The winning goal in the opener of the Stanley Cup final was a fascinating series of mistakes by the New Jersey Devils and great moves in response by the Los Angeles Kings, with two of them rooted in all those scouting reports players digest.
Devils head coach Pete DeBoer said as much, in the cryptic way of coaches who would rather not publicly identify any culprits, a few minutes after Anze Kopitar scored in overtime Wednesday night to give the Kings a 2-1 win in the first game of the NHL championship.
"Yeah, we made a little bit of a bad read," DeBoer said. "There were a couple of decisions there. But we're playing to win the game. I don't make any apologies for that. You know, we made a mistake, they capitalized."
The seed of this play, which took 10 seconds at best to develop, was planted on Nov. 27, 2006 when Kopitar, then a 21-year-old rookie for the Kings, scored on a shootout attempt on Devils goaltender Martin Brodeur. But more on that later.
First, Devils defenceman Marek Zidlicky made the wrong decision at the Kings blue line eight minutes into the first overtime period. Kings winger Dustin Brown was carrying the puck along the right boards, headed out of his own zone. Zidlicky first considered falling back into the neutral zone but then decided to be aggressive and check Brown in the hope of keeping the puck in the Kings' zone.
The pinch only partly worked, which spelled disaster for the Devils. Zidlicky managed to get the puck away from Brown but he got tangled up with him and both players fell down as the puck skittered toward the boards. With Zidlicky out of the play, the puck went by Devils centre Travis Zajac, who had a chance to corral it. But his swipe at the puck missed and it continued to the right boards.
Kings defenceman Drew Doughty was the first player to reach it and he passed the puck up the right boards to winger Justin Williams, who was near centre ice, between the players' benches. He headed for that spot as soon as he saw Doughty was going to get the puck.
That was when veteran Devils forward Dainius Zubrus made the most crucial mistake on the play. As Doughty reached the puck, Zubrus was moving toward the right side with his eye on Williams along the boards. But Devils defenceman Bryce Salvador was already in position to take the Kings player, having slid over from his spot on left defence when his partner Zidlicky was caught inside the blue line.
Zubrus, though, closed on Williams, not even looking at Kopitar, who stepped into the open ice in the middle. In an instant, Williams had both Zubrus and Salvador on him at the right boards and sensed Kopitar was alone.
"I didn't know if they had a back-checker coming, but I knew Kopi was in the area over there," Williams said. "That's when you just throw an area pass over there. Hopefully he skates into it and hopefully it's timed right. Fortunately it was."
Kopitar was hollering at his linemate to throw him a pass.
"I saw those two on the boards battling," he said. "I wanted to make sure I went through the middle. I don't know if he heard me or not. I yelled for the puck.
"He chipped it, obviously perfect, right on my tape. You know, it happened pretty quick. I was able to finish it off."
In that instant, both Kopitar and Brodeur recalled the same bit of history with Kopitar, 24, outsmarting his 40-year-old opponent. He was also able to get the puck to behave on a soft ice surface that was giving players fits.
Kopitar moved in alone on Brodeur, faked a shot to his backhand, slid the puck to his forehand on the left and fired a wrist shot along the ice under Brodeur's right pad, which was raised in anticipation of a shot off the ice.
"I thought he would go backhand," Brodeur said.
This information made Kopitar smile.
"I went forehand," he said. "I guess that goes back a few years when we were in the shootout in LA and I went backhand on him. Maybe he thought I was going to do it again. I just wanted to mix it up a little bit."
It was more than a few years ago. On Nov. 27, 2006, Kopitar beat Brodeur with a backhand in a shootout as the Kings beat the Devils. A further seed was probably planted early this season when Kopitar went to his backhand again in a shootout against the Devils with Brodeur on the bench watching his backup, Johan Hedberg, make the save.
It was a great mental and physical play by someone who is stepping into his own in these playoffs as one of the NHL's biggest stars.
"That type of pressure, that type of play to settle [the puck]down, realize he's got time to make the play and make a great move on a great goaltender, that doesn't surprise us," centre Jarret Stoll told the Los Angeles Times. "That's Anze to a T right there."