It seems like in today’s sports world it’s not enough to crown a hero in victory. There must also always be a goat for the vanquished.
Bernier will fit the bill for most. And there’s no doubt that his reckless hit from behind that led to a five-minute major and three Los Angeles power-play goals changed the course of Game 6 Monday night in L.A. The Kings jumped out to that 3-0 lead in the first period and never looked back, finally closing out the series on their third try with a 6-1 win for the franchise’s first Stanley Cup.
But while it could be argued that the Devils’ fate in Game 6 hinged on that costly penalty, that one play was not the difference in the series. New Jersey lost the Final by falling behind 3-0 in the series, not by falling behind 3-0 on Monday.
It was the their inability to solve Jonathan Quick in back-to-back 2-1 overtime decisions in the first two games in New Jersey and a complete no-show by the entire team in a 4-0 loss in Game 3 that sealed the Devils’ fate.
They avoided the ignominy of a sweep and made things interesting with wins in Games 4 and 5, but the Devils were bucking seven decades of history in trying to become the first team since the 1942 Leafs to overcome a 3-0 deficit in the Cup Final. There’s a reason that hasn’t happened in 70 years. Winning four straight games while facing elimination is a lot to ask, especially against a team that’s good enough to have reached the Cup Final and win three straight of its own to start the series.
So this should be the Kings’ moment to shine. Quick capped an incredible postseason run with an otherworldly 1.41 GAA and .946 save percentage in the playoffs. Drew Doughty enjoyed a coming-out party as one of the game’s true elite defensemen. Dustin Brown shook over a slow start to the Final with a three-point night. Jeff Carter and Mike Richards, who actually know a thing or two about overcoming 3-0 deficits from their days in Philadelphia, made sure it didn’t happen against them in L.A. And all manner of key role players continued to come through with vital contributions for the Kings, right down to the final clinching goals in the closing minutes by depth forward Trevor Lewis and stay-at-home blueliner Matt Greene.
New Jersey coach Peter DeBoer got it right in his postgame news conference when asked about the Bernier play.
“You know what, tonight is about L.A. and letting them celebrate,” DeBoer told reporters in L.A. “If you want to ask me about that in about a week, I’ll give you my honest opinion on it.”
When asked if he felt bad for Bernier in a follow-up question, DeBoer added, “You know, it’s a bad spot for him to be in. Everybody knows Bernie’s heart’s in the right place. He’s not at fault.”
Bernier was not at fault for the Devils loss, though he certainly was at fault on the play. This is not a matter of defending that hit.
While the Devils had a case to complain that Jarret Stoll‘s dangerous hit on Stephen Gionta seconds earlier wasn’t penalized, it doesn’t exonerate Bernier for driving full steam into Rob Scuderi when the Kings defensemen’s numbers were fully exposed to him. That’s exactly the kind of dangerous hit the league has been trying to get out of the game and the kind of play that has been called a penalty all season long, with the injury suffered to Scuderi making it an automatic major.
That didn’t end the game, though. The rest of the Devils could have picked him up, much as Bernier and his fellow fourth-liners Gionta and Ryan Carter had picked up their teammates with their strong two-way play and surprising offensive contributions throughout the postseason. But New Jersey couldn’t kill off a penalty when it needed it most. And regardless of the circumstances surrounding the call, teams aren’t going to win many times when giving up three power-play goals on one penalty in an elimination game.
It wasn’t Bernier that lost this series. It was the Devils as a team. Just as it wasn’t one individual that won it for the Kings. It took a team effort to win hockey’s greatest prize. It always does. And that should not be overshadowed by a single bad decision made in the heat of the moment by one player.