LOS ANGELES – The Los Angeles Kings’ 15-3 postseason record can’t be deceiving, can it?
For a team that has won all 10 of its road games, but faltered at its chance to become the first team since the 1988 Edmonton Oilers to post a 16-2 playoff record en route to winning the Stanley Cup, the margin between winning and losing isn’t as stark as their record indicates.
Remember the 2001 Lakers? They went 15-1 through the playoffs, averaging a 14-point cushion per victory. Nine of their 15 wins were by at least 12 points.
Even prior to Wednesday’s game, the 2012 Kings were not the 2001 Lakers.
Other than more comfortable Game 2s in St. Louis and Phoenix, and Game 3 against New Jersey, that razor thin victory line had often been established in the third period – or overtime, as Games 1 and 2 of the Stanley Cup Finals taught us.
“I think it was a seesaw battle and a matter of a coin flip,” Dustin Penner said after Wednesday’s 3-1 loss to the New Jersey Devils.
In a series that has had the capacity to offer so many different scenarios heading out of Game 4, Los Angeles has got to feel upbeat about its 3-1 series lead, considering how even the play has been throughout the glut of this transcontinental affair.
“Not a whole lot different,” New Jersey’s Peter DeBoer said of Game 4’s cadence. “We found a way to get the first goal. We found a way to keep momentum. We didn’t play any harder. I mean, I think the chances were relatively even again (Wednesday), like they have been most of the games.”
The third period had been kind to the Kings until Wednesday night. Prior to Game 4, L.A. had allowed just one third period goal – Ryan Carter’s deflection off Marek Zidlicky’s shot in Game 2 – in their last nine games.
Third periods had been where the Kings had surged past their opponents during a run which will be put on ice for at least three more days. Dustin Penner pouncing on a Jeff Carter-deflected puck in Game 1 of the Vancouver series preceded Dustin Brown’s and Dwight King’s early third period tallies that lifted Los Angeles past Phoenix in Games 1 and 3.
This time, it was the Devils who earned their bounces, as Patrick Elias crashed the net to backhand an odd angle rebound past Kings goalie Jonathan Quick to open the scoring midway through the third before Adam Henrique’s artistically corralled pass from David Clarkson was snapped near post past a sliding Quick for the game-winner.
“It’s one of those games where you just grind, grind, grind, and you’ve got to get a fortunate bounce here or there or make your own bounces,” Penner said. “We weren’t on the fortunate side of that.”
It wasn’t for the lack of effort or chances. Los Angeles received several partial breakaways, one of which came on a well-placed saucer feed from Simon Gagne to a wide open Trevor Lewis, who pulled the puck around an extended Martin Brodeur poke check before he sent the puck just inches wide of the near post.
Penner shot wide on a partial break, while Kopitar and Williams hit posts in a first period in which a Kings goal would have blown the roof off Staples Center.
“We had some good chances to put the puck in the net,” Jarret Stoll said. “We’ve just got to bear down when we get those chances and make sure we capitalize, and on the other hand, be better in a couple areas – our neutral zone, our gaps, stuff like that.”
It’s an unfortunate Game 4 home pattern for Kings fans, who will gather around TV sets and at watch parties to cheer on their team to win a series on the road for the third time.
At least this time, they’ll likely have purged that stick-gripping tension from their system, ready to emerge victorious from another team’s barn, as they have done perfectly this spring.
“I think to an extent there was maybe a few butterflies,” said Penner, who won a Stanley Cup with Anaheim five years ago, to the day.
“I think it’s human nature in a situation where the guys that haven’t been there before. But now we know.”
They also know Game 5 will once again hang in the balance of one team being more opportunistic than the other, and that those bounces will have to be earned through 60 minutes of relentless work that have come to define their road efforts.