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THN at the Stanley Cup: Kovalchuk must lead Devils to comeback

With 18 points in 18 games, Ilya Kovalchuk leads the NHL playoffs in scoring. (Getty Images)

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With 18 points in 18 games, Ilya Kovalchuk leads the NHL playoffs in scoring. (Getty Images)

NEWARK – One of the more interesting game-within-a-game subplots that has emerged early in the Stanley Cup final is how the Los Angeles Kings limited the effectiveness of Devils star winger Ilya Kovalchuk in Game 1.

New Jersey’s $100-million man was limited to just one shot the opening game, something that will almost certainly have to change if the Devils hope to get back into the series with a victory in Game 2 Saturday night. The Kings started the night matching up their defense pairing of Willie Mitchell and Slava Voynov against Kovalchuk, but then switched to Drew Doughty and Rob Scuderi, who earned rave reviews for helping to keep Kovalchuk off the scoreboard.

For his part, Kovalchuk said he wasn’t concerned about his lack of production against Doughty, who logged 25:44 of ice time in Game 1, more than any player on either team.

“Don’t take anything away from him, he’s a good defenseman,” Kovalchuk said of Doughty. “But I play against some good ‘Ds’ and find a way to go through them. That’s what I’ll try to do next game.”

But by limiting the Devils to just 17 shots, the Kings all but assured themselves of the victory in Game 1 given the way goalie Jonathan Quick has been performing in these playoffs. In fact, the only goal the Devils managed to score was one that glanced off Voynov before hitting the back of the net. But Scuderi said the fact that Kovalchuk was kept off the scoreboard isn’t necessarily indicative of a lack of impact on the game.

“I still thought he had some good looks,” Scuderi said. “I’m not sure if he missed or they got tipped, but he still had some good opportunities. We’d like to bring those down to a minimum. The shots are just a stat. We’d like to take his chances down to nothing. You just don’t want to let a guy like that off the leash because he can really hurt you.”

As the home team, the Devils could get away from that matchup if they chose to, but neither Devils coach Peter DeBoer nor Kings counterpart Darryl Sutter seems terribly interested in getting into a chess match. Both teams have had an enormous amount of success rolling four lines throughout the playoffs and aren’t about to disrupt that flow by getting too caught up in trying to get favorable matchups.

“We played (Dan) Girardi and (Ryan) McDonagh against the Rangers, same thing,” DeBoer said. “If they’re going to match those guys up, in order to get (Kovalchuk) away, we’re going to have to get away from a four-line game, which has been our strength. If they’re matching up against Kovalchuk, then they’re not matching up against (Zach) Parise or other guys. The matchup game isn’t something that I’m interested in or worried about. For me, it isn’t relevant.”

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Despite the success Doughty and Scuderi had against Kovalchuk, Sutter maintained he won’t get too obsessed with matchups either.

“You start chasing a matchup during the game, that's kind of a dinosaur,” Sutter said. “You start chasing it, pretty soon you're just chasing the puck. You get guys tired or out of position.”

DEVILS WON’T THROW A CURVE

Back in 1993, the Kings won Game 1 against the Montreal Canadiens on the road and had a chance to go back to Los Angeles up 2-0 before the infamous illegal stick call against Marty McSorley led to the Canadiens tying Game 2 up late, winning in overtime and winning the series.

But faced with the same prospect, Devils coach Peter DeBoer said he likely won’t call for a stick measurement late in Game 2 for a couple of reasons. He said the last time he tried it was back in 2005 with the Kitchener Rangers and it backfired. As an assistant coach of Canada’s world junior team, DeBoer noticed Corey Perry of the London Knights had an illegal curve.

So during the playoffs later that season, he had his captain Mike Richards, who was also on the world junior team, ask for a measurement on Perry’s stick. That gave the Rangers a 5-on-3 power play, on which they failed to capitalize. The Knights scored shorthanded and won the game and the series.

DeBoer also said it’s almost impossible to get a stick measurement penalty now, given that sticks can now have a three-quarter inch curve as opposed to a half inch.

“They changed the rule to make the bigger curves more legal since then,” DeBoer said. “You have to have a boomerang basically now in order to be called for that, so it’s not even an option.”

LOOKING FOR POWER

The Kings power play has been dismal so far in the playoffs, scoring just six goals on 75 opportunities for an eight percent success rate, including going 0-for-1 in Game 1.

Perhaps that was why the Kings were experimenting in practice Friday with a second power-play unit consisting of Jarret Stoll, Justin Williams and Dwight King up front with Slava Voynov and Alec Martinez at the points. As expected, King spent most of the drill parked in front of the goalie.

The Kings first unit still consists of Anze Kopitar, Dustin Brown and Jeff Carter up front with Drew Doughty and Mike Richards at the points.

“We had two minutes on it last game,” Sutter said, “so hopefully we can get two plus two is four, then try to cut seconds off it.”

 

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