Stanley Cup Playoff Preview - St. Louis vs. Los Angeles
St. Louis has to be pleased it's made the playoffs for a second straight year, but the Blues can't be thrilled about drawing the defending Stanley Cup champions in the first round.
St. Louis cruised to a Central Division title in 2011-12 and breezed to a five-game opening-round win over San Jose before running into the eighth- seeded Los Angeles Kings, who swept the Blues out of the playoffs in convincing fashion.
The Blues were exposed by the Kings in last spring's conference semifinals encounter, getting outscored by a 15-6 margin in the four losses. This season's series did little to change perceptions of this matchup, as L.A. won all three encounters and scored at least four goals in each meeting.
St. Louis head coach Ken Hitchcock -- last season's Jack Adams Award winner -- likely will need a superb performance from starting goaltender Brian Elliott if the Blues are to turn the tide against the Kings this spring.
Elliott and Jaroslav Halak combined to form the league's best goaltending tandem in 2011-12. Halak started last year's playoffs as the No. 1 netminder before being injured two games into the postseason. This season, an injury to Halak on April 1 allowed Elliott to grab the reins and all he did was set a St. Louis team record with 11 April wins.
Elliott went 11-2-0 with a 1.28 goals against average and a .948 save percentage over his final 13 outings. Even with Halak back healthy, Hitchcock has placed his faith in Elliott heading into the playoffs.
"He's back playing the way he did all of last year," Hitchcock recently told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. "He was very good when Jaro (Halak) got hurt in the playoffs and then he had the inner-ear infection and didn't really play up to par until the last game when he was healthy. I just like his frame of mind. I like his disposition. He's a confident guy right now and we're going to need him."
The Blues are likely to need a strong effort from Elliott, considering the club struggled to score all season long and finished 17th in the NHL with 2.58 goals per game.
Leading the way on offense for St. Louis this season was Chris Stewart, who led the team this season in both goals (18) and points (36). Stewart ended the year as the only Blues player to rank among the NHL's top-97 scorers.
Outside of Stewart, however, only two other Blues reached double digits in goals during the lockout-shortened season, with Patrik Berglund scoring 17 times and David Perron adding 10 markers.
St. Louis hopes the return of T.J. Oshie can give the offense a boost. Oshie had seven goals and 13 assists in 30 games before suffering an ankle injury on March 28 that caused him to miss the remainder of the regular season. However, Oshie has been practicing with the team and is expected to be available at some point in this series, and he could play as early as Game 1.
Hitchcock also relies heavily on David Backes, who led all St. Louis forwards in ice time with an average of 19 minutes and 36 seconds logged per game. Backes, a finalist for the Selke Trophy last season, is one of the league's top defensive forwards, but he also finished second on St. Louis this season with 28 points (6G, 22A).
The Blues ranked seventh in the league in team defense, surrendering an average of 2.38 goals per game.
Alex Pietrangelo and Kevin Shattenkirk -- the top guys on the St. Louis blue line -- also rank among the club's best offensive weapons. Pietrangelo finished sixth on the team with 24 points (5G, 19A) and Shattenkirk was one behind with 23 points on five goals and 18 helpers.
St. Louis mainstays Barret Jackman and Roman Polak also will garner significant minutes in the playoffs and trade deadline acquisitions Jay Bouwmeester and Jordan Leopold bring an added veteran presence.
Despite playing in 764 career games at the NHL level, however, Bouwmeester, has never appeared in a playoff game during a 10-year career that began with Florida before he was traded to Calgary.
The Blues ranked 12th on the power play during the regular season and seventh in penalty killing.
LOS ANGELES KINGS (5th seed, West)
REGULAR SEASON RECORD: 27-16-5
2012 PLAYOFFS: Defeated Vancouver 4-1 in conference quarterfinals; defeated St. Louis 4-0 in conference semifinals; defeated Phoenix 4-1 in conference finals; defeated New Jersey 4-2 in Stanley Cup Finals
(Sports Network) - The Kings barely made the playoffs in 2011-12, but it wasn't long before it was obvious L.A. wasn't your garden-variety No. 8 seed.
The Blues certainly learned the lesson in the West semis, but they weren't the only team humbled by the Kings' first Stanley Cup championship team.
All told, L.A. went 16-4 during its magical run to a title and only the Eastern Conference champion New Jersey Devils were able to record more than one win in a series against the Kings, as they fell in six games during the Stanley Cup Finals.
Although this season the Kings have not quite resembled last year's playoff juggernaut, all the same pieces that made up the 2012 squad are still in place, including reigning Conn Smythe winner Jonathan Quick.
Quick's play in net last spring was a performance for the ages, as he went 16-4 with a 1.41 GAA, .946 save percentage and three shutouts to blaze a path to the promised land. However, regaining that form has been a season-long struggle for the 27-year-old American, as Quick was outplayed by backup Jonathan Bernier for most of the lockout-shortened campaign.
Quick wound up with an 18-13-4 record in 37 games this season and recorded a 2.45 GAA and .902 save percentage. Bernier, meanwhile, went 9-3-1 with a 1.88 GAA, but head coach Darryl Sutter is still sticking with Quick at the start of this postseason.
The Kings likely will need Quick to turn in a repeat performance of the 2012 postseason if they're expecting to win back-to-back titles, something that hasn't been done since Detroit won it all in 1997 and '98.
Despite Quick's down season, L.A. still managed to play a balanced game in 2013, as the club ranked seventh in team defense (2.38 goals allowed per game) and 10th in offense with 2.73 goals per contest. The team's offensive numbers were a big improvement from 2011-12, when L.A. was 29th in the NHL with just 2.29 goals per game.
Jeff Carter was the team's most dangerous offensive weapon this season, scoring a team-high 26 goals after supplying eight goals to the Kings' postseason run a year ago. With just seven assists in 48 games this year, it's also pretty clear that Carter is primarily focused on his role as the team's top sniper.
Team captain Dustin Brown was second to Carter with 18 goals this season, but there's another big drop-off after that as Mike Richards was third with 12 tallies.
The Kings' best all-around forward is Anze Kopitar, who led the club this season in points with 42 on 10 goals and 32 assists. The Slovakian also logged more ice time per game (20:28) than any other forward on Los Angeles.
Justin Williams, who joins Carter and Richards to form L.A.'s trio of prominent ex-Philadelphia Flyers, is also a proven scorer who finished third on the Kings this season with 33 points (11G, 22A).
Even with a sub-par season from top defenseman Drew Doughty, the Kings blue line has improved since last spring thanks to the emergence of rookie Jake Muzzin.
A former fifth-round selection by Pittsburgh, Muzzin finished tied for third among NHL rookie defensemen this season with 16 points in 45 games. His seven goals were second only to Edmonton rookie Justin Schultz, who scored eight times. Muzzin's plus-16 rating was also the highest for a rookie defenseman in 2013.
The addition of veteran stay-at-home defenseman Robyn Regehr at the trade deadline also helped bolster the L.A. blue line. Rob Scuderi is another defense-first guy who normally pairs with Slava Voynov, while Regehr has joined up with the offensively dynamic Doughty.
Voynov led all L.A. blueliners this season with 25 points (6G, 19A), but Doughty wasn't too far behind with six goals and 16 assists. Doughty did score five of his six goals this season in April, a good sign he's building momentum for the playoffs.
Last spring, Doughty had 16 points (4G, 12A) in 20 playoff games, finishing behind only Kopitar and Brown on the club's postseason scoring list.
This is the third all-time playoff encounter between the Kings and Blues and St. Louis had won the first two meetings before getting swept a year ago.
The Blues did little to erase the memory of that sweep during this season's series, as L.A. doubled up St. Louis by a 14-7 margin en route to winning all three meetings during the regular season.
Six players totaled four points for the Kings during the season series with the Blues and Carter led the way with three goals and one assist. Pietrangelo and Perron each had a goal and two assists for St. Louis, while rookie Vladimir Tarasenko notched a pair of goals.
Quick went 2-0 with a 1.81 GAA in two games versus the Blues, while neither St. Louis goaltender fared well in the season series. Elliott was 0-1 with a 4.10 GAA in two appearances against the Kings and Halak was 0-2 with a 4.52 GAA in two games.
It seems unlikely the Kings will be able to dominate the Blues as thoroughly as they did in last season's playoffs, but this still remains a difficult matchup for St. Louis. Barring a lights-out performance in net from Elliott, all signs point to the Kings eliminating the Blues for a second straight spring.
Sports Network predicted outcome: Kings in 6