The New Jersey Devils had their share of struggles this season before surging to finish sixth in the Eastern Conference. After an unlikely run through the East to make the Stanley Cup Finals, coach Peter DeBoer and his squad have met resistance once again.
Though the Devils entered the Finals winning eight of their last ten, the Los Angeles Kings came to the Prudential Center in Newark with only two losses in the entire postseason.
In a pair of 2-1 overtime victories, the Kings' scorers were more opportunistic, their blueliners were more involved at both ends, and their goaltender carried the team to the 2-0 series lead they take back to Los Angeles.
Now the Devils are approaching the brink with more questions than answers. Here are seven things they will have to do if they hope to shock the hottest team in hockey and bring the Cup to New Jersey.
There are some problems that no matter what DeBoer throws at them, he will not be able to solve. Jonathan Quick is at the top of that list.
The Kings netminder sports a 1.44 goals against average and a .947 save percentage in the playoffs. Against the Devils, Quick has converted on 48 of 50 save opportunities.
Then consider that the lone Game 1 goal came when Quick turned away a shot by Anton Volchenkov with his left pad, only to watch the puck ricochet in off the shoulder of Kings defenseman Slava Voynov. Save for flukes, Quick has been just about impenetrable in net.
New Jersey can't expect to contend with Los Angeles while only putting 17 shots on goal, as the Devils did in Game 1. The Devils total of 33 shots in Game 2 was a marked improvement, but that turned out to be too little, as well.
If Quick is going to stonewall all shooters, the Devils must be sure to shoot early and often. If not, they will likely see Quick lifting the Conn Smythe Trophy along with the Stanley Cup.
With New Jersey's offense sputtering against Quick, it is no surprise that their best offensive weapon is not performing to the best of his abilities.
It is a shock, however, that the Kings defenders seem to have taken Ilya Kovalchuk out of the game almost entirely.
After registering just a single shot on goal in Game 1, Kovalchuk did not bounce back in the shot column with the rest of his teammates in Game 2. Though he did fire a shot off the crossbar in the waning seconds of regulation in Game 2, New Jersey's $100 million man was largely held in check by Kings' defenders, who limited Kovalchuk to only two shots on goal.
Kovalchuk's offensive woes are so pronounced that DeBoer was forced to address them to the media, assuring reporters that he will not make any effort for Kovalchuck to avoid the Kings top defenders.
No one needs to tell Kovalchuk that this is not the time for a potent goal scorer to disappear. If he doesn't get his act together soon, he will have all summer to do so.
Part of the reason the Devils haven't been able to get the puck past Quick is their recent ineptitude on the power play.
Six times have the Devils had a man advantage in the Stanley Cup Finals, and six times have they been held scoreless.
The penalty killing prowess of the Kings extends beyond the man in goal, as the skaters in front of Quick have limited their opponent to just five shots on the six New Jersey power plays. On three different occasions, the Devils were held without a shot while Los Angeles was a man down.
To make matters worse for New Jersey, the Kings' penalty kill squad is incredibly aggressive. Los Angeles has scored five shorthanded goals in the playoffs and has handcuffed the New Jersey power play by keeping the play in the Devils defensive zone.
It is hard enough to get goals on Los Angeles right now. The Devils need to take advantage when the numbers are in their favor if they hope to keep their dream alive.
The Devils will not to be able to alleviate their offensive woes, however, if they do not start taking care of the puck.
New Jersey has been prone to giveaways in the Stanley Cup Finals, giving the puck over 19 times to just seven for the Kings. This is symptomatic of a general sloppiness in the Devils puck possession, something that has already come back to bite them.
In the overtime period of Game 1, the Devils were trying to give the Kings a dose of their own medicine by keeping up the attack with their forecheck. However, four guys in red sweaters ended up playing the puck rather than the man. When Justin Williams received a chip pass from Drew Doughty in the neutral zone, two Devils chased the puck to him while he found Anze Kopitar alone at center ice en route to the game-winning breakaway.
Not every lapse in protecting the puck will lead to a goal. But with the Devils already down in the series, they no longer have the luxury of playing fast and loose with possession.
A large part of the Kings' success has come from coach Darryl Sutter's aggressive gameplan, and the Los Angeles forecheck in particular has given New Jersey fits.
From Kopitar, Williams and Dustin Brown on down through the roster, all the Kings forwards bang along the boards deep in zone to keep possession of the puck. With every line getting in on the forecheck, the Devils defense does not have a moment to rest, even in its own zone.
Midway through the first period of Game 1, Andy Greene picked up the puck behind the Devils' net and was immediately checked. Jordan Nolan took possession away from Greene and passed out to Colin Fraser, who one-timed it in from the right circle before New Jersey could get its shot blockers set up.
The Devils will need to lean on guys like Greene and Bryce Salvador to move the puck without hesitation in the defensive zone, or else they could find themselves vulnerable to more shot opportunities right in front of the net.
While the New York Rangers have been the poster boys for shot blocking, The Star-Ledger's Mike Vorkunov points out that the Devils have not been shy about sacrificing their bodies in front of the net.
Clogging the lane in front of the net is effective in keeping shots away from the goal and in preventing opponents from establishing position for a screen. Shot blocking is a double-edged sword, however. It is only a matter of time before a would-be shot blocker accidentally screens the netminder and lets up a goal.
That is what happened in Game 2 in overtime. After his pass slid through the crease, Jeff Carter recovered the puck behind the net. As he circled back, one Devil trailed him while the other four defenders filled the shooting lane. Carter's wrist shot snuck through the red shirts and right over Brodeur's right skate, ending the game on a goal the future Hall of Famer likely never saw.
The Kings have the opportunity to complete a sweep and win the Stanley Cup in front of their home fans, and the Devils must patch up a number of holes in their game to stay in this series.
With that said, Peter DeBoer's squad should not overreact to its two-game hole, either.
The Devils made it all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals with a blend of finesse and physicality, blocking shots and skating circles around opponents. Reforming their power play and minding puck possession are matters of tweaking their game plan, not revolutionizing it.
New Jersey cannot go into the Staples Center and focus only on countering the brute strength of the Kings. For all its recent flaws, this Devils team could be the one with a 2-0 lead had it gotten a couple of bounces in its favor.
It won't be easy, but if the Devils patch up their offense and make quick decisions with the puck, they'll have a shot at the improbable comeback.