Cross Checks: Los Angeles Kings

GM rumblings: Bernier, Backstrom & more

June, 19, 2013
6/19/13
8:19
PM ET
Jonathan Bernier of the Los Angeles KingsJerome Miron/US PresswireHow much longer will Jonathan Bernier play near Hollywood? Several other teams have interest.

BOSTON -- These are anxious times for young goalie Jonathan Bernier, who waits by this phone to find out where he might continue his NHL career.

It’s time for him to go elsewhere and become a No. 1 goalie, something he can’t do with the Los Angeles Kings with star goalie Jonathan Quick in place.

“I’m still part of the L.A. Kings and it’s been a great ride, but I feel really confident and I want to get to the next level to get a real chance to hopefully be a No. 1 somewhere,” Bernier told ESPN.com over the phone Wednesday. “I’m sure the Kings will make the right decision. If I’m staying there, I’m staying there. If not, I’m ready for the challenge.”

General manager Dean Lombardi indicated to Bernier that he would try to accommodate him if it’s a deal that makes sense for the Kings. The whole trade talk scenario is a new experience for Bernier.

“It’s actually exciting,” Bernier said. “But I really can’t control anything. It’s up to Dean. If there’s the right trade for him, I’m sure he’ll make the right call.

"I spoke with Dean at the end of the season, and he told me he can keep me there but also feels he kind of owed me the chance to be somewhere else [as a starter]. So I guess we’ll know in the next few weeks.”

Sources indicate five teams are in the mix on Bernier, to varying degrees: the Philadelphia Flyers, Toronto Maple Leafs, New York Islanders, Minnesota Wild and Florida Panthers.

For the Wild, it really depends on what happens with pending unrestricted free agent netminder Niklas Backtrom. If they can sign him in short order, then they would bow out of the Bernier mix. But if it appears they can’t re-sign Backstrom, they can go harder after Bernier or other possible netminders.

The Flyers, meanwhile, have shown interest in Bernier but obviously still have Ilya Bryzgalov on their books. As one source told ESPN.com Wednesday, they’re only going to buy out Bryzgalov if they have a concrete Plan B in place in terms of a goalie coming their way, whether that’s Bernier, Backstrom or any other goalie.

Stay tuned.

SPEAKING OF BACKSTROM ...

GM Chuck Fletcher said Backstrom, 35, has fully recovered from sports hernia surgery. Backstrom was injured minutes before the start of Game 1 of the opening round of the playoffs against the Chicago Blackhawks and did not play in the five-game series loss.

“We’ve had some conversations with his representation, and had a good meeting with Niklas before he went back to Finland," Fletcher told ESPN.com on Wednesday. "I think clearly he would like to come to back to Minnesota. We certainly would like to have him back. So the will is there from both parties. Now we just have to find a way, with respect to term and the cap and how do we manage all of that."

One of the issues for the Wild is durability, given Backstrom’s injury and the health issues being confronted by backup Josh Harding, who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis prior to the start of the season.

Fletcher said he thought the lockout-shortened season was an anomaly, and with Harding missing time, they rode Backstrom hard. That shouldn’t be the case next season.

“I think it’s a fair concern, but certainly we believe Nik will be fully healthy going into camp -- and we hope it’s our camp,” he said.

Although there has been some speculation the Wild might use a compliance buyout on a player like Dany Heatley, who has one year remaining on a contract with a $7.5 million cap hit (but only $5 million in actual dollars), Fletcher said the team wasn’t thinking in general about using the compliance buyout option.

“It certainly isn’t our first choice,” Fletcher said.

Kris Letang of the Pittsburgh Penguins
Charles LeClaire/US PresswireKris Letang and the Penguins have not reached an agreement on a new contract.
LETANG UPDATE

The agent for Kris Letang and Pittsburgh Penguins GM Ray Shero met Wednesday before the NHL’s general managers' meeting, but a resolution is far from certain at this point.

“We’ve agreed to have further talks,” agent Kent Hughes told ESPN.com after the meeting. “Not going to say more at this time.”

“He’s a very valuable player for our team, and ideally I’d like to sign him and get him extended," Shero told a media scrum after the meeting. "But we’ll see where that goes over the next few days and weekend, so we’ll see."

Again, as I stipulated in Tuesday’s blog, I don’t believe Letang will take a whole lot less than $7 million a year in a new deal, and I suspect that message was reaffirmed by Hughes in Wednesday’s meeting.

My guess is the Penguins need that figure to be lower in order for Letang to fit into the cap puzzle moving forward.

The question now is: If Shero can’t get Letang signed over the next week or two, does he trade him or let him play out his final year in Pittsburgh?

“I think there’s a lot of speculation if we can’t have a deal next week what might happen,” Shero said. “But I can’t go that far. He’s under contract for another year. I think when we get into next week, we’ll cross that bridge and see what happens. But my focus is going to be trying to sign him.”

STARS COACHING UPDATE

Dallas Stars GM Jim Nill, in a perfect world, will have his new coach in place by the June 30 draft. However, that’s not set in stone.

“I don’t want to have a set deadline, and all of a sudden it comes and goes,” Nill said after the GMs meeting. “There’s too many candidates out there. I want to make the right decision.”

While Nill would not name his candidates, it’s believed Lindy Ruff and John Tortorella are near the top at this point.

BOLTS PICK

In light of Joe Sakic’s comments that the Colorado Avalanche might not pick Seth Jones with the first overall pick, one wonders what kind of impact that might have on other teams drafting behind the Avs.

The Tampa Bay Lightning, for example, are drafting third overall, and clearly their number one need is a defenseman. However, GM Steve Yzerman says he doesn’t believe in drafting on need only.

“We believe in taking the best player available,” Yzerman said after the GMs meeting. “That’s been our philosophy. Your needs change from year to year. When these kids are available to play, your needs may be entirely different for various reasons. So that’s a rule of thumb we’ve had.”

Would he move his pick up or down?

“We’re quite comfortable with the third pick, but we’re open to any scenario which we think makes us a better organization,” Yzerman said.

Vincent Lecavalier of the Tampa Bay Lightning
Scott Audette/NHLI/Getty ImagesCould Vincent Lecavalier be on the way out of Tampa?
Recently, local reports in Tampa suggested the possibility of a compliance buyout for Vincent Lecavalier.

Asked generally whether he would use his buyout options, Yzerman responded Wednesday: “It’s something to consider. … Given that we finished in 28th place, we should be looking at every possibility of improving our team and what are options are. Other than that, I can’t say much.”

CLARKSON/DEVILS

New Jersey Devils GM Lou Lamoriello remains committed to trying to re-sign power forward David Clarkson before he hits the UFA market July 5.

“We’ll do everything we can to sign him,” Lamoriello said Wednesday. “We’re not looking to do anything else.”

Contract talks have been ongoing. One thing Lamoriello has traditionally not done is trade a pending UFA’s rights during this time period, like the Islanders recently did with Mark Streit.

“You never say you’ll never do something, but we have not philosophically believed in that,” Lamoriello said. “If a player said he didn’t want to play [in New Jersey], that’s another story. You never know, but that’s never come across us.”

BLUES' FUTURE

St. Louis Blues GM Doug Armstrong has his hands full this summer, with key restricted free agents Patrik Berglund, Chris Stewart, Alex Pietrangelo and Kevin Shattenkirk to bring under contract.

“It’s funny you can sign guys a year before you have to sign them, but when it’s two weeks before it takes a long time,” Armstrong said.

But he made it clear to other GMs: Don’t bother trying to poach those players with an offer sheet.

“With the new ownership group we’re financially solid," he said. "These are core players, and we want to pay them fairly. I’m not concerned at all about an offer sheet, because we’re going to match anything on those guys because they’re good enough players."

[+] EnlargeJaroslav Halak of the St. Louis Blues
Travis Golby/NHLI/Getty ImagesWith Jaroslav Halak, Jake Allen and Brian Elliott, the Blues have plenty of talent in net.
One situation in St. Louis that is less than clear is how the goaltending will play out next season, with rookie Jake Allen playing well in relief of an injured Jaroslav Halak and a struggling Brian Elliott.

“We’ve called it cloudy, but I think it’s a good cloudy," Armstrong said. "Jake doesn’t need waivers next year, so he can go down, and a fourth year in the American league won’t kill him. Last year Jaro, every time he got ready to get going, the groin went. Brian had such a terrific ending to the season with a less-than-memorable start. We might be best served to come back with all three and let the chips go where they are. But we’re going to continue to debate that internally."

It’s clear, though, that Allen’s development is going to be important moving forward.

“The one thing is we need Jake to get ready, because both those guys (Halak and Elliott) are unrestricted after the year’s over,” Armstrong said.

FLAMES GOALIES

Speaking of goaltending, the Calgary Flames’ goaltending situation remains in a state of flux. GM Jay Feaster said Wednesday he’s still unsure whether veteran netminder Miikka Kiprusoff will retire.

"I don’t think anything’s changed from the where he was at the end of the season," Feaster said. "I think if we forced to make a decision right now he’d say that he’s finished playing. We’ve said we’re going to give him time, and that’s what we’re going to do."

To prepare for Kiprusoff’s potential departure, the Flames signed Joey McDonald to a one-year extension after acquiring him from Detroit during last season. They traded for the rights to former Tampa Bay prospect Karri Ramo and will sign him in July, Feaster said. They also acquired the rights to Swiss netminder Reto Berra and signed him to a contract.

After missing the playoffs for the fourth straight year and being forced to trade captain Jarome Iginla at the trade deadline, the Flames are desperate to return to the postseason dance and respectability.

“We’re looking at everything right now," Feaster said. "As I’ve said, we have three picks in the first round; we have cap space.

"I think it’s unique in that we certainly have an ownership group that’s willing to spend to the cap. We’re looking at guys that might be compliance buyout victims or however you want to call that. Looking at free agency and looking at making trades, too."

The GM did say he wasn’t contemplating any compliance buyouts at this point in time.

NEW PENALTY

NHL executive vice president and director of hockey operations Colin Campbell says GMs also agree to implement a two-minute penalty for fighters who remove their helmets before a fight. So it would be a five-minute penalty for fighting, plus two more minutes for the helmet violation. The new penalty is pending Board of Governors approval.

BOSTON -- Pittsburgh Penguins GM Ray Shero and agent Kent Hughes, who reps star blue-liner Kris Letang, are slated to meet here in Boston on Wednesday, a source told ESPN.com.

It only makes sense because Hughes lives in Boston and Shero is in town for the NHL's general managers meeting.

It could potentially be a pivotal meeting in terms of what transpires on the Letang front. The blue-liner has one year left on his deal, but Shero’s usual M.O. is not to wait it out. Just look at the Jordan Staal situation a year ago. After Staal, who had one year left on his deal, rejected a contract extension from the Penguins, Shero dealt him quickly thereafter.

It could be that Shero will get the ball rolling on trade talks if Letang rejects whatever offer might be coming from the Penguins' GM.

And know this, I don’t think Letang signs for any less than $7 million a season.

Wednesday’s meeting, therefore, will be a compelling discussion either way.

BRIERE BUYOUT

Daniel Briere will be an unrestricted free agent soon, with the Philadelphia Flyers deciding to buy him out.

A source told ESPN.com that Briere and Paul Holmgren met last week, at which time the Flyers' GM informed the veteran center of the team’s decision. No bitter feelings, though, as I’m told Briere feels Holmgren handled it with class.

The buyout will wipe out Briere’s $6.5 million cap hit for the next two seasons.

What remains to be seen is whether the Flyers will buy out goalie Ilya Bryzgalov, a decision that has been met with mixed opinions within the Flyers front office.

The decision is whether to do it now or wait one more year, when they can still get a cap-friendly buyout.

Perhaps what might push the Flyers into buying out Bryzgalov now is the availability of young netminder Jonathan Bernier from the Los Angeles Kings.

My TSN colleague, Bob McKenzie, reported during our Insider Trading segment Tuesday night that the Flyers, Maple Leafs and Islanders were most interested in Bernier.

One source told ESPN.com Tuesday that five teams have serious interest in Bernier, the list cut down from the nearly dozen clubs that poked around about him.

COACHING CAROUSEL

Could the New York Rangers and Vancouver Canucks simply swap coaches this offseason?

It’s possible.

We know Alain Vigneault will be the new Rangers bench boss, the official announcement imminent. But what about John Tortorella?

He has interviewed in Vancouver, and a source told ESPN.com that the Canucks were impressed with Torts. He is among the final four candidates for the Canucks' coach gig vacated by Vigneault. The others are John Stevens, Scott Arniel and Lindy Ruff.

The intensity that Torts brings and the accountability he would demand from players are elements that impressed Canucks brass.

Stevens would be a more cerebral coach, his defensive work on the 2012 Stanley Cup champion Kings not to be overlooked. Ruff is a stud candidate, of course, and Arniel is viewed by some in the industry as a guy who deserves another shot after what happened in Columbus.

Another potential candidate is Dave Tippett (whose deal is up), depending on what transpires with the Phoenix Coyotes' ownership front. If Tippett were to become available, my guess is both Vancouver and the Dallas Stars would want to talk to him.

TUUKKA’S FUTURE

Give agent Bill Zito a lot of credit. When he signed his client Tuukka Rask to just a one-year deal a year ago, some people criticized him. The gamble, though, was that Rask would excel in his first full season as Boston Bruins starter with Tim Thomas gone -- and boy, oh boy, has that been an incredible decision by Zito.

Cha-ching, cha-ching.

Zito and Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli talked about an extension back after the lockout-shortened season began in January, but then mutually decided it would be better to wait until after the season was over to pick it up again regarding the star netminder, a restricted free agent.

SIGNINGS

On the heals of the Penguins locking up star center Evgeni Malkin a year before he was due to become a free agent, the Detroit Red Wings and Pavel Datsyuk, while the Sharks have agreed to a five-year extension with Logan Couture worth $6 million a year.

A couple of thoughts on each deal: First in Detroit, where I wonder what the Datsyuk signing means for pending UFA center Valtteri Filppula. In a weak UFA class, Filppula can likely fetch north of $5 million on the open market, and I think that coin is too rich for Detroit. Expect the Wings and Zito, also Filppula’s agent, to meet next week at the draft though.

As for Couture, the term (five years) is reflective of how San Jose has managed to keep its top players from signing those lifetime deals that other stars get around the league, which allows GM Doug Wilson to stay out of a payroll/cap jam. Other than Couture now, not a single player on the Sharks roster has a deal that extends past five years, Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau both signing shorter-term deals a few years ago.

SENATORS UPDATE

Ottawa Senators GM Bryan Murray held a brief discussion with Jack Adams Award winner Paul MacLean about a contract extension last weekend and is expected to sit down with his coach next week at the draft. MacLean has one year left on his deal.

Murray has chatted briefly with captain Daniel Alfredsson, who is an UFA and undecided on whether to keep playing or not. In a perfect world, Murray would get an answer before Alfredsson goes back to Sweden for the summer next week, which would give the Sens the ability to hit trade talks/free agency with the knowledge of whether or not he’s back.

But if Alfredsson needs more time to think about it, Murray said it would be no problem at all. Meanwhile, other UFAs on the Ottawa roster include Guillaume Latendresse, Peter Regin and Mike Lundin, none of whom likely will get a contract offer from the Senators.

THIS AND THAT

Veteran agent Don Meehan expects to meet with Rangers GM Glen Sather in New York/New Jersey the week of the draft to talk extension for star goalie Henrik Lundqvist. That’s going to be an expensive re-sign. …

The Carolina Hurricanes offered pending UFA Dan Ellis a new deal, but the veteran backup netminder informed them he was headed to market. …

Speaking of the Hurricanes, they’ve gotten calls about their No. 5 overall pick for the June 30 draft, but the intention right now is to keep the pick. …

Contract talks have been ongoing since the end of their season between the Kings and pending UFA blue-liner Rob Scuderi. The expectation is that veteran agent Steve Bartlett will meet in person with Kings GM Dean Lombardi on draft week. With Slava Voynov signing a six-year, $25 million deal Tuesday, Scuderi is now clearly the top priority. …

No surprise at all but the expectation is that pending UFA center Derek Roy, who was dealt by the Stars to the Canucks at the deadline, is headed to market. …

The NHL’s 30 GMs meet here Wednesday before Game 4 of the Stanley Cup finals, and while Patrick Roy will be handling trade discussions for the Colorado Avalanche, Greg Sherman will represent the franchise at the meeting.
CHICAGO -- Here's a quick look at the Chicago Blackhawks' 4-3 double-overtime win over the Los Angeles Kings in Game 5 of the Western Conference finals at the United Center on Saturday.

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Discuss (Total votes: 2,297)

How it happened: Patrick Kane scored the game-winning goal with 8:20 left in the second overtime to put the finishing touches on a hat trick and a dramatic Game 5. The Hawks took a 2-0 lead in the game's first six minutes with goals by Duncan Keith and Kane, but they allowed the Kings to tie it with a short-handed goal in the second period and a power-play goal in the third period. The Blackhawks regained the lead when Bryan Bickell knocked over Kings forward Justin Williams behind the net, gathered the puck and found Kane for a goal at 16:08. But the Kings weren't done. After an icing call with 15 seconds remaining in the third period, the Kings won the faceoff, got the puck to Anze Kopitar, who shot it and Mike Richards redirected the puck into the net with 9.4 seconds left to tie the game and force the first overtime. Kopitar and Dwight King also scored goals for the Kings. It was the longest game in the Kings' franchise history. Blackhawks goaltender Corey Crawford made 33 saves, and Kings goaltender Jonathan Quick made 31 saves.

Player of the game: Kane hadn't scored in the series prior to Game 4, and he said he needed to do more. Well, he did more; a lot more. He scored once in Game 4 and three more times in Game 5. He has six goals in the playoffs.

What it means: The Blackhawks eliminated the Kings in five games and are heading to the Stanley Cup finals for the 12th time in their franchise history. They've won four Stanley Cups, with their last one coming in 2010.

What's next: The Blackhawks will host the Boston Bruins in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup finals on Wednesday. It will mark the first time Original Six teams have met in the Stanley Cup final since 1979 when the New York Rangers and Montreal Canadiens faced other. Such matchups have happened six times since the 1967-68 expansion, but all came between 1971-79.


There's one main question coming out of the Chicago Blackhawks' 3-1 loss to the Los Angeles Kings in Game 3 on Tuesday. Did the Hawks' second half of their game, specifically the third period, have meaning or were the Kings just protecting a lead?

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The answer to that is the answer to whether Los Angeles is truly back in the series. It wasn't unlike the Kings' third period in Chicago during Game 2 -- they eventually scored a power play goal but that only brought them to within two. A case can be made the Hawks were simply playing out the clock up 4-1, but is that the same thing the Kings were doing in Game 3?

I don't think so. I judge a lot on scoring chances. The Hawks continued to get theirs. Of course, so did the Kings. Many more came early in the game but it evened out as the game went along. And the Hawks had the majority in the third period. But again, was that just false hope heading into Game 4 or did it have meaning?

"The last 10 minutes was basically the way we should have started, have that intensity," coach Joel Quenneville said.

(Read full post)

Duncan Keith of the Chicago Blackhawks and Jeff Carter of the Los Angeles KingsHarry How/Getty ImagesThe slash by Duncan Keith, left, on Jeff Carter is under the review of the NHL Player Safety Group.
LOS ANGELES -- The NHL Player Safety group is reviewing Duncan Keith’s one-handed slash to the face of Jeff Carter, although whether anything else comes of it remains to be seen.

The Player Safety group reviews anything that’s even remotely borderline. That doesn’t necessarily mean a hearing will come out of it. We should know more on Wednesday.

Keith received a four-minute high-sticking penalty on the play 7:58 into the second period, cutting Carter open for stitches to the face. Earlier on the same play, Carter also appeared to slash Keith near or on his bare hand with his glove having fallen of.

Keith said the play was accidental, and it was clear he tried to apologize after he got Carter in the face.

“I wanted to give him a tap, but not where I got him,” Keith said. “I’m glad to see that he came back.”

Kings coach Darryl Sutter felt the four-minute penalty wasn’t enough, hinting that a match penalty would have been more appropriate.

“I didn't think it was a four-minute penalty. Thought it was a wrong call,” Sutter said.

“Retaliation,” he added. "That's three head injuries now in the playoffs for us. I don't know how to answer it. It's retaliation with a stick. It's not a high stick. Whatever they want to call it, they'll call it. Don't even need video.”

Those comments were echoed by Kings captain Dustin Brown.

“Not a normal high-stick I don’t think,” Brown said. “I asked the ref. He only had one hand on his stick, but it’s one of those things where it’s not a four-minute [penalty] in the course of a play where you lift a stick or get a stick up on a guy. Probably Keith was a little frustrated and swung his stick and hit Carts in the face.”


LOS ANGELES -- A titanic Californian fortnight is over, ending the way it began, with a Jonathan Quick gem.

What else is new, right?

A series that was incredibly close had to end, the reigning Stanley Cup champions raising their game one more time as if on cue to win the day.

Justin "Just Call Me Game 7" Williams provided a pair of second-period goals, and the Los Angeles Kings outlasted the San Jose Sharks 2-1 Tuesday night to cap a series that was decided by a hair.

“They’re as good as us,” Kings head coach Darryl Sutter said afterward, adding that the only difference was scoring the extra goal they needed.

“The series could have gone either way,” said a dejected Marc-Edouard Vlasic in a somber Sharks dressing room. “Tonight could have gone either way. We fought back all year, and it sucks to get that close now and fall short.”

Take a bow Californian puck fans, you took center stage in the second round with the best hockey the NHL had to offer.

I honestly cannot remember the last time I covered a series that featured two teams so closely matched.

“They were very close games, and they gave us pretty much everything we could handle,” veteran Kings blue-liner Rob Scuderi said. “I’m just glad we could pull it out.”

But in the end, two eye-popping trends owned the day: The home team went 7-0 in the series. And the team scoring the first goal was also a perfect 7-0.

Which is why the Sharks, to a man, spoke Tuesday morning about how badly they wanted to score first.

They played a real solid opening period, limited the Kings to only three shots on goal.

Then Sharks star Logan Couture was stoned by a beauty of a Quick glove save early in the second period, a golden chance for the Sharks to get that opening goal they so dearly craved.

But the game -- and their season, in many ways -- came unglued 2:46 into the second period when Brent Burns took an interference penalty 200 feet away from their own end, the kind coaches cringe at. On the ensuing power play, Williams poked in a rebound to make it 1-0.

Maybe knowing just how badly they wanted that opening goal themselves, the Sharks were totally unhinged after that, running around their own zone like their hair was on fire, while the Kings smelled blood and, like the champs they are, applied the pressure in waves as they sensed a chance to pile it on.

A TV timeout did nothing to calm the Sharks down.

Anze Kopitar came flying into the zone when play resumed and found Williams with a zinger of a cross-ice pass that the veteran, a two-time Cup winner, one-timed past Antti Niemi for a 2-0 lead at 7:08.

Bedlam at Staples Center, with two goals in 2:57. In reality, it was pretty much game over when you consider Quick had given up three goals just twice in the entire playoffs and only once to San Jose.

Dan Boyle sure made it interesting 5:26 into the third period when his point shot beat Quick, the Sharks then pressing for the equalizer for much of the period.

But there was that Quick guy again, extending his arm and snagging what looked like the sure tying goal from Joe Pavelski with just more than five minutes to go.

“I think the Pavelski one near the end,” Scuderi said when asked to pinpoint the save that stood out to him. “He got over and made that huge save before I could get there. I can’t tell you how that speaks volumes for the confidence in the locker room, knowing that you have a guy that can make that save when you need it.”

Niemi was very good in this series, but Quick -- last season’s Conn Smythe Trophy winner -- was great. That was just enough of an edge for L.A.

“Their goalie, we didn’t want him to be the story,” Boyle said. “[But] I think he was the difference in this series, in my opinion.”

The offensive star on this night, meanwhile, is no stranger to Game 7 heroics. Williams entered the game a perfect 3-0 in his career in Game 7s, tallying seven points (three goals, four assists) in those games.

Make it 4-0 in Game 7s for Mr. Clutch, with nine points. There’s a reason the guy has two Cup rings, right?

“Right place, right time,” smiled Williams. “I enjoy pressure situations. I know everyone in this dressing room does. You want to be out there first minute, final minute. You want the puck.”

The Kings now await the winner of the Detroit Red Wings-Chicago Blackhawks series to continue their title defense.

It has been far from easy, the Kings falling behind 2-0 in the opening round to the St. Louis Blues and seeing the Sharks go toe-to-toe with them in the second round, but the champ is still standing.

What remains to be seen is whether having to play 13 games in two rounds, compared to only nine games halfway through their title run a season ago, will have any impact on their ability to continue their advancement.

“We’re going to need some rest here over the next few days because we need it,” Williams said.

But whatever concern there is in terms of what the Kings have left in the tank, that’s a question for another day. On this night, the Kings remained the kings.

The allure of repeating as champs for the first time since the 1997-98 Red Wings fuels this team.

“I didn’t know this until June 12 last year,” Kings captain Dustin Brown said. “But you don’t know what you’re really playing for until you win. You don’t know the feeling; you don’t know what it’s like until you win it.

“In previous years, when we got knocked out by Vancouver and San Jose, I didn’t truly understand what I just lost out on. Now, it’s a different perspective after you’ve won. It’s a huge motivating factor for the guys in here.”

LOS ANGELES -- Big Matt Greene roared in from the blue line and thumped James Sheppard right onto his behind.

A few shifts later in the opening period, Greene did it again to T.J. Galiardi. Bam.

Two thunderous body checks that set the tone for the Los Angeles Kings in their critical, 3-0 victory over the San Jose Sharks in Game 5 on Thursday night.

"Those hits are exactly the ones that stick out in my mind," Kings coach Darryl Sutter said.

It was just Greene’s second game back after missing the opening nine of the playoffs, and it shows exactly what the Kings have been missing most of the season when he was injured.

"His leadership is important to us," said Sutter.

Greene? He just shrugged when asked about being a one-man wrecking crew.

"If I’m not doing that, then I’m probably not worth a damn for anybody out there," the veteran said.

Greene set the stage in an opening period in which the Kings outhit the San Jose Sharks 24-12, imposing themselves physically in a way they really hadn't up to that point in this series.

Overall, the hit count was a massive 51-24 by the end of the night.

"Just trying to get physical and try to slow these guys down a little bit," Greene said. "I think they had everything they wanted in Game 4 up there. We were trying tonight to establish our game and slow them down, slow down their offense."

Slow it they did, as Jonathan Quick earned a 24-save shutout and the Kings delivered their best overall performance since Game 1 of the series, raising their game just as they had promised they would the day before.

"I think it's fair to say this is probably our best effort in the playoffs, most consistent effort in the playoffs," said star center Anze Kopitar, who opened the scoring. "We carried that emotion and desperation that we had in Game 4, in that last period."

You could see it in their eyes on Wednesday after practice, when two-time Cup winner Justin Williams talked about the hunger that still existed in that dressing room to win another championship.

Well, they had no choice but to step up on this night. The Sharks had stolen momentum in the series by winning two straight at home to tie the series 2-2 and did so in impressive fashion, bottling up the Kings for long stretches in their zone and limiting their offensive chances at the Shark Tank in a pair of 2-1 victories.

The Sharks headed into Game 5 truly believing this was their series to take.

As such, the Kings were under the gun to stand up and be accounted for on this night, or else risk heading to San Jose facing elimination on Sunday evening. Instead, Los Angeles can advance to the Western Conference finals with a Game 6 victory.

"You got to answer back. You have to answer that adversity," Greene said. "They’re a great team over there, they play well. We have to answer the bell. Our goal is to move on and to keep this going. But that’s their goal, too. So it’s just two good teams going at it right now."

Two key Kings who were under pressure to deliver did just that Thursday night, as Kopitar scored his second goal in 11 playoff games -- but what a big one it was, with 1:52 to go in the second period -- and captain Dustin Brown nailed everything in sight, leading the team with 11 hits.

Williams, Rob Scuderi, Mike Richards, Jeff Carter, Drew Doughty -- all the key veterans stepped up on this night.

In San Jose, it was the Sharks’ top players outplaying the Kings’ top guys.

Not Thursday. Not even close.

"Myself included, we were bad tonight," Sharks star Logan Couture said. "That’s why we lost. We’re not going to win if our best players are not our best players. We need to step up."

The line changes Sutter concocted for the Kings the day before did the trick, as Kyle Clifford fit in well with Kopitar and Williams, while Brown found a home with Trevor Lewis and Dwight King.

But Game 5 was about the Kings setting a physical tone early and often.

"That's a part of our game," Brown said. "But I thought we did it tonight in the right way, in the sense that we didn't run out of position to make a hit -- and that's what we need more of. It's being smart and aggressive out there."

The belief is if you hit hard and often early in a game, it’s an investment that pays off later if your opponent wears down. Suddenly, you’ve got an opponent that’s perhaps a little too beaten down to chase loose pucks.

The Kings took over puck possession in the second period and carried that over into the third period, when Slava Voynov’s point shot found a hole through a maze to give the Kings a 2-0 lead just 53 seconds in.

Game over.

"I think their desperation level, in my opinion, went up," Sharks coach Todd McLellan said of the Kings. "That was the biggest change."

The home team has won all five games to date. So don’t write off the Sharks just yet.

And if you ask me, this dandy of a series sure feels like a seven-gamer.

Kings know task ahead; Couture set to go

May, 20, 2013
5/20/13
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Last round, the Los Angeles Kings dropped the opening two games in St. Louis before returning home to tie the series at Staples Center. If any team knows what the San Jose Sharks are aiming for Tuesday night in Game 4 at HP Pavilion, it’s the reigning Cup champions.

"We could put a stranglehold on the series with a win or we could be back even with a loss," Kings captain Dustin Brown said Monday after practice. "We’ve been in their situation. We know what they’re thinking, and we’ve also been in in this situation and it’s a matter of having the killer instinct."

The Sharks essentially had their season on the line in Game 3, needing to avoid a 3-0 series deficit. They pulled through in overtime. But the work is just beginning, the Sharks say.

“We haven't accomplished anything,” Sharks head coach Todd McLellan said Monday after practice. "We didn't get our work done in L.A., and that put us behind the eight-ball. The fact that we win Game 3, that's great, but we still are behind in the series. The series is getting shorter. The lifeline isn't as long as it was in the past, and we just have to find a way to get even. If our intensity or urgency drops because we've won a single game, I would be disappointed in our group.”

The Kings had a six-game playoff win streak snapped with the Game 3 overtime loss.

And despite being up 2-1 in the series, the Kings haven’t been happy with their overall play.

"That’s not a bad thing,” Kings head coach Darryl Sutter said Monday. "That’s what good players and good teams say. Some teams are just happy to make the playoffs. If you’re always trying to find way to get better, that’s a good thing."

There remains a calmness about the Kings no matter how things are going. It’s business as usual.

"Yeah, that’s part of what makes us successful as a team,” Brown said. "Whether it’s in the postseason or the regular season, through the highs and lows, we just go about our business in the right way and getting ourselves prepared. It’s going to be even more important going into Game 4 in their building."

COUTURE STILL A GO

Sharks star center Logan Couture was given Monday off from practice, but McLellan said he’s still a go for Game 4.

Couture was the overtime hero in Game 3, missing a large part of the second period after falling awkwardly into the boards.

McLellan felt it important for Couture to rest Monday.

“At this time of the year, they're like horses,” McLellan said. "They want to run, they want to play. But the ability to get some time and rest is an advantage for both teams.”

CLIFFORD BACK

It appears gritty winger Kyle Clifford is back in the Kings lineup after being out since May 8 with an undisclosed injury.

"Cliffy is obviously a big, physical guy and he’s got a lot of speed too," Kings forward Colin Fraser said. "He can give us that emotional lift that maybe we could use right now. He’s a guy that doesn’t take a shift off, and he’s hard to play against."

Clifford skated on a line with Fraser and Brad Richardson at practice Monday.

"I think my role is just to provide energy and chip in when I can and playing with Richy and Fraser, that’s kind of our job going out," Clifford said.

KINGS GO HOME

The Kings, by the way, flew home Saturday night after Game 3 in San Jose and skated Sunday and Monday in their practice facility in El Segundo before flying back to San Jose on Monday afternoon ahead of Tuesday's Game 4. It's rare for both teams to be split up for two days in the middle of a series, although the Minnesota Wild also went home between Game 1 and Game 2 in Chicago last round.
Trevor LewisEvan Gole/Getty ImagesTrevor Lewis helped the Kings steal Game 2 from San Jose, sending the Sharks into an 0-2 hole.

LOS ANGELES -- Now we find out about these San Jose Sharks.

We find out about their character and resiliency.

Because for many a team, having two goals scored 22 seconds apart in the final two minutes of a playoff game that seemed readily in hand can be absolutely crushing.

Instead of a road split in the opening two games, it’s an 0-2 series hole.

“The thing I like about our team, maybe in the past this would have probably bothered our team a little bit more,” Sharks head coach Todd McLellan said after a stunning 4-3 loss to the Los Angeles Kings. “But with the group of guys we have, we can recover from this.”

It was oh so close to a tremendous victory for the Sharks, Marc-Edouard Vlasic giving the visitors a 3-2 lead 8:56 into the third period to cap a three-goal comeback for his team.

But then came a tripping call on Brad Stuart at 17:19, followed by a controversial delay of game penalty to Vlasic at 17:41 for shooting the puck over the glass -- putting the Sharks two men down.

Dustin Brown scored on a rebound during the 5-on-3 power play to tie the game, and just 22 seconds later Trevor Lewis jumped on a rebound and slid the puck into an open side on the 5-on-4 man advantage.

The Staples Center was rocking. The Sharks were stunned.

After the buzzer, they were mainly angry because they felt replays showed Vlasic’s clearing attempt touched Kings forward Jeff Carter on the way out.

When a reporter suggested the puck seemed to touch Carter, Vlasic responded: “Well there you go. He saw that, then everybody saw that,” said Vlasic, pointing to the reporter.

“What’s done is done,” added Vlasic. “It’s unfortunate. We move on to the next game.”

It’s no small call. Going down 5-on-3 that late is a game-changer.

“You go back and look at it, it looks like it changed direction,” McLellan said of the Vlasic penalty. “One thing I learned certainly throughout these playoffs, it’s not going to do me any good to get up here and whine and moan and [complain] about the refereeing. Because it’s not going to get us anywhere. We took some penalties and we needed to kill them. And we move on.”

Sharks center Logan Couture could not contain his anger.

“I don’t know man, I got the puck in the corner with three minutes left and (Slava) Voynov slashed me on the wrist at least six times. No call. They say it’s too tight to make the call. Then they call a tripping (on Stuart). It’s tough," Couture said.

Down the hall in the home dressing room, the Kings know they stole one.

But when you’re a championship team, you find ways to win games you shouldn’t have, not lose games you should have won.

“Well, we realized it wasn’t our best effort, but sometimes good teams win games when they don’t deserve it, too,” Kings star Anze Kopitar said. “We pulled it out of our behinds this time. Next time, we want to make sure we’re not in a position like this.”

Kopitar gave Kings fans a scare when he left the game for some time early in the third period after taking a shot from linemate Brown in the face.

With Jarret Stoll out for a while with a concussion, the Kings could obviously ill-afford to lose another center.

But with Rocky music blaring on the Staples Center sound system, Kopitar made his return, and he certainly enjoyed the ending despite the freshly sewn stitches in his upper lip.

“It helps take the sting away,” Kopitar said. “We hadn’t scored a power-play goal in the playoffs at home yet, and to do it twice in the last two minutes is huge."

Lewis jumped into the glass after his game winner, an exhilarating moment in the checker’s career.

“I think I almost passed out on the celebration, I got a little light-headed,” Lewis said. “But … to score a big goal in the playoffs is what you dream about.”

A dream-like ending for one team, a nightmare for the other.

But the Sharks have to focus now on the fact they did a lot of good things on this night.

For starters, they scored three goals on Jonathan Quick, which is only the second time in these playoffs that’s happened.

“I liked our game,” McLellan said. “We’ll meet tomorrow at the rink and I’ll tell our team that. …
“It was a hell of an effort tonight from our group."

For 58-plus minutes, the Sharks were the better team. They were outshooting and out-chancing the Kings, and seemed to have the puck most of the night.

“We played well enough to win,” Couture said. “We got the lead. We were all over them the majority of the game. [But they got] the penalties at the end … and they score two goals.”

But I repeat my original question: How do they respond to this soul-shattering loss?

“We’ll respond,” Vlasic said. “I thought we responded well tonight, we played 60 minutes. We should have won that game. We finally got pucks to the net and got in front of him. It’s just tough. But our group will be ready.”
Raffi Torres of the San Jose Sharks hitting Jarret Stoll of the Los Angeles KingsChris Williams/Icon SMIRaffi Torres' hit on Jarret Stoll has landed him a suspension, and puts the Sharks in a tough spot.

LOS ANGELES -- As expected, Raffi Torres paid the price for being Raffi Torres.

Eric Gryba got two games, Justin Abdelkader got two games, but Torres got the rest of his playoff series (three to six games) absolutely because of his repeat offender status.

If it’s Logan Couture with the same hit on Jarret Stoll, he loses one or two games, maybe even receives just a warning.

But Torres got nailed in large part because of his rap sheet. And from that perspective, I’m OK with it. You can’t reform a player with a bad habit if you don’t hammer home the message.

What’s curious though is the league’s decision to suspended him for the “remainder of the series.” Which means anywhere from three to six games.

I understand what Brendan Shanahan is saying here; he feels Torres has lost the privilege to play against the Los Angeles Kings in this series after knocking out a key player from their team.

But if I’m the Chicago Blackhawks or the Detroit Red Wings, I’m wondering why it’s fair that Torres could possibly be suspended for just four games if the San Jose Sharks come back to beat the Kings in five, and then be able to play Game 1 in the Western Conference finals.

If Torres was deemed worthy of being suspended up to six games against the Kings, why is it possible he’d sit out less time before playing in the next round?

The CBA says in Article 18.10, Timing of Suspension: “As a general matter, a Player who is suspended shall serve a specific number of games.”

"As a general matter" is legalese for "there are exceptions." And the league believes this is an applicable exception.

The question now is whether Torres appeals or not. He’s entitled to do so. Via the NHLPA, Torres must submit in writing his intention to appeal within 48 hours of the suspension announcement if he intends to appeal. So we’ll get an answer soon enough, either way.

The Sharks, meanwhile, always knew this was the risk they were taking when they traded for him. Heck, Torres took out one of their own in Milan Michalek with a high hit during the 2006 playoffs.

But Torres had shown in Phoenix this year that he was seemingly a changed player, and that was enough for San Jose to want to take that chance. And I will tell you that Sharks players have been impressed with Torres, and you could tell that with the impassioned way in which they defended him since the Stoll hit.

I think what the Sharks never counted on, however, was that his loss would hurt so much. He has surprised many with how impactful a player he has been since joining the Sharks, playing a top-six role on a line of late with Couture and Patrick Marleau.

That’s the other wrinkle in this story. This isn’t some third-line mucker/grinder that the team can live without. It’s a player who had really grown in importance on this team. So his loss for the series really hurts San Jose.

Compound that with the fact Adam Burish is out for the series via injury and skilled winger Martin Havlat also remains unable to play, and the Sharks have 25 percent of their forward group unavailable. That certainly tests the team’s depth.
Logan Couture of the San Jose Sharks and Brad Richardson of the Los Angeles KingsNoah Graham/Getty ImagesBrad Richardson, top, appears he will be facing off against the San Jose Sharks again.

LOS ANGELES -- Center Brad Richardson is the most likely player to be inserted into the Los Angeles Kings' lineup Thursday night for Game 2 to replace the injured Jarret Stoll.

“If that’s the case, I’m excited to get back in there,” Richardson said Wednesday after practice. “Big shoes to fill, but I’m excited to do that.

“I’ve played in the playoffs before, got some experience last year, I can draw on those times, have fun and play hard.”

For the San Jose Sharks, head coach Todd McLellan will need to find a replacement for second-line winger Raffi Torres, whose hit on Stoll led to his suspension pending a hearing at noon ET Thursday in New York (the 27-year-old Tim Kennedy is a good bet).

“If Raffi can't play, we've got other people that we can put in,” McLellan said Wednesday. “We'll look at our lines. We'll look at how we can best use those people. There's been a number of players who have been skating and have been waiting for this opportunity. If it does come to that, we feel confident.”

Injured winger Martin Havlat continues to skate but doesn’t appear ready yet.

“I would venture to guess no,” McLellan said.

KINGS' THIRD PERIOD

The Kings were outshot 16-4 in the third period Tuesday night. But Kings head coach Darryl Sutter wasn’t overly concerned that the Kings seemed to be under siege, saying it’s natural for San Jose to have pushed like it did given the score.

“It’s playoff hockey. We take a 2-0 lead into the third period and it’s basically even till then, power play, shots, really dead even game, and then you need your goalie to make some big saves,” Sutter said. “If we were down 2-0, we’d be pushing too.

“You have to be able to manage that, and we always do.”

BEATING QUICK

The Sharks found out in Game 1 what the Blues dealt with in the previous round.

Kings goalie Jonathan Quick is back to his Conn Smythe self.

“He's a world-class goalie,” Sharks center Joe Thornton said. “He played well in Game 1. We'll just keep firing pucks in and hopefully a couple can sneak by him.”

“We had some good looks,” added Sharks forward Joe Pavelski. “We had some great chances. One or two of those can go in just as easy. We didn't give up much, but their chances, they capitalized on and they got the win. We have to play that same defensive style we had and compete, and there's a few areas of the game that we can be a little faster.”

Sharks center Logan Couture said creating more traffic in front of Quick is paramount heading into Game 2.

“More traffic, more shots in succession,” Couture said. “He's aggressive, he comes out of the blue and takes a lot of the lower net away, so shoot off him and (get) rebounds …

“He's in a zone right now. He's playing great. He's seeing everything. He's compact with the puck -- it's hitting him and it's not coming off him. But we have to find a way. In the St. Louis series, they were saying the same things that I'm saying right now. We've gotta find a way to score.”

LOS ANGELES -- Chatting with an NHL GM the other day, he was asked how he felt things would play out in the San Jose Sharks-Los Angeles Kings second-round playoff series.

He didn’t hesitate.

“The Sharks were really good against the Canucks, but I’m telling you, the Kings have their championship swagger back,” the GM said.

I’d say.

Make it five wins in a row for the reigning Cup champions after a 2-0 victory Tuesday night to open the best-of-seven set with their Northern California rivals.

This game was far from a classic, with the Kings outshot 16-4 in the third period and hanging on for a bit.

But in many ways it represented the comfortable base the Kings have found again come playoff time.

That swagger comes from rediscovering the ways in which the Kings found success last season.

Jonathan Quick stingy in net? Check.

A blue-line corps led by Drew Doughty, Robyn Regehr, Rob Scuderi and Slava Voynov balancing swift puck-moving abilities with strong physical play? Check.

A suffocating penalty kill? Check.

Rolling four forward lines without hesitation? Check.

And while Quick no doubt will continue to receive most of the attention for yet another gem on this night -- a 35-save shutout, boosting his playoff save percentage to .953 -- to me another important catalyst on this team once again is Mike Richards.

For a second spring in a row, the second-line center is bringing it at playoff time.

“He just steps up,” Kings coach Darryl Sutter said after the Game 1 victory. “It’s refreshing to see guys like that, that when it’s a big game they step up. He did it last series.

“Him and Jeff [Carter] and Kinger [Dwight King] were real effective tonight.”

Richards set up Voynov on the opening goal late in the first period, and then redirected Voynov’s point shot in the second period as the Kings got all the goals they needed. Make it seven points (one goal, six assists) in seven playoff games this spring for Richards, who put up 15 points (four and 11) in 20 playoff games last spring while raising the Cup for the first time in his NHL career.

But offense is just a part of his game. Strong on both sides of the puck, Richards was at his thorny best Tuesday night, taking space away from Sharks forwards and getting in their face whenever he could.

Richards was mostly matched up against Joe Thornton’s line Tuesday night, and though Jumbo’s unit had several strong shifts in the Kings’ offensive zone, it was shut out on the scoreboard.

That Thornton-Richards matchup is going to be a doozy in this series. Both were tremendous Tuesday.

But this is what makes the Kings so difficult to beat. First-line center Anze Kopitar is one of the league’s top two-way players, for my money a player that should win a Selke Trophy before he retires. When you’ve got that kind of 200-foot protection from both your top two centers, there’s little room to breathe for opposing forwards.

Just ask the St. Louis Blues in the first round.

And so the Sharks, who pounded Vancouver for 15 goals in four games in the opening round, were reminded Tuesday night that this is going to be a whole different series.

Goals are going to be hard to come by. A higher price against a more physical team must be paid to score in this series if you’re San Jose.

Yes, they outshot the Kings 35-20. But Sharks coach Todd McLellan has seen this before.

“I just spent a week reviewing the St. Louis series, and I heard a lot of the same stuff coming out of their mouths,” McLellan said. “We didn’t accomplish enough. There’s a team that just played against them for six nights that said they had a lot of chances and the goaltending made a number of saves. We can’t be that team again. We have to make it a lot harder on him. Did we generate some chances? Yes. But we didn’t win the game.”

An incredibly important matchup in this series will be the Sharks’ dangerous power play against the Kings’ superb penalty kill. San Jose torched Vancouver for seven power-play goals in four games, while Los Angeles frustrated the Blues by allowing only a pair of goals to the man advantage in the first round.

That’s going to be important turf in this series. If the Sharks are going to have a tougher time scoring five-on-five, they must take advantage of their power-play opportunities.

On Tuesday night, they went 0-for-3, and while they did generate some chances, the Kings were quick on clearing rebounds and Quick stood tall when called upon.

“There was one power play that I didn’t like tonight. Otherwise the other ones were decent, we moved it around,” veteran Sharks blue-liner Dan Boyle said. “But if you don’t score, it doesn’t matter how well you moved it around. We didn’t get the one goal on the power play that this team probably needed.”

Whether it’s on the power play or five-on-five, the Sharks are going to need to get tougher around the Kings’ net and crash the blue paint looking for tips and rebounds.

“We have players that are capable of scoring greasy, dirty playoff-style goals,” McLellan said. “But it’s going to have come out in this series.”

Of course, these were things the Blues talked about last round without quite enough success in pulling it off.

They were also things that Vancouver, St. Louis, Phoenix and New Jersey spoke about last spring.

Easier said than done.

ST. LOUIS -- Six weeks ago Brian Elliott couldn’t even dress as a backup, let alone give the St. Louis Blues any indication he would soon hold his own -- and then some -- with last year’s Conn Smythe Trophy winner.

Jonathan Quick singled himself out Thursday night after giving up a last-minute goal on a wrist shot to Barret Jackman, a game after his behind-the-net blunder also cost the Los Angeles Kings.

And to be fair, he’s otherwise been outstanding, making yet again a series of saves Thursday night that were highlight-reel material.

But it’s the playoffs, and close doesn’t cut it.

Elliott is the one who is 2-0 in this series, stopping 56 of 58 shots so far and giving the Blues the kind of goaltending he couldn’t a year ago against these same Kings.

“Els stood on his head again tonight and gave us a chance,” teammate Alexander Steen said.

“The first half of the game we really needed him, we had the scoring chances at 13-4 (for the Kings) at one point,” Blues goalie coach Corey Hirsch told ESPN.com. “He made some big saves.”

Hirsch deserves some credit for what is transpiring here in front of our eyes, working with Elliott to bring him back from the wilderness.

It was just a short time ago in late March that Elliott accepted a short conditioning assignment to the AHL to reset himself, having fallen to No. 3 on the Blues’ goalie depth chart.

He’s come back a new man. It’s one of the most unlikely stories of the NHL season.

“When things went bad, he never quit,” Hirsch said. “He kept going on the ice, he kept asking to go out early, he kept just sticking with it. It’s a cliché, but he worked really hard. He’s earned this, he earned it the hard way.”

Technically speaking, Hirsch didn’t want to divulge too many secrets, but it’s clear adjustments were made.

“We’ve changed his game a little bit, we’ve given him a few more tactics to be able to read the play a little better,” said Hirsch. “His post work is a little better.”

Elliott gave Blues fans a scare in the third period when his right leg appeared to buckle after Kings captain Dustin Brown crashed into the net. After staying down on the ice for a while, he eventually stayed in the game. Quick had also given his team a scare in warm-ups when he appeared to labor after taking a shot in the wrong spot. But he, too, gutted it out and said after the game he was fine.

It’s hard to hang an 0-2 series deficit on Quick. Gosh, his first-period save on Jaden Schwartz was just another jaw-dropper on a night when he was superb again -- until the end.

The only thing people will remember from this night was that Jackman beat him 51 seconds from the end of the third period with a wrist shot that simply can’t go in.

“I got to stop that,” a visibly angry Quick said afterward. “That’s my fault. Two games in a row. So, I got to be better.”

Well, so does your team, Jonathan.

The Kings have scored just two goals in this series, one with the extra attacker on the ice late in Game 1, and a 5-on-3 tally in the first period Thursday. That’s not much to hang your hat on as defending Cup champs.

The Kings did play a decent game in the first half, the pushback that we all expected. But it petered out as the Blues came back strong in the third period and scored twice to win it, gaining territorial advantage once again with a physical forecheck.

“We played a really good 40 minutes,” said the captain, Brown. “We got to stay on the body in the third. We didn’t have everyone taking the body. That’s the key to our grind is being physical. We let up in the third on the physicality. And that’s what happens.”

The Cup champs were never down in a series last spring, let alone two games to none.

But as the adage goes, a series isn’t a series until games have been played in both barns.
Don’t count them out, yet.

[+] EnlargeBrian Elliott
Jerome Miron/USA TODAY SportsBrian Elliott is heating up after falling down the depth chart earlier this year.
“We know how tough it is in L.A.,” said the goal-scoring hero, Jackman. “We have to play even better than we did tonight. We know they’ll come out with desperate hockey and Game 3 is going to be physical. They’re going to come out hard and we’re going to have to bring our 'A' game.”

And how about Jackman, he of the zero previous playoff goals in his entire career? The hard-hitting, defensive defenseman jumped into the fray when he saw an opening and ripped one past Quick for the winner as a delirious Scottrade Center rocked.

“It’s nice to contribute," smiled Jackman. "When things are going your way you get a bounce, you get a puck that you don’t normally get, and you put it home. It’s definitely a good feeling.”

But for Blues head coach Ken Hitchcock, it was also about the way his team responded on this night.

The Blues knew they’d get a pushback from the defending Cup champs in Game 2 and they got it, outplayed for most of the opening half of the game.

But then the Blues showed their evolution as a team, their maturity, by settling down and pushing back themselves. That happened when they re-established their forecheck in the second half of the game.

“Regardless of whether we would have won today, I was just happy with the way we played once we calmed down and played better positionally,” Hitchcock said. “We needed to play with more composure, and we did that.”

A year ago, the Kings found their mojo; they discovered how to win after two previous years in the playoffs before that, absorbing playoff lessons.

This year, you just get that feeling the Blues are discovering that path to playoff success.

“I think we learned a lot from previous years and previous experiences,” Steen said. “Right now we have a good vibe, a good attitude in the room."

This series has many more twists and turns, the Kings far from done. But the Blues have already proven one thing: They have gone to the next level in their playoff apprenticeship.
Matt Greene of the Los Angeles KingsHarry How/Getty ImagesMatt Greene sure would like to get back on the ice, but that will take some time.

ST. LOUIS -- Matt Greene’s absence was certainly felt in the Los Angeles Kings' opening loss to the St. Louis Blues on Tuesday night.

The big, physical defender, such an important part of last season’s Stanley Cup champion team, practiced again Wednesday, but at this point, his availability to play isn’t quite clear.

“I’m doing whatever they tell me here, that’s it,” Greene said after practice, not wanting to reveal much.

Greene is the type of warrior who would play on one leg if the team let him, so clearly whether or not he plays, or when, is not his call.

“No, it’s just the way it’s going right now,” Greene said. “That’s the way our lineup is. And that’s fine. … They’re going to put me in when I’m healthy to go and ready to go.”

Head coach Darryl Sutter shed a bit more light on the situation Wednesday, saying it’s not simply about Greene’s condition.

“It’s not just [being] healthy, but he’s got to be up to speed,” Sutter said. “He needed about 10 games, to be quite honest. You just don’t put him in the lineup because he’s Matt Greene. Matt Greene has to be able to play and perform. We were hoping to get more games from him before, [to be] quite honest, and he got banged up. So we’ll see. I’m quite happy playing those two kids because they’re quite capable, too.”

Greene missed two months recovering from back surgery before returning recently to play four games. Then, he got hurt again.

So for now, it’s Keaton Ellerby in for Greene on the third pairing along with Jake Muzzin, the two kids Sutter was referring to.

Those two kids looked a little overwhelmed at times in Game 1, as they were hammered by the Blues’ forecheck.

“As the game went on they both played better, but at the same time, it put pressure on the other four guys early, and it was a big reason why we spent so much time in our own zone, was those kids having trouble early in the game,” Sutter said.

Blues know what's coming

The Blues aren’t resting on their laurels. They know the Kings will come hard Thursday night.

But at the same time, they’d be lying if they didn’t say finally beating L.A. after eight straight losses dating back to last season didn’t feel good.

"There's a lot of areas we need to improve on,” veteran Blues forward Andy McDonald said after practice Wednesday. “Certainly, they've taken it to us in the regular season and in the playoffs last year. Hopefully, it builds confidence in our room that these guys are beatable -- and they're the defending Stanley Cup champions -- but if we play our game, we can play right there with them.

"But my point is it's Game 1, and I think we had the adrenaline going, being excited, home opener in the playoffs, a lot to prove, and we just [need] to be sure that we match that tomorrow night and maybe even bring it up a notch, because I know that they're going to come out a little harder."
Jonathan Quick of the Los Angeles KingsMark Buckner/NHLI/Getty ImagesJonathan Quick and the Kings led 3-0 in every series in 2011-12. Now they're down 1-0.

ST. LOUIS -- The architect of last year’s Stanley Cup championship squad watched attentively as his troops went through their drills during an optional practice Wednesday.

The military analogy is appropriate in this case, because Los Angeles Kings GM Dean Lombardi is an avid history buff who adores the comparisons between war and sport and the kind of self-sacrifice, leadership and guts it takes to achieve goals in both.

And so as The General watched practice Wednesday, you could just see the wheels spinning in his mind, his thoughts no doubt knee-deep in the test his team now suddenly faces just one game into the playoffs.

You want a history lesson? His Kings were never once behind in a series last spring, going up 3-0 in all four rounds en route to a well-earned championship.

The script has already changed just one game into the playoffs a year later. And that’s OK, Lombardi said. Standing back and looking at the big picture, it’s not such a bad thing, he figures, for his team to learn how to win in a different fashion.

“We’re going to have to deal with that eventually -- you’re going to have to learn how to win a long series,” Lombardi told ESPN.com outside his team’s dressing room. “Not that you want one, but it’s part of the growth process to learn how to deal with another level of pressure. We really only experienced that once in Game 6 last year [of the Stanley Cup finals]. So here you go. Here it is.”

Not that he’s surprised at what the St. Louis Blues pulled off in Game 1 on Tuesday night, a dominant performance if not on the scoreboard certainly in terms of physical play and puck possession.

Now, normally you’d say that’s a typical reaction from the losing team after dropping Game 1, saying they knew they were in for a tough series. But in this case I can vouch that even before Game 1 was ever played, a conversation with Lombardi during practice Monday revealed his utmost respect for the Blues and the huge test that he believed awaited his team.

And so on Wednesday, in the wake of the Game 1 loss, it is with absolute honesty that the Kings GM talked about the respect his team had for his first-round foe.

“This series last year was probably our toughest,” Lombardi said. “That was not a 4-0 series. Even in the regular season this year, these games are always hard. From top down, both teams are similar, both coaches believe in the same things. I don’t think there’s any question that our players respected this team.

“And so, I don’t know that it’s a wake-up call, per se, but I think it’s a clear reminder what it takes to win in the playoffs. Nobody, to a man, thought this would be easy.”

If there’s a wake-up call here for the players, coach Darryl Sutter said Wednesday, it’s not as much in losing a game but rather in the manner in which they lost.

“What grabs their attention is that they know several of our players can play better,” he said. “We got to overtime with really two lines and four defensemen. You’re not going to win very many games doing that.”

But if you’re looking for any signs of a frantic group after just one loss, even despite never being down in a series last spring, you came to the wrong dressing room.

This was a relaxed looking bunch, Mike Richards informing yours truly on the way out that a group of players was headed to the afternoon Cardinals baseball game to relax.

“The mood’s good,” said star defenseman Drew Doughty. “We’re down 1-0, but it’s all right. If we can get this win and go 1-1 back to L.A., that would be huge for us.”

And of course, that’s very true. A win Thursday night here at Scottrade Center, and the Kings go home confident and in good shape.

But for that to happen, they need to spend a lot less time in their own zone.

There wasn’t a single game last spring when L.A. was bottled up in their own end like it was Tuesday night by a ferocious Blues forecheck.

“We have to be quicker,” Doughty said. “They’re coming hard on their forecheck, they’re banging bodies, they’re creating those little turnovers. I think a lot of times when they created those turnovers we kind of went into panic mode and tried to make up for that mistake quickly.

"I think that’s the wrong thing to do; you have to sit back and find where your guy is and try to create your own turnover. That was the one area they really dominated us in. We didn’t get on our forecheck, which is one of the keys to our game. We need to do that in order to win the next one.”

Wave after wave, all four Blues’ lines hammered the Kings in their own zone. In particular, the fourth line of Chris Porter, Adam Cracknell and Ryan Reaves created pure chaos in the Kings’ zone with a relentless forecheck that left the Kings’ defense dizzy.

“They were coming in hard, and they can make plays, too. I don’t think many of us expected that from them,” Doughty said. “That could have been another downfall of ours. But now we know what they can do. We know they’re going to bend bodies.”

Justin Williams of the Los Angeles Kings
Harry How/Getty ImagesThe Kings had a lot more success in last season's series vs. the Blues than in Game 1 of 2013.
If you’re looking at that comment and thinking you’ve heard that before, it’s because you did -- a year ago. That’s when opposing teams were commenting on how the Kings’ fourth line was creating havoc with their physical play and forecheck, led by unheralded players such as Dwight King and Jordan Nolan.

“It’s the strength of our team, too, being able to play four lines,” Sutter said. “Our fourth line has been interchangeable quite honestly because some of the kids haven’t played very well. Those kids we brought up last year have not played very well this year. So we were hoping for them to play better now and better in a hurry.”

That’s about as blunt as it gets from the Kings' coach.

The Blues beat the Kings playing the same brand of game that won L.A. a championship last year. Now the Kings have to turn the tables Thursday night and find a way to get their forecheck going, impose their physicality on the Blues in the offensive zone.

“We need our guys doing the same thing to their defensemen,” Doughty said rather honestly. “Guys like [Jay] Bouwmeester and [Alex] Pietrangelo aren’t very physical guys. We need to bang their bodies and kind of take them out of the game so they can’t make their plays and rush up the ice.”

And that’s what will make Game 2 so compelling. The defending champs are determined to impose their game. They’ve been awoken. We will find out more about this Blues squad on Thursday night and how they handle that pushback from the Kings.

Buckle up, this series is just starting to get good.

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