Cup finalists merely in survival mode

New Jersey Devils fans pose outside the arena prior to Game One of the 2012 NHL Stanley Cup Final...

New Jersey Devils fans pose outside the arena prior to Game One of the 2012 NHL Stanley Cup Final between the Los Angeles Kings and the New Jersey Devils at Prudential Center on May 30, 2012 in Newark, New Jersey. (Jim McIsaac/Getty Images/AFP)

Steve Simmons, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 4:11 PM ET

NEW YORK - The Stanley Cup could have been won Wednesday night or it could be presented Saturday at the Prudential Center, but another final might pass without anything to remember but the clinical efficiency and rare location of the new champion.

Somehow it all seems backward if you look back to early April with playoff series that took your breath away and kept you on the edge of your seat: The best are now playing the least interesting hockey, survival hockey.

Maybe that's all the Los Angeles Kings and New Jersey Devils have left to offer.

Or, as a former Cup winner and executive told me after Game 4 at the Staples Center, both teams look exhausted, both teams have lost their speed and their edge, mentally and physically. Rather than play to win, both teams have been playing not to lose. They can't match the speed or intensity of Round 1 or Round 2 because their bodies, frankly, can't handle this night after night.

There is still room for something to happen in this best-of-seven series -- hockey players can still be magical in a way we don't always understand -- but that's not likely.

It's unlikely they'll leave us, without any partisan interest, something to remember, some moment to distinguish this from just another playoff series between rivals who are not. The dislike we saw a year ago between Vancouver and Boston doesn't exist here. The name-calling, there has been none. The series between the Canucks and Bruins was terribly uneven hockey for a championship round a year ago, but there was drama, there were seven games, there was a Canucks team that couldn't compete on the road and, in the end, couldn't compete when it mattered at home.

Now try to explain and evaluate what has gone during the four games of the Cup final this year and you yearn just a little bit for what Pittsburgh and Philadelphia brought in Round 1, for the speed of the New York-Ottawa series, for the overt intensity of Dustin Brown against the Canucks, and for something, anything, that is slightly over the top.

The first-round debate was all about head shots, suspensions, hits from behind, turnbuckle smashes off the glass. None of those happen to be great for hockey itself. But all of them are a byproduct of the game at its most frenetic, most unpredictable, when it's fast and extremely intense.

To date, this has been a rather odd Cup final. The home team lost the first two games in overtime. Yes, they were overtime games. No, they weren't classics. The first game of the final may, in fact, be one of the least interesting Stanley Cup championship games in history. If anything happened to remember, I can't remember it.

Game 2 by comparison was an all-timer, but not on the scale of what you want from a Stanley Cup final. The two games in Los Angeles had a middle-of-the-season, Tuesday-night feel to them. The Devils, playing smart, tried to take a noisy crowd out of the equation. They did that with their avid forecheck, their cautious dump-in game, and their unwillingness to gamble. They lost Game 3 because they didn't score on a 5-on-3 power play (the best thing about this series is the Kings' penalty killing, which tells you a lot) and allowed a questionable goal.

Game 4 looked a lot like the first period and a half of Game 3, except the score was different.

On a night when everything was possible, the Kings looked as though they played not to lose, rather than go for it and win the Cup, the way they had gone for it against Vancouver, St. Louis and Phoenix. The Kings, save for the brilliant Jonathan Quick, Anze Kopitar and Drew Doughty, have been just ordinary. Captain Brown left his Conn Smythe candidacy in another round.

On the Devils side, Ilya Kovalchuk is either hurt or out of gas, Zach Parise is trying but not accomplishing much.

Maintaining offence for either team is rare.

Why is this happening, the absolute opposite of what has occurred in the NBA? The NBA has got better by round. The NHL, for all kinds of reasons, has lost its way.

The league is now too tight, too close, which means to work your way through a first round requires supreme effort; to get to four rounds means you must work this hard, play with this much fervour, play injured, play tired, and still find a way to keep going,

We have every right to expect the Stanley Cup Final to represent the best hockey, the most dramatic hockey of the year. There should be some kind of crescendo. Instead, it's about goaltending, penalty killing, coaching, and whatever last breath any player offers. And maybe that's all the players have left in them.

steve.simmons@sunmedia.ca

twitter.com/simmonssteve


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