Wednesday, May 1, 2013
Hockey gods smile on Blues in Game 1
By Pierre LeBrun
ST. LOUIS -- Rarely does a series hinge so much on the opening game, but the psyche of the St. Louis Blues might have been crushed had the Los Angeles Kings scored in overtime Tuesday night.
And that’s not hyperbole. To dominate like the Blues did for 59½ minutes against the defending Stanley Cup champions and to not have come away with a victory would have been oh-so-damaging.
This is a team that got swept by the Kings last year in the playoffs and had lost eight straight overall to them dating back to last season.
For the Blues, thank goodness for Alex Steen's clever play 13:26 into overtime, giving them a 2-1 win, otherwise this series could have been another short one.
"Hockey gods took care of us, they did," Blues head coach Ken Hitchcock said. "We played a great hockey game. Waking up tomorrow would have been a challenge if we didn’t win the hockey game. We’re hopefully going to gain a lot of confidence from this that we can compete with these guys, and not just compete but actually win.
"I think that it would have been a shame not to win," he continued. "But when you’re the defending champion, you can’t just knock them off, you’re going to have stick a pretty big nail in them, and we’re just getting started in this series."
For almost three full periods, it was a near-perfect opening game for a Blues team wanting so much to prove themselves, to the defending champs and to the hockey world, that they are ready this spring to take that next step as a contender.
"They came out exactly how you expected them to," Kings head coach Darry Sutter said. "They play a work-speed game and that’s what they did. We had a handful of guys who weren’t ready for that part of it and it made for a tough time."
Not once during L.A.’s entire run last spring can I remember the Kings running around in their own zone and looking so overwhelmed by the opposition as they were in the opening period, outshot 14-6 and barely touching the puck.
They were a bit better over the second and third periods but still badly outshot and outchanced.
Reigning Conn Smythe Trophy winner Jonathan Quick allowed the Kings to stay in the game with an MVP-like performance, stopping 40 of 42 shots on the night.
"You know what, I coached Eddie Belfour," Hitchcock said. "I’ve seen this act before. He’s a great goalie. You’re going to have to outwork and outbattle him. That’s what makes our game so special. You can play really well and the goalie can still win the hockey game for the opposition."
Added Sutter on Quick: "He was outstanding. He played a great game.
"Kind of ironic the two best players on the ice were in on the [winning] goal."
Steen indeed capped an outstanding game by scoring shorthanded, of all things, on a play few people will soon forget in these parts, intercepting a Quick pass behind the Kings’ net and then walking out in front to backhand the puck into a vacated net before Scottrade Center erupted into euphoria (or was it relief?).
Steen, who opened the scoring on a power play 9:05 into the game, jumped on the ice during a four-minute penalty kill and, showing his hockey smarts, took a look at the landscape and realized he should pressure Quick playing the puck behind the net.
"That’s completely and honestly what I thought," Steen said. "I just had got on the ice, they had been out a bit, so once the puck went down I figured I had more gas in the tank and I took off. When I checked over my shoulder, his outlet was on my left side, his other guy was a little slow coming up, so I didn’t think he would go that way, so that’s why I took that route and I got lucky."
Not lucky, clever.
"Steener’s a guy that works his butt off and gets rewarded there doing all the extra things that he does on the ice," Blues captain David Backes said.
Quick’s view of the game-winner?
"It’s exactly what it looked like," Quick said. "I tried to make a pass. He blocked it and scored."
It was a heads-up play by a veteran player who delivered a clutch performance all-around Tuesday night.
"That’s what leaders do," Hitchcock said of Steen. "He has really stepped up in the last month on this hockey club, he’s really stepped up his game, he’s really stepped up his personality on the team, and he knew he had to step up today. He played a great hockey game."
So did Blues goalie Brian Elliott, who stopped 28 or 29 shots, although when he gave up the tying goal to Justin Williams with 31.6 seconds left in the third period, his performance would have been forgotten had the Kings finished it off in overtime.
"You don’t draw it up where you give up the tying goal with 30 seconds left," Backes said. "Those are the no-no’s of hockey. But I think it shows a bit of the character in here. Els was phenomenal and had to make some big saves in overtime to give us a chance. The hockey gods rewarded us, it seems like, for some good work tonight."
The Kings will have a lot to say before this series is over. But this was an important victory in so many ways for the Blues. For starters, they put the Kings behind in a series, which never once happened last spring. L.A. went up 3-0 in each of their four series wins last year.
Now at least the Blues get to see how the Kings react when things aren’t perfect. You know, make them live like a normal playoff team for once.
But for Hitchcock, the win wasn’t about what it did to L.A. It was about what it means to his team.
"From our standpoint, we needed to talk about something other than coming close," Hitchcock said. "We needed to start talking about here’s how you win. You can only go to that well so many times [before] the players stop believing you. We gave a big push today and got rewarded for it. So we’ve got something to draw on now. We’ve got something to sell [to the players Wednesday] morning and hopefully we come back with a similar effort."