The Los Angeles Kings open defense of their Stanley Cup against one of their victims from last spring. The Kings finished fifth in the Western Conference rather than eighth, as they did last season, and have had their ups and downs, including a marked difference in the play of goaltender Jonathan Quick at home and on the road. Jeff Carter's 26 goals gave the Kings an offensive spark: They averaged about half a goal more than they did last season. But Quick's numbers are way down from, especially on the road. Including last spring's sweep, the Kings have won eight in a row against the St. Louis Blues.
St. Louis closed the season on a roll, going 11-2-0 in April behind the goaltending of Brian Elliott, who was 3-6-1 before allowing 16 goals in the Blues' 13 games this month. The Kings shredded him last spring after Jaroslav Halak was injured; Elliott got to play down the stretch because Halak was hurt again. Chris Stewart bounced back with a career season, but he was one of three Blues to reach double figures in goals. Alex Pietrangelo is a premier defenseman.
Each team plays a grinding game that figures to limit chances; they are second and third in fewest shots allowed. The winner figures to be the one that gets the better goaltending -- Quick and Elliott finished with below-average save percentages that belie their goals-against averages.
These teams have met three times in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, and if history is any indicator, winning Game 1 will be important. All three previous series ended in a four-game sweep.
As with most teams coached by Ken Hitchcock, the Blues generally didn't win games with their overwhelming firepower. The team ranked around the middle of the League in goals per game, and Stewart (36 points) was the only player on the team to rank among the NHL's top 97 point-getters. What they may have lacked in the offensive zone, though, they more than compensated for in every other area of the ice.
The Blues allowed 24.2 shots per game this season, second-fewest in the League. That was in large part because of the tight checking of their forwards in all areas of the ice. That game plan perhaps is best exemplified by captain David Backes, who didn't score a lot but led the Blues in hits and takeaways and the forwards in blocked shots.
When St. Louis did score, the load was distributed evenly throughout the roster; 10 forwards have at least six goals. That depth could get a boost from T.J. Oshie, whom Hitchcock told reporters will be ready for Game 1 after missing a month with an ankle injury.
St. Louis' tight-checking forward attack proved especially efficient when games were close; the team went 14-4-2 in one-goal games, the League's third-highest win percentage in such contests, behind the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Chicago Blackhawks.
The Kings struggled to score in 2011-12 but have been a lot more proficient this season. They're in the top half of the League in goals per game, largely because of the big season by Carter. He was a contributor in the drive to the Stanley Cup last spring after being acquired from the Columbus Blue Jackets, but became the go-to guy on offense this season. Carter was the only player in the Western Conference to reach 25 goals, and was tops in the NHL with eight game-winners.
Captain Dustin Brown was second on the team with 18 goals, and he provides a physical element few scorers can match. Anze Kopitar led the Kings in scoring for the sixth consecutive season; he, Brown and Justin Williams form a solid first line. Carter usually plays with former Philadelphia Flyers teammate Mike Richards, an excellent two-way forward; the other berth on that line could go to inconsistent Dustin Penner or rookie Tyler Toffoli.
Jarret Stoll is a solid No. 3 center with a big shot who can provide some scoring, and bottom-six forwards Dwight King and Jordan Nolan did most of their best work last spring banging bodies on the forecheck rather than putting pucks behind goaltenders. That trend has remained: The Kings were in the top three in hits during the regular season. Stoll is one of the NHL's best faceoff men and a big reason the Kings were in the top five at winning draws.
The Kings are not the offensively challenged team that barely made the playoffs last season. They have enough firepower to keep up with anyone, and their scoring is spread out enough that opponents can't gang up on one line. The re-emergence of Carter as a big-time sniper has made a difference.
The Blues came into this season already boasting two of the top young defensemen in the NHL, Alex Pietrangelo and Kevin Shattenkirk. Neither player is older than 24 and the pair formed one of the League's highest-scoring defensive duos while leading the Blues' stingy defense, along with stay-at-home veterans Barret Jackman and Roman Polak.
Seeing some deficiencies in a defensive unit during a February stretch in which the team went 4-6-2 while allowing 3.33 goals per game, Blues general manager Doug Armstrong shored up his blue line at the NHL Trade Deadline, acquiring veterans Jordan Leopold from the Buffalo Sabres and Jay Bouwmeester from the Calgary Flames. In their first 12 games after the trades, the Blues went 9-3-0, allowing one goal or fewer in eight of those nine wins.
The real test for this unit will come now. The deadline deals added some much-needed playoff experience; Leopold has played in 59 postseason games and skated in the 2004 Stanley Cup Final with the Calgary Flames, but Pietrangelo and Shattenkirk have combined to play in 17 playoff games, and Bouwmeester, a veteran of more than 750 regular-season games, will play in the postseason for the first time in his 10 NHL seasons.
Drew Doughty is the biggest name on the Kings' blue line, but Slava Voynov and Jake Muzzin outproduced him for much of the season. Doughty didn’t score his first goal until March 19 and did not have another before April, but he found his scoring touch in the final month. Voynov and Muzzin give the Kings the kind of offensive depth on the blue line they didn't have last season.
Doughty raised his game markedly last spring, and the Kings need him to do it again.
The defense has gotten a boost from the return of Matt Greene, who missed almost all of the season with a back problem that required surgery. Greene and Rob Scuderi don't provide a lot of offense, but they are solid in their own zone and can get the puck to the forwards. The late-season addition of Robyn Regehr from the Buffalo Sabres added some muscle and a minute-muncher on the blue line, helping to make up for the season-long absence of shutdown defender Willie Mitchell, who's not likely to return to action because of a knee problem that cost him the entire regular season.
Los Angeles has a good mixture of strength and skill on the blue line, along with the depth a contender needs for a long playoff run.
What appeared to be the backbone of a stout St. Louis defense last season has been the most inconsistent aspect of their game in 2012-13. The combination of Halak and Elliott seemed unbeatable at times last season, allowing 1.89 goals per game as the duo combined to win the William Jennings Trophy. This season, Halak has battled injuries and Elliott struggled to the point he wound up back in the American Hockey League for a spell. Those issues gave Jake Allen time in the Blues' net, and he went 9-4-0 with a 2.46 goals-against average.
Halak has been nursing a lower-body injury, and Elliott seems to have found his game at the perfect time. The veteran, who started St. Louis' last seven playoff games last spring, has been close to unbeatable through most of April, at one point enjoying a span of 209:02 without allowing a goal. Elliott has been sharp, but if Halak can return in time for the playoffs, the Blues could look to him to flash the form that helped him carry the Montreal Canadiens to the 2010 Eastern Conference Finals.
Quick hasn't been able to match his Conn Smythe Trophy-winning performance of last spring, yet the Kings were never in danger of missing the playoffs -- unlike last season, when they barely qualified for the postseason before becoming the lowest-seeded team to win the Cup.
Quick had offseason back surgery and got off to a slow start, but he began to pick up his play down the stretch and showed the kind of consistency he had last spring.
Quick's play at home has been markedly better than on the road, a big reason the Kings were desperate to finish in the top four in the West and get the home-ice edge for the first round. His performance for the first 10 weeks of the season was so inconsistent coach Darryl Sutter gave backup Jonathan Bernier an increased amount of playing time. The 2006 first-round pick had better numbers across the board and gives Sutter another option if he feels Quick can't carry the load.
No one collects more than 600 NHL coaching wins without knowing a few things about hockey. Hitchcock has racked up 40-win seasons with four teams by coaching the signature style that won him the Jack Adams Award last season.
That means tight checking and opportune scoring, a game plan that immediately turned around the Blues when he took over in November 2011. That system paid off last spring, when St. Louis won its first playoff series in a decade. The team is hoping to improve on that this season, but Hitchcock's teams have advanced to the third round of the playoffs once since he led the Dallas Stars to the 2000 Stanley Cup Final.
After leading the Kings to the first championship in franchise history last spring, Sutter had to deal with a lockout, injuries, inconsistency and the Stanley Cup hangover during a compressed 48-game season. Though the Anaheim Ducks' early surge took a division title out of play quickly, Sutter kept his team focused on what it could achieve rather than what it couldn't. He wasn't afraid to cut Quick's playing time when his No. 1 goaltender struggled, he didn't panic after a slow start, and he's been successful at demanding defensive responsibility from everyone on the roster.
Perhaps most important is the fact he appears to have his team playing its best hockey as the playoffs approach.
The Blues' efficient penalty kill took a slight step back this season compared to 2011-12, but their power play, which ranked in the bottom half of the League last season, improved from 16.7 percent to 19.5. That was mainly because of the play of Stewart and Patrik Berglund, who combined to score 11 of St. Louis' 29 power-play goals.
Berglund emerged as a key part of the team's penalty kill, scoring two shorthanded goals this season; three players in the League had more. St. Louis showed it could capitalize on the power play but had trouble earning many man-advantages, ranking 24th in power-play opportunities.
It's on special teams the team's deadline acquisitions could come in most handy. Bouwmeester in particular has shown the ability to contribute to the power play, although St. Louis went 5-for-41 (12.2 percent) with the man advantage in his 14 games with the team.
The Kings finished in the top 10 on the power play and the penalty kill, one of four teams to do so. Having Carter for a full season has given the power play a boost; his eight man-advantage goals were tied for seventh in the NHL, and though Kopitar didn't have a power-play goal, he did have 16 assists. Richards added six goals and 15 points on the power play.
L.A.'s penalty-killers have been among the NHL's best at home but have struggled on the road, a major reason the Kings' home record is much better than their record away from Staples Center. Richards has been one of the NHL's more prolific shorthanded scorers during his career.
David Backes: The Blues will go as far as their captain can take them. The two-time 30-goal scorer can provide leadership on and off the ice and plays the kind of game that is built for the playoffs. St. Louis has shown the ability to win big games, but it's the intangibles provided by Backes that can take them to the next level.
Jeff Carter: The Kings won the Cup last spring without a real home-run hitter up front. They have one this time; Carter had more goals in a 48-game season than he had in a full 82-game campaign in 2011-12. He is the one Los Angeles forward opponents must keep an eye on at all times, and he's the best finisher on the roster. Carter had more goals than anyone in the Western Conference this season, and he has to produce for the Kings to win.
WHAT IF …
Blues will win if … They continue to play the stifling defense they have become known for. In winning four straight games against the San Jose Sharks in the first round of the 2012 playoffs, St. Louis gave up five goals before allowing 15 while being swept in the second round by the Kings. The Blues need to maintain that tight defense from round to round this year.
Kings will win if … Quick plays up to the level of last spring, the Kings give him some offense to work with, and the physical style of play that carried them to the Cup last spring returns. The Kings don't want to place all their eggs in Quick's basket, not after his up-and-down season. They have more offense than they did last spring; if the other parts of their game can match last spring, there's a good chance Los Angeles will become the first team in the 21st century to repeat as champion.
Author: NHL.com Staff
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