Monday, April 30, 2012
Kings look ready to play in June
By Pierre LeBrun ESPN.com
ST. LOUIS -- Question: Did the Los Angeles Kings drop to eighth in the West on the final weekend of the regular season in order to guarantee road-ice advantage?
We jest, of course, but make it a perfect 5-0 away from Staples Center for the Kings this spring, a record run up against the top two seeds in the Western Conference, no less.
Just call them Road Warriors.
"We're a confident team on the road; we've had success there all year," said Kings star center Mike Richards, who had a goal and an assist Monday night.
The 2003-04 Tampa Bay Lightning, by the way, started the playoffs 5-0 on the road to their Stanley Cup triumph. Stash that statistic in the back of your minds, Kings fans.
Just like the Vancouver Canucks before them, the St. Louis Blues head to Los Angeles down 2-0 after being swept at home by a Kings team now 6-1 in the playoffs following a 5-2 victory Monday night, a score all too flattering to the home team.
This one was never close.
Darryl Sutter's squad has the look of a team that is planning to play into June. There are no passengers on this club right now. Every player on this team finishes checks, blocks shots and pays the price to get into the hard areas of the ice.
No. 8 seeds? Puh-lease. Talk about false advertising. These guys should have won the Pacific Division.
"We've always known what we had," said veteran Kings forward Jarret Stoll, the OT hero in their series-clinching win over Vancouver. "We've always known what kind of players we had and what kind of team we could have. We just kept pushing, staying positive, never got too down. You know, you just have to peak at the right time. We've all seen it before with teams that have done well. It's not always the team that wins the Presidents' Trophy that wins the Cup."
The one-two punch at center of Anze Kopitar and Richards is proving unrelenting in its offensive pressure, yet at the same time stellar for its defensive prowess. It's 200 feet of pure dominance for the top two lines of the Kings.
Richards set the tone right off the hop Monday night, and the Kings never backed down, scoring just 31 seconds into the game. It was an opening jab, and the Blues never really countered the rest of the night, at least not when the game was still in doubt.
"Full marks to them; the emotional investment in the first period was greater than ours," Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said.
"They were full marks, they checked us hard and we coughed up the puck."
Dustin Brown's magical playoffs also continued; his short-handed assist, a beauty of a play to set up Kopitar at 14:16 of the first period, was a key moment in the game.
By the time Jeff Carter and Kopitar added tallies late in the opening period to make it 4-0, the air had been sucked right out of Scottrade Center, the Blues on the canvass, KO'd by the Kings.
"We've got some looking in the mirror to do, some regrouping and we need to make some changes," Blues captain David Backes said. "We're better. X's and O's or film, we've done that to death. It's about intestinal fortitude and coming together as a group and going to the hard areas and showing some cojones. They showed it for the first two games for the full 60 minutes and we didn't, and that's why we have an 0-2 hole to dig ourselves out."
The biggest body blow of all for St. Louis came before the puck even dropped, when star blueliner Alex Pietrangelo was unable to play. He skated in the morning but just couldn't make a go of it, still feeling the effects of Dwight King's boarding from behind in Game 1. Hitchcock is hopeful for a Thursday return but officially said he was day-to-day.
Hockey fans out East who don't watch a lot of Blues hockey might find this surprising, but Pietrangelo's absence from the Blues' lineup is akin to Zdeno Chara being out for the Boston Bruins. That's how valuable Pietrangelo is to St. Louis, the engine that drives the Blues. And his regular season was worthy of a Norris trophy nomination even though he didn't get one. He's that good. Hitchcock compared it to the Kings losing Drew Doughty.
"We need him back in the lineup if we're going to ..."
Hitchcock stopped that train of thought and switched gears, saying the team's job is to bring this series back to St. Louis. But clearly what he was thinking was that the Blues likely are toast if their stud blueliner isn't back in the lineup and able to play an effective game Thursday night at Staples Center.
Otherwise, see ya later.
The loss of Pietrangelo was an opportunity for the Blues to show their character in the absence of their top player. It was gut-check time for a young team trying to evolve into a serious Cup contender.
Instead, the Blues came unglued right from the drop of the puck, giving up five goals in a game for only the third time since Hitchcock took over behind the bench Nov. 6.
"We've got one soldier down from a play in Game 1, and rather than responding with desperation and urgency and that vengeance-type of mentality, we came out flat and let them jump all over us," Backes said.
"It's just got to be better."
Ugly is what that first period was for the Blues.
And that's why the rest of the game was really ugly for the remaining two periods as both teams tested each other, with scrums and fights after nearly every whistle, as if there was anything to prove in that.
The only thing yet to prove in this series is whether we will have one. The Blues have to win Thursday night to make it a series. The Kings win Thursday night, and it's curtains.
"We have to refocus," said Kopitar, who scored twice Monday night.
"Nothing's done yet. They have a good team. I'm sure if we let them off the hook, they can do some damage. We just want to take care of business at home, and we'll see what happens."