New Jersey Devils captain Zach Parise had set the table for his teammates so impeccably that it could have earned him a guest spot on HGTV.
Two minutes after he was denied on back-to-back short-range bids to bust a 1-1 tie late in the third period of Game 2 of the Stanley Cup Finals, he terminated a Devils penalty kill by drawing a hooking minor on Drew Doughty.
With that, the opposing Los Angeles Kings would have their best all-around defenseman in the sin bin until there were 14 seconds left in regulation.
And for 51 seconds after Dainius Zubrus’ jailbreak, the Devils would have a power play and a written invitation to wholly alter the complexion of the series.
It was time for the likes of Ilya Kovalchuk to come through, just as he had done in the man-advantage in two postseason victories over the Florida Panthers, one over the Philadelphia Flyers and two over the New York Rangers.
Instead, the only play Kovalchuk or any Devil recorded on that brief power play was a wide attempt, issued a good 169 feet away from Kings goalie Jonathan Quick. Even worse, the botched shot was recorded at the 19:46 mark, right as Doughty’s sentence expired.
Kovalchuk would take the first shot on goal in the ensuing overtime, only to be denied. And 17 seconds later, he gave the puck away in his own end, inviting Mike Richards to test Martin Brodeur at 1:20.
By night’s end, Jeff Carter had won it for the Kings with his sudden-death strike, coming at the 13:42 mark.
Kovalchuk had a final line of zero points, two shots on goal out of seven total attempts, two lost faceoffs on two tries and three giveaways.
In the series as a whole, over back-to-back 2-1 overtime losses, Kovalchuk has come up empty on three shots on goal and 10 total attempts. In each game, he has taken a stab at breaking the 1-1 tie within the final two minutes of regulation, but both times he has settled for useless, long-range slappers from outside the Los Angeles blue line.
And he has given the puck away four times, twice leading directly to a Kings opportunity to break a 1-1 tie.
Another one of those, occurring in the 13th minute of the third period of Game 1, immediately precipitated Dustin Penner and Carter taking successive shots on Brodeur.
Not exactly the same Kovalchuk from the previous week.
The Kovalchuk who set up Parise’s power-play goal which raised a 3-0 upper hand in a pivotal Game 4 of the Eastern Conference finals, tying the series and all but permanently turning the tables in New Jersey’s favor.
The Kovalchuk who, two nights later, won a battle with Rangers defenseman Michael Del Zotto to help set up Ryan Carter’s late tiebreaker in Game 5.
The Kovalchuk who, another two nights later, crashed the net in overtime and extracted a rebound for Adam Henrique to poke home and stamp the Devils’ passport to this series with the Kings.
Instead, what Devils fans witnessed to start this series was a Kovalchuk more inclined to throw away and give away critical scoring opportunities rather than take them and stash them for his own club.
It was a Kovalchuk who has been held pointless in two consecutive games for the first time since mid-March.
Perhaps not so coincidentally, the Devils dropped back-to-back decisions for the first time since Games 2 and 3 of the Florida series in mid-April.
As perpetually stingy as the Kings have been throughout the spring, New Jersey needs more assertion and determination out of its top playoff point-getter if it wants to salvage its fast-fading bid for the Stanley Cup.