There are two central oddities in the New Jersey Devils-Los Angeles Kings Stanley Cup final, which the Kings lead 2-0 after two overtime wins. One is that the Kings were an eight seed with a meager plus-15 goal differential during the regular season, an eight seed that went 5-2-3 in its last 10 games. Based on where things stood in March and early April, Los Angeles shouldn't be here.
Meanwhile the Devils have been led by their fourth line, especially in the past two rounds. The players who are supposed to be the Devils' weak point have made up their best even-strength unit.
Put these things together, and it's as if the Sixers had steamrolled the NBA's Eastern Conference, only to collide in the finals with a Nuggets team carried by Timofey Mozgov and Kosta Koufos.
But the meeting of the Devils' scrubs and the scrubby Kings isn't random coincidence. It signals the success of a new style of even-strength playoff hockey, a scoring-minded update on the Red Wings' stalwart pre-lockout Grind Line.
The Red Wings cycled the puck fairly harmlessly, dawdling and wasting the legs of the other team's top line. They were there to pressure and stall more than to score. The Kings—and the Devils' fourth line—pressure and score. They hit and skate harder, and move to the net the first chance they get.
In the offensive zone, they play on the boards and behind the net, below the red line. The style is all about winning battles.
Look at Los Angeles's first goal from Game One, in which two fourth-liners knocked down Devils defensemen behind the net:
The plan calls for deft forwards to beat lumbering defensemen to loose pucks, or else to use their superior skills to pry the pucks away from the defense. The puck then goes to another forward on the boards. Once a forward gets clear of the tired defensemen—this happens after enough hitting and cycling; the defensemen just can't catch up—the scoring chance arrives.
The forward on the boards with the puck, if he's not behind the net, can shoot. Or he can pass it to a defenseman with a quick release and a heavy shot. Maybe he'll score, but if not, there's likely to be a rebound, and the swarming forwards down low will bang at it. If he's behind the net, he can throw the puck into the crease, and the same forwards can whack away.
It's ugly, but it's never boring. It turns strength into a forward's most important skill. Skating speed, passing, shooting—they're not as important as they once were.
This is a playoff style. In the postseason, the referees call fewer ticky-tack penalties for holding and interference and the like. Defenders have an easier time nullifying the forwards' skill. So coaches charge the forwards to challenge defensemen on their own terms, with stick- and body-checking.
That's what the Devils' fourth line does, and the players have thrived in their limited ice time, forcing mistakes and scoring down low. Stephen Gionta—who has all of one point in 13 career regular-season games—has three goals and four assists. He's scored more at even strength than snipers Ilya Kovalchuk and Patrik Elias have, and he has a better plus-minus, too. Ryan Carter had four goals in 72 regular-season games this year. He has five in the playoffs. Steve Bernier, the only drafted player on the line, has more goals in the playoffs than he did in the regular season.
But—and this is why Jersey will almost certainly lose the series—the Kings' lines play this way from top to bottom. Dustin Brown, who's scored better than a point per game in the playoffs, is much harder for a defenseman to push around than Gionta or Carter. He's better with his stick, too. Big Anze Kopitar—who, when he's in a good stretch, as he has been these playoffs, looks like Evgeni Malkin—is way hard to shove. And the rookie Dwight King and the hulking Dustin Penner have combined for eight goals out of nowhere.
Coach Darryl Sutter somehow convinced his entire team (save finesse danglers Mike Richards and Jeff Carter, who score enough their own way) to buy into his style and forecheck like mad. And in doing so he turned the Kings around. Dustin Brown says, "Our forecheck has probably been the reason we've been so successful."
Look at the Kings' crazy pressure here, and look at how the forwards crash the net, then hug the boards:
Why doesn't everyone play this way?
For starters, it's exhausting. It guarantees that forwards will have to hit and get hit—a lot—and that taxes, over a long season, and even over the playoffs. It demands young, fresh legs. (Not a single Kings forward is over 30.)
The system also minimizes the freakishly gifted players, if your team has any. Ilya Kovalchuk has one of the league's best wrist shots. It works best from the slot, with open ice. If he's on the boards or behind the net, he can't use his big shot.
And it leaves the team susceptible to quick breakouts and, in turn, odd-man rushes. Tired forwards playing behind the net get beat to their defensive zone a lot.
But the Kings (and the Rangers, who played this style, exhaustingly, all season long) make up for it with the best last line of defense imaginable: a great goalie. In the playoffs, Jonathan Quick has stopped 94.6 percent of the shots he's faced. That's cartoonish, and it allows the Kings to gamble with whatever kind of forecheck they want.
Martin Brodeur's not quite so good, and the defensemen in front of him aren't quite as good as the Kings' crew. Perhaps that's why the Devils have tasked only one line with all-out pressure, although coach Peter DeBoer has superior forwards on other lines—Zach Parise, Patrik Elias, David Clarkson—who should be able to play well down low if he turned them loose.
We imagine the Kings' style—thanks to their great success, and the Rangers'—will become the norm across the NHL during every playoff season. Every team will hunt for their own Ryan Callahans, Dustin Browns, and even Stephen Giontas. (One will be on the free-agent market, actually: Zach Parise.) The folks who crave "wide-open play," or some such thing, will howl, as they did a few weeks back about the Rangers' shot-blocking. But the game will get wiser and tougher, as it always does.