Los Angeles Kings captain and postseason scoring co-pilot Dustin Brown was goal-less through the first five games of the Stanley Cup Finals. Their power play was hit-and-miss from night to night.
One way for both of those players to wake up would have been for the opposing New Jersey Devils, or at least one individual member of those Devils, to let them.
Fourth-liner Steve Bernier did just that in the tone-setting phases of Game 6, when he recklessly hit Kings’ blueliner Rob Scuderi from behind. And head coach Peter DeBoer did less than he could have to help repress the invigorated Kings once they began to capitalize.
If that play is to be recounted in one of those less-than-subtle commentary cartoons, Scuderi’s caricature will have to trade in his L.A. attire for a uniform that reads “New Jersey Devils’ Comeback Bid.”
That was what Bernier really threw away when he threw his opponent into the corner of the attacking zone and a team-wide loss of composure complicated the effort to recover their chances.
As much as the Devils drained themselves with additional penalties, such as Bryce Salvador’s high-sticking double-minor in the middle frame, Bernier’s was the most egregious in nature. And it was the most influential on the game, a 6-1 loss that cost New Jersey the Cup and was essentially over before Petr Sykora was done serving the penalty.
At the time of the hit, there were 10 minutes and 10 seconds gone in a scoreless contest with the shots on net favoring the Kings at 5-3.
Within 53 seconds of Bernier’s infraction, which warranted an ejection and five-minute penalty, the shots on net were 8-3 and the shots in net were 1-0, both favoring Los Angeles. Brown had stimulated the Staples Center with the icebreaker.
Another 102 seconds of uninterrupted power-play time, another shot on Martin Brodeur and another power-play goal.
Only nine ticks remained on the all-you-can-score buffet when Trevor Lewis tucked home Dwight King’s rebound, swelling the shooting gallery to 8-4 and the goal differential to 3-0.
By then, the game was one-quarter finished and the Kings had just opportunistically increased their 2012 postseason power-play output by a quarter.
They came into Monday night’s action with nine conversions on 85 chances. Through Bernier’s five-minute sentence alone, they modified that to 12 conversions on 90 man-up segments.
Just one L.A. power-play strike was enough to raise the volume on the ominous octaves for Devils rooters. The team scoring first was already 5-0 in the series entering Game 6 and the Devils, having morphed a 3-0 series deficit to 3-2, were in a prime position to fertilize a seed of doubt for their adversaries.
Bernier’s act of imprudence did just the opposite, though there was still abundant time to keep the damage to a negligible level. But DeBoer did not handle the situation to the best of capability.
Only 13 seconds before Bernier belted Scuderi, physical Kings forward Jarret Stoll caught Bernier’s linemate, Stephen Gionta, from behind along the wall between the benches. Although that might have warranted a minor boarding penalty that never arrived, it was nowhere near the level of Bernier’s hit simply due to the difference in location.
Gionta’s upper body and head made contact with air. Scuderi’s face made contact with glass.
True enough, had Stoll been penalized, Bernier would not have been in a position to throw his illicit hit. Instead, the only citation went against the Devils.
But in that unlucky situation, any responsible, levelheaded coach would tell his players to brush it off and play on, for it is beyond their control.
Bernier’s hit may not have been charged by the lack of a penalty on Stoll, but he still plainly deserved his penalty and his teammates deserved the ensuing adversity. But they could have had a little less of it if DeBoer and his staffers had not vented any ire on the officiating crew, even if there was a miscarriage of justice.
Approaching the halfway mark of a scoreless first period, the Devils still had a chance to expand upon the comeback vibes they had started last Wednesday. They squandered that chance when Bernier put them on the penalty kill and the rest of the team lost its focus.
Their chance to rerun their resiliency slipped further away when DeBoer deferred his timeout after the Kings’ second and third goal on their all-you-can-score buffet. Either one of those would have been the most opportune time to slow down the yet again reversed wave of momentum.
Instead, by night’s end, New Jersey had incurred 47 penalty minutes, including three misconducts, and six opposing goals. It was the product of DeBoer’s loss of self control trickling down to his pupils and feeding a vicious cycle.
This is not to say the first-year coach should be put on the hot seat, much less lose his job over this untimely meltdown. But it will make for a mortifying learning experience for every occupant of the Devils’ dressing room who returns next season.
And the personal consequences for Bernier must likewise carry over. Just as he did with Phoenix forward Raffi Torres’ 25-game ban for his hit on Marian Hossa, disciplinarian Brendan Shanahan should suspend Bernier for the whole preseason and at least the first one or two regular-season games of 2012-13.
Players and coaches alike talk incessantly about treating higher-stakes contests like any other game. Monday’s on-ice officials, albeit with the same human shortcomings as usual, rightly took the same approach and so too must Shanahan.
For the Devils, the vinegar will linger regardless. They and their faithful will be left to wonder what might have been if not for the Bernier penalty and DeBoer, more than anybody, will have a learning experience to build upon.
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