew Doughty and goaltender Jonathan Quick.
The victor of this series will not only be the team that plays harder, smarter and faster, but also the team that dominates the X-Factor.
The Devils X-Factor: Winning at Home
The Devils have the advantage of starting off the series at home—"advantage" because the Kings are 8-0 on the road so far this post season.
While the Kings have traveled incredibly well, the Devils have been just good enough with a 6-2 record, including three overtime victories. The first two games in Newark, New Jersey, may decide which direction the rest of the series goes.
The Kings have been underdogs in throughout the playoffs and have started each series on the road. In all three previous rounds, Los Angeles has won the first two games of the series and returned home with a 2-0 advantage, making the rest of the way much easier.
If the Devils can slow down the Kings in Games 1 and 2 and get wins on their home ice, they will greatly increase their chances of hoisting the Stanley Cup when all is said and done. The Kings, who are not used to losing this postseason, may hit the panic button if they go down by two games early in the series.
Also, the Devils, who have been beaten up during their playoff run, would benefit more from a shorter series than a longer one. If the series goes to six or seven games, the younger, fresher Kings may be able to skate past the Devils and steal themselves a Stanley Cup title.
If New Jersey wants to win their fourth ever Stanley Cup in 2012, they need to take Games 1 and 2, and, if necessary, Games 5 and 7.
The Kings X-Factor: Shut Down the Devils Top Scoring Line
With the return of Devils center Travis Zajac from a torn Achilles tendon, in addition to left-winger Zach Parise and right-winger Ilya Kovalchuk, New Jersey has created a deadly top scoring line.
Each has scored seven goals this postseason, and the trio has combined for a total of 44 points during New Jersey's conference-championship run. The Kings defense, led by goalie Jonathan Quick, is faced with the formidable task of shutting these three down.
Quick, who has posted a .946 save percentage and a 1.54 goals-against average so far this postseason, has been phenomenal in net for the Kings.
During his playoff hot streak, Quick has recorded two shutouts; one against the Vancouver Canucks in the Western Conference quarterfinals and one against the Phoenix Coyotes in the semifinals. Quick will need similar performances to shut down the likes of Zajac, Parise and Kovalchuk.
Quick, who is surely going to see a lot of shots throughout the series, will need the defensemen in front of him to step up. While defenseman Willie Mitchell ranks third in the 2012 playoffs with 45 blocked shots, the Kings will need a bigger performance out of defenders Rob Scuderi and Drew Doughty, who have tallied only 21 and 19 blocked shots, respectively.
If the Kings want to cap off one of the most improbable playoff runs with a Stanley Cup victory, then they need to keep the puck off the sticks of New Jersey’s top scoring line and out of their own net.