Second-round preview: Blues-Kings
A goal, anyone?
The NHL's two stingiest teams in the regular season meet in the second round of the playoffs, and it's not exaggerating things to say the first goal will be gigantic in each and every game.
The last two regular-season encounters between the two clubs might have given us a glimpse of things to come, the Blues beating the Kings 1-0 on Feb. 3 and the Kings returning the favor, 1-0 in a shootout, March 22.
The No. 2-seeded Blues disposed of the No. 7-seeded, yet more experienced San Jose Sharks in a tidy five games in the first round, while the No. 8 Kings upset the Presidents' Trophy-winning Vancouver Canucks, also in five games.
But who's fooling whom -- the Kings aren't your typical eighth seed, as they were leading the Pacific Division before slipping from third to eighth in the conference in the regular season's final days.
This should be a close series.
1. Coaching impacts: Both the Blues and the Kings made coaching changes early in the season, and it proved to be wise decisions by their respective GMs.
Darryl Sutter brought the Kings back from the brink, while the Blues absolutely soared under Ken Hitchcock, challenging for the Presidents' Trophy.
Similarly, both coaches have their teams playing as confidently as they ever have under their current build. And both coaches like a gritty, physical style of play that punishes opponents and makes them pay for every inch of ice.
2. Marvelous masked men: Jonathan Quick is an early Conn Smythe candidate for his incredible performance in the first-round knockout of the Canucks, stopping 164 of 172 shots for a ridiculous .953 save percentage. This was a carryover from a regular season that featured a league-leading 10 shutouts.
The Kings struggled to score goals for most of the season, and Quick was their savior.
The Blues, in comparison, used two goalies to achieve their defensive dominance. Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliott shared the net this season, and both were up to the task in helping the Blues allow the fewest goals against.
It was Halak who got the nod to start the playoffs, but he suffered an ankle injury 49 seconds into Game 2, giving way to Elliott. No drop-off there. All he did was lead the Blues to four straight wins (Halak got credit for the Game 2 win that Elliott preserved) and post a .949 save percentage.
Halak remains sidelined as the second round begins. Can the Kings put more offensive pressure on Elliott than the Sharks did? While Elliott was terrific, he really didn't have to face many rebound chances or odd-man breaks against San Jose.
3.Checking stars: Hitchcock is fond of saying his top center is also his top checker. That would be Selke Trophy nominee David Backes.
No. 2 center Patrik Berglund is also a two-way threat and in fact outshined teammate Backes in the first round against San Jose.
Similarly, the Kings feel their one-two punch at center serves them both offensively and defensively. Many people feel Anze Kopitar was unfairly overlooked when he didn't join Backes as a Selke nominee. Add in the fact Mike Richards is at his usual two-way best, and the Kings and Blues certainly match up evenly when it comes to responsible and talented centers.
All of which will make the matchups intriguing. Kopitar/Richards did a great job shutting down Henrik Sedin and Ryan Kesler in the first round; ditto for Backes/Berglund on Joe Thornton/Logan Couture/Patrick Marleau.
The matchups of the top two centers on each team will have an important bearing on the series.
4. Power play: Hitchcock said after his team's series win over San Jose that the key difference in the five-game set was his team's power play.
The Blues looked like the 1980s Oilers on their man advantage, scoring six goals on 18 chances for an impressive 33.3 percent success rate. They moved the puck around with noticeable ease and confidence.
The healthy return of Andy McDonald has had a huge impact on the Blues' power play.
By comparison, the Kings struggled with the man advantage, scoring only three times on 26 chances against the Canucks for a meager 11.5 percent success rate.
With goals hard to come by five-on-five, this is an area that could decide the series.
5. Blue-line studs: The Kings and Blues each have a workhorse stud on defense -- Drew Doughty for Los Angeles and Alex Pietrangelo for St. Louis. Each led his respective team in ice time in the first round at more than 26 minutes a game.
Both blueliners play in all facets of the game for their teams, but it's Pietrangelo who had the better season, Norris Trophy-worthy in my books. Doughty's contract stalemate in September made him miss camp and hurt his performance in the first half of the season. But as he showed at the 2010 Olympics, Doughty loves the big stage, and that's what he's on now.
Let's see who stands out in this series.
• The battle of the second lines: Joe Thornton's top line for San Jose actually fared OK against Backes' top line for the Blues in the first round, but the Sharks' second line had no answer for the Blues' No. 2 line of Berglund, McDonald and Alexander Steen. McDonald led the series with eight points (4-4), while Berglund was a handful for the Sharks at both ends of the ice, potting seven points (3-4). It will likely fall to Richards' No. 2 line to battle with Berglund's trio, and that's a matchup that could influence the outcome in this series.
• Dustin Brown, Los Angeles: He was a one-man wrecking crew in the first round, knocking down every Canuck in sight while providing timely scoring with four goals. The subject of trade rumors at the deadline, he's playing perhaps his best hockey as a King. Can he duplicate it in the second round?
• David Perron, St. Louis: The Blues' sniper entered the playoffs on absolute fire with nine goals in his last 14 regular-season games. But he went fairly quiet in the first round with one goal. He didn't play poorly at all, and his matchup with Thornton's top line was a tough one, but he's eyeing a bigger impact in the second round.
• An NHL coach joked with me that this series could go nine games. The scarcity of goals and possible overtime periods that loom ahead was his point, of course. I agree. Blues in seven games, with quadruple overtime on the final night.