The Los Angeles Kings have shaken up the NHL’s Western Conference playoffs with their ouster of top-seeded Vancouver in five games. Now the Kings take aim at #2, as their conference semi-final battle with St. Louis begins under the Arch on Saturday night. TheSportsNotebook takes a look at the Kings-Blues series…
These two teams were 1-2 in the league in defense all year long and neither disappointed in the playoffs, again being the toughest two teams to get a goal on through the first round of play. While the Blues had a manageable first-round series against San Jose—obviously appropriate to St. Loo’s standing as Central Division champs, those defensive numbers for Los Angeles really stand out when you consider the offensive firepower Vancouver was attacking them with.
Neither team was good offensively during the regular season, each ranking in the bottom third of the NHL and that basically held true during the playoffs. Both are much better at generating shots than actually converting them, showing the problem is not their overall team play, but the lack of someone with the talent to close the deal.
These overall similarities can’t obscure the fact the Blues were a much better team over the course of the 82-game regular season. The key reason is that St. Louis is vastly superior in 5-on-5 play, ranking 2nd in the NHL, while Los Angeles is 17th. In a series that’s likely to be characterized by long, grinding droughts, the ability of the Blues to come up with a goal in non-power play situations is a significant edge. Furthermore, St. Louis discovered a power play in the first round, with their 5-on-4 game being the second-best in the playoffs. Given all this, is there any reason to think Los Angeles can pull a second straight upset?
Los Angeles needs a much higher level of offensive activity at the center spot, where Anze Kopitar and Mike Richards were too quiet in the Vancouver series. The offense in the first round was the Dustin Brown show, as the forward scored four goals. Against an opponent that plays soft, a one-man show can work. It will not be as successful against at St. Louis defense that plays well as a team in limiting shots and has a goalie in Brian Elliot who was excellent in the regular season and dominant in the playoffs.
This leads us to another segueway of how the Kings can win this series—St. Louis can’t avoid the temptation to split goaltending time between Elliot and Jaroslav Halak. The latter was in goal for a Game 1 loss against San Jose before suffering an ankle injury. He’s not going to be ready to play for at least the first two games and when he is ready, head coach Ken Hitchcock needs to be clear that this is Elliot’s gig to lose.
St. Louis got good offensive work on the wings during the first round, as Andy McDonald scored four goals. They need his opposite number, David Backes to join the points-fest in this series. Patrick Berglund at center did a good job against the Sharks, and will need to stay active in this series as well. As good as both Elliot and Los Angeles counterpart Jonathan Quick are, it’s important to note that the team defenses that protect them as every bit as good. The front line that can generate 30-35 shots a game can give these goalies a test they aren’t used to getting. It won’t make the games an offensive shootout by any means, but whichever team can average 2.5 goals a game in this series is likely moving on.
I felt there were sound reasons to feel Los Angeles could upset Vancouver in the first round and my pick of them to win that series was the one saving grace of a first round that saw my Cup picks of Detroit and Boston go home early. I don’t see the same reason for optimism in Hollywood this time. St. Louis has the toughness that Vancouver lacked and the Blues will advance in five games.