Series Preview: (2) Blues vs. (7) Kings
Just as everyone expected, the Los Angeles Kings quickly dispatched of the President’s Trophy-winning Vancouver Canucks in five games. Also (and just as expected) was the latter squad’s complete no-show on offense, perpetual state of disarray on defense and lack of physicality in nearly every single one of the five games. What took place last week was a meltdown of an unacceptable degree. Don’t let anyone convince you otherwise.
However (!), just because Vancouver lost the series does not mean Los Angeles didn’t deserve to advance. Vezina Trophy candidate (and deserving winner) Jonathan Quick continued to play out of his mind in net. He put his team in a position to not only win, but batter and bruise the helpless Canucks en route to doing just so. Hockey sabermetrics aren’t nearly as fun as the ones most baseball fans obsess over, but I doubt anyone will disagree with the belief that Quick’s Wins-Above-Replacement Value (WAR) for the 2011-12 season to date is off the charts.
Dustin Brown continued his torrid second half of the season with four goals, an assist and the team lead in series points. Willie Mitchell and Rob Scuderi were as solid as they come on defense, providing much-needed veteran presence on the blue line. Mike Richards provided a rather clutch power play tally in the series’ first game and also showed flashes of the playoff performer which helped endear him to Philadelphia fans in his time spent there. Finally, it was Jarrett Stoll, he of six regular season goals and a $3.6 million cap hit, responsible for the series-winner.
Vancouver was undone by a team tailor made to beat them. And again, to give credit where it’s due, Los Angeles did just that. Perhaps a personalized pastry or two should be sent to the San Jose Sharks—a belated “Thank you for beating us in Game 82 of the regular season so we could play Vancouver and not St. Louis in the first round.” They could stand to not include the remaining twenty-two words from that message, but the point still remains, and it’s a fascinating realization when considering the current playoff matchups.
To look forward to this match-up, we must first look back.
Back to the aforementioned regular season which determined playoff seeding—which is responsible for pitting the Los Angeles Kings against the St. Louis Blues in the second round of the 2012 NHL Playoffs.
These two teams played 4 regular season games against one another in 156 days, with the Kings earning victories in three. The two earliest matchups came in October and November, respectively, and the former contest in Los Angeles was the Kings first trip back to their home city after a whirlwind season opener in Europe. That game was won 5-0 decisively by the Kings who showed signs of just being…well, glad to be back home.
The November game also produced five combined goals, although this time St. Louis was able to light up the scoreboard with two tallies of their own. They ultimately fell however, by a score of 3-2. This evening was the last time St. Louis saw Terry Murray, former Kings head coach, as he was fired a little more than one later. For comparisons sake, the Blues were much quicker in dispatching their overwhelmed and results-lacking head coach in Davis Payne. He was shown his walking papers in early November after a disappointing 6-7 start. This playoff series might serve as a helpful reminder for NHL GMs that an early-season coaching termination can propel your team into the second round of the playoffs! (And to the likes of Montreal, Toronto and Columbus who did fire coaches…well, you must not have done it soon enough)
The final meetings between these two clubs are rather important to focus on because they are the types of games that will be played in this series. Yes, they both yielded 1-0 results. Yes, each clubs emerged victorious once behind the play of their stellar goaltender. Only this time (and in the case of the 3/22 Kings' victory) there will be no shootouts.
In preparation for the series, here are four things that will also not be seen at any point by anyone:
You’d be fooling yourself to think every game of this series won’t end with a 1-0 score. The Kings did that better than anyone else this season—a total of NINE TIMES. And yet, they only came out on top three times. I like to imagine a scenario where Jon Quick overhears an oblivious moron making an argument for Lundqvist to win the Vezina Trophy, thereby enraging and forcing Quick to grab the individual by the collar, drag him to the team’s film study room and force him to watch at least a dozen one-goal Kings’ losses with his eyelids taped open. In fact, that should probably be a prerequisite before the awards show in June, but I digress.
Both teams’ goaltender play has been fantastic, and that will not stop anytime soon. Throughout the course of the regular season, St. Louis earned honors as the best defensive team in the league with the fewest goals allowed per game. (The Blues were first with a stellar 1.89 figure, and the Kings were one spot behind with 2.07 GA/G) The Blues also allowed the fewest shots per game and finished seventh in team penalty kill.
Los Angeles has been just as tight defensively, and they have outstanding blue-line play from guys like Willie Mitchell, Rob Scuderi, Slava Voynov and (more times than not) Drew Doughty. It is also well known that the Kings don’t score very often, save for when Roberto Luongo is in the opposing net. They finished the season twenty-ninth in goals per game, whereas St. Louis finished twenty-first. So, yeah…goals? Do expect good hockey. Don’t expect a flurry of pucks seeping through the brick walls both teams start in net.
2. End-to-End Hockey Played at Breakneck Speed
Don’t call it a trap. Don’t you dare call it a trap, but the St. Louis Blues defensive style of play emphasizes nothing more than clamping down with ferocious force in the neutral zone. The Kings will have to fight for every inch of ice they get, which shouldn’t come as a problem if they continue to play with the physicality they showed against Vancouver. Also in the Kings’ favor is the Blues propensity to drop the gloves quite often. Obviously, the postseason is a little different, but it’s still worth noting that St. Louis earned more than their fair share of major penalties, finishing in the top six of that category. If the Kings can draw penalties to break the monotony and effectiveness of the Blues defensive, it could pay major dividends.
3. A Sweep
For seemingly the first time in a long while, there wasn’t a sweep in either conference in the first round. Not that I, or any other hockey fan, is complaining. But if any second-round series were to produce one, I’d be a good portion of my life savings that it wouldn’t be this one. These teams are as evenly matched as any remaining in the postseason with still a lot to prove. I don’t think home-ice will matter too much at this point. Both teams have shown what it takes to win on the road and with the Kings case, they sometimes turn in their best performances away from the Staples Center. Expect seven games of hard-nosed, nail-biting, sweat-dripping play. It will be worth the price of admission.
Ok, I’ll say it: Ken Hitchcock looks weird without the mustache he sported during his Dallas and Philadelphia tenures. Yes, he’s been facial hair-less since his hiring in November, but I still haven’t gotten used to it. For that matter, I still don’t like it. Some men just aren’t meant to be separated from their mustaches.
Also, it would appear that neither player from either team has the audacity to groom a mustache that would make Tim Thomas blush. It was a sad day in this observer’s household when Boston was eliminated, if only because we’ll never see someone so defiantly rock the perfect playoff ‘stache. God speed, Tim Thomas.
Prediction: St. Louis in 7