NEWARK, N.J. — Playing Dale Hunter hockey, the Washington Capitals made it to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals by blocking shots, grinding out victories and sucking the life out of the game.
As center Nicklas Backstrom quipped, it might be boring to watch, but it’s fun to play.
No one told the New Jersey Devils and Los Angeles Kings that they had to win with trapping, defensive hockey. Both Stanley Cup finalists bring it on the defensive end, but it’s their intense forechecks that make for enthralling hockey that’s also proved successful.
“It’s a high-tempo game that you try to play with a good forecheck. Playing good defense usually gets you the puck back so you can head the other way,” Kings goaltending coach Bill Ranford said. “If you watch the Devils in the playoffs, it’s kind of the same for them. They play solid defense that creates their offensive opportunities.”
Just like Hunter’s Caps and the New York Rangers, the Devils and Kings want to create offense from defense, but they do so without slowing down the game. They wear down opponents with a style that is torturous to play against, as several playoff victims have discovered.
“I don’t know if it’s going to be fun when you’re getting crushed all the time,” Kings forward Trevor Lewis said. “But we expect it. It’s actually a fun way to play. We kind of pride ourselves on our forecheck, and they’re almost identical to us on the forecheck. We know we’ve got a big job to do getting pucks out of our zone so we can get our forecheck going.”
As Kings forward Kyle Clifford indicated, exciting hockey now isn’t like the 1970s or 1980s in the heydays of Bobby Orr and Wayne Gretzky when skilled players could just carry the puck in open space and create chances. But Los Angeles coach Darryl Sutter and New Jersey counterpart Peter DeBoer have found ways to make games exciting by turning up the intensity.
“We play a pressure game. Whether it’s in our zone or their zone, we’re going hard and we’re going after them, and we’re skating and we’re banging and the first guy’s hitting,” Devils forward Eric Boulton said. “It’s a five-man forecheck, five-man defense. We’re all over the puck, we’re all over it when we don’t have the puck. It’s a high-energy, fun thing to watch.”
In other words, not the trapping style the Devils made famous by winning three Stanley Cups from 1995 through 2003. The blueprint longtime general manager Lou Lamiorello implemented for those teams has seemingly been torn up and replaced with something different.
“This year, obviously, the one thing that is different is our forecheck and being aggressive on that and having the ‘D’ involved,” forward Patrik Elias said. “In the past, maybe last few years, we haven’t had that. We made a big change to our game.”
Not so fast. Lamiorello explained that this year’s team isn’t the product of a major style alteration but rather the Devils’ ability to adapt with skilled players such as Elias, captain Zach Parise, Ilya Kovalchuk and Travis Zajac.
Now New Jersey can go hard and take advantage of talented offensive players, too.
“The fundamental sort of foundation of defense will never change,” Lamiorello said. “It’s just we have the talent and also we have the coach who had the sort of thought process of what he felt he could do with our forwards and yet not sacrifice defense, and pushing it and getting them to do certain things.”
While the Caps and Rangers succeeded by getting players to sacrifice their bodies and take advantage of limited opportunities, the Devils and Kings play to their strength of offensive depth and speed.
And have fun along the way.
“We’re playing for the Cup,” Clifford said. “If it’s not fun, I guess you’re in the wrong business.”
• Stephen Whyno can be reached at email@example.com.
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