ST. LOUIS Mike Richards, Anze Kopitar and Jeff Carter did more than give the Los Angeles Kings a commanding lead by scoring four goals in the first period Monday night. They made the St. Louis Blues a team that has built its identity on elite defense and goaltending all season question their direction in what has become a lopsided series.
The Kings' early surge on their way to a 5-2 victory and a 2-0 lead in this Western Conference semifinal left Scottrade Center silent, it made Blues goalie Brian Elliott slam his stick against a goal post, and it caused a stunned crowd to let out a sarcastic cheer when the public-address announcer declared there was one minute left in the Blues' most embarrassing period to date.
It all happened at the worst possible time. After mental gaffes led to a Game 1 loss on Saturday, the Blues were a mess of loose defense and undisciplined play in the first 20 minutes of Game 2.
Consider some of the carnage: Kings winger Dustin Penner knocked defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk off the puck, causing it to slide near the net before Richards scored 31 seconds into the game; Kings winger Dustin Brown stole a clearing pass from defenseman Carlo Colaiacovo and set up Kopitar for the Kings' second short-handed goal of this series his first of two scores before the first intermission; the Blues failed to register a single shot on goalie Jonathan Quick before 9:21 had elapsed; by the end, the Kings had scored at least four goals in a period during the playoffs for the first time since doing so against the Vancouver Canucks in 1993.
"Their emotional investment in the first period was greater than ours," Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said. "We've got to invest a lot more early in the game. That's the nice part about playoffs it's one game. It's one loss, and we move on."
Yes, it's just one loss. Yes, the Kings must win two more. And yes, the Blues could recover with an effort that's more befitting of their No. 2 seed during Game 3 on Thursday at the Staples Center.
But the Kings' dominance in the first period Monday showed why they are the clear favorite to advance as this series stands. They are more physical. They are more aggressive. And they have a history of beating Elliott their latest victory was their fourth consecutive this season over St. Louis in games he has played.
The Blues need fire to stem the Kings' momentum. Afterward, players like winger T.J. Oshie and defenseman Ian Cole used words such as "embarrassing" and "irritating" when describing their team's effort. Center David Backes said he and others have "some looking in the mirror to do." Hitchcock called the effort "careless."
Those assessments are true. But the bad news for the Blues is that their listless play can't be fixed in practice or by studying film in the coming days. No, a comeback in this series will require a mental adjustment. It will require more heart. The Blues played without passion in the first period Monday, and they gave the Kings reason to believe this series can end on the West Coast.
"We need to make some changes so that we're better," Backes said. "But Xs and Os on film we've done that to death. It's about intestinal fortitude and coming together as a group and coming to the hard areas and showing you have some cojones."
The Blues didn't have big ones in the first period. Los Angeles has become a machine on the road in the postseason, chewing up St. Louis and the Vancouver Canucks for five consecutive victories away from the Staples Center. The Kings entered the game Monday with an obvious edge to their execution: By the end of the first period, they had four goals to the Blues' five total shots. The domination followed their mastery Saturday night, when they controlled the last two periods.
Consequently, the trend represents the Blues' regression. Despite an overall lack of postseason experience, they grew in routing the San Jose Sharks in the last round. They weren't overwhelmed in the moment: They beat the Sharks on the ice and in their heads, and they embraced the role of an aggressor on their way to claiming the franchise's first playoffs-series victory since 2002.
However, they have become submissive against Los Angeles. Sure, the Kings are quicker and more skilled than their previous opponent, but the Blues have failed to match the challenge. Their current play brings to mind the slide they experienced to end the regular season when they dropped four of five games. They are fighting to find their identity that allowed a turnaround under Hitchcock to happen.
The search continues. The Blues knew this would be a physical series. Aside from a strong first period in Game 1, though, they have deferred to the Kings. The first period Monday was the most obvious display of Los Angeles' superiority, but it has been consistent throughout.
"We need to react better," Cole said. "We need to bounce back after goals and bad plays and unfortunate bounces whatever the case may be. We didn't do that. We need to be more mature, and we need to be a better team throughout the whole game from the first shift."
Being more mature from the start would be a good place to begin. There's still time to recovery, but patience is wearing thin.