Originally posted on Fox Sports West  |  Last updated 4/26/12
Symmetry may not be achieved when the Los Angeles Kings and St. Louis Blues meet, though it can come close. The league's two sturdiest defensive teams who emerged from the first round having conceded eight goals in five games combined to allow exactly one goal in their final 125 minutes of head-to-head game action. St. Louis' 15 shutouts were the most by one team in 42 years, and the 26 clean sheets between the two teams is the most combined shutouts between two Stanley Cup playoff opponents since the league expanded past six teams in 1967. So when 25-year old T.J. Oshie discusses the formula that helped produce a breakthrough 54-point regular season in the Gateway City, it's almost as if he's reading straight from the Kings' Magna Carta. "I think I've taken more pride in the way I get offensive chances, which is off the forecheck," Oshie said during a roadtrip through Southern California last month. "It's off stripping guys of pucks, it's not off making the pretty play at the blueline." Jarret Stoll's nephew has been in town long enough to get the drift of where this series is headed. "'This might be the lowest scoring series of all time!' he's telling me," Stoll joked. Despite the defensive tendencies, it won't be. It will, however, be a series that will feature more overtime action than the four minutes and 27 seconds of play in which Los Angeles outshot Vancouver 6-2 and outscored them 1-0. It will also be a battle waged by two groups of sizeable forwards unafraid to throw the body around, backed by young, versatile defenses that excelled in limiting the oppositions' scoring chances. All-Star goaltenders patrol the creases, one of whom is a Vezina Trophy candidate. "If these two teams ever met up, it would be a hell of a series," Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said after Elliott and Quick combined to stop 72 shots in a 1-0 Kings shootout victory on March 22. GOALTENDING We'll begin with the statistics. During the regular season, Brian Elliott led all qualifying goaltenders with a 1.56 goals against average; the Vezina-nominated Jonathan Quick ranked second at 1.95. Elliott led the league with a .940 save percentage; Quick ranked fifth at .929. Quick led the league with 10 shutouts; Elliott ranked second with nine. Jaroslav Halak, who will be unavailable in the series' first two games after suffering an ankle injury in Game 2 against San Jose, appeared in 512 more minutes of regular season action than Elliott and also populates many of the league leading goaltending lists. Despite it being the Kings' greatest strength, any identifiable advantage in goaltending in this series is at a minimum. The only advantage and it is slight that Los Angeles receives in this matchup is that in head-to-head battles, Quick was the best of the three goalies. Halak struggled immensely against L.A. and was pulled in the Kings' home opener, while Elliott allowed one goal in the 85 minutes of head to head action. If grasping for a more intangible advantage, it's that Elliott was at his best in a platoon rotation during the regular season and will have started five consecutive games by the opening faceoff of Game 2, though any real hope for his overexposure should be tempered by a .949 save percentage against San Jose. "He's a great leader on this team," Trevor Lewis said of Quick. "He's actually pretty vocal in the room, and guys definitely pay attention to when he's talking. I think we've got probably the two most normal goalies I've ever played with. They're a lot of fun." DEFENSE Los Angeles and St. Louis are closely aligned in the versatility of their bluelines, and both teams are inclined to pair a younger, puck-moving two-way defenseman with a more physical, veteran stay-at-home type. Drew Doughty and Alex Pietrangelo were selected two picks apart at the 2008 NHL Draft and have played against each other through much of their careers. Both players averaged a shade under 25 minutes of ice time in the regular season, and while Pietrangelo bettered Doughty by 15 points, the Kings' fourth year pro is contributing some of the smartest, most poised defensive zone play of his young career. Any advantage defensively will likely be earned by the second and third pairings, both of which see ample ice time on the two clubs. Darryl Sutter broke down the matchups as Los Angeles' young defensemen having to be better than the St. Louis' young defensemen; ditto for the veterans. "We need serious committed minutes out of our three veteran defensemen," Sutter said. "If you look at the series we're going in to, there are three or four awesome young defensemen on their team, so it's a good challenge for our young defenseman. Guys like Barrett Jackman or Owen Polak Willie Mitchell, Scuderi and Greene are going to have to be as good as those guys." "Pietrangelo is the key guy, and Barrett's the shutdown guy and the physical guy. I'm not saying it because we're playing them, but they're a highly underrated defense. It's one of the big reasons they're a successful team. Bringing Kris Russell in, and Shattenkirk coming to where he is, Pietrangelo, they're a big part of their attack. Huge. It's a good challenge, right? Just do it. Doughty, Voynov, Martinez. How are they going to do it? Three kids, three kids. Get the heavy lifting guys, see how they do against each other. They're all guys with experience. See how they do, right? It's not hard to figure out." What is hard to figure out is how to find much of a distinction between the top two defenses in the NHL, the only two units to combine for fewer than four goals allowed per game. Slava Voynov wasn't heard of much in the Vancouver series, which isn't necessarily a good thing. The Kings want him active, confident, and providing a boost on the power play as a potential wild card capable of providing important goals. St. Louis led the league by limiting their opponents to 26.7 shots per game; Los Angeles finished fifth at 27.4. FORWARDS The timing of St. Louis' surge was remarkable considering the number of injuries that had besieged the forward corps through the first three quarters of the season. David Perron returned from a severe concussion that had kept him out of hockey for 13 months and provided 42 points in the team's final 57 games, guiding the Blues to a 35-14-8 finish. At even strength he'll skate to the left of center and Selke finalist Jeff Backes, and Oshie, the two of whom led the team in scoring with 54 points. Patrick Berglund centers Alex Steen and Andy McDonald on the second line, two players who missed a combined 96 games due to concussions this season. Berglund, McDonald and Steen combined for 18 points in the five-game series against San Jose. An army of bought-in, hard-working forecheckers who battle and excel along the boards and in tight situations comprise St. Louis' forward depth. Jason Arnott provides the team another strong option down the middle to match up with Los Angeles' center depth, while Vladimir Sobotka and Jamie Langenbrunner have also thrived in two-way roles. Chris Stewart's 15-goal, 30-point season on the surface appears encouraging for a 24-year old, but considering he hasn't even tallied half of the 64 points he recorded for Colorado in 2009-10 in one full campaign, a fourth line role is somewhat disappointing for the 6'2, 230 pound power forward whose development has decelerated. "From a compete standpoint, if you want to be in a series against the St. Louis Blues, you better have boys that are willing to come out of it with a little bit of black and blue on 'em," Sutter said. There simply aren't enough spaces in the lineup for all the available bodies up front, and the fact that Matt D'Agostini, who had 21 goals and 46 points last season but was limited by concussions to 18 points in 55 games this season, was only able to get into one game in the first round series speaks volumes of the Blues' forward depth. Ryan Reaves, B.J. Crombeen and ultra-skilled 19-year old rookie Jaden Schwartz were all pushed into the press box late in the season when McDonald and Steen returned. Don't be fooled by what appear to be middling offensive numbers team-wide. "I just don't think at this time of the year that you can have enough good players," Ken Hitchcock said last month as injured forwards neared their return. The Kings, as was evident through much of the second half of the season, should not accurately be referred to as a team with the 29th-ranked offense in hockey. They outscored their opponents 3.1 to 2.1 over the final 21 games of the regular season, and it was depth forwards Jarret Stoll, Dustin Penner, Brad Richardson and Trevor Lewis who provided the edge over their Vancouver third and fourth line counterparts in the first round. Dustin Brown made his presence felt more than any other Kings forward in the Canucks series, and it would help Los Angeles if all of his strengths leadership, physical play, finishing ability rise to the surface better than Backes, Brown's most comparable counterpart. While Backes received a Selke nomination, Kopitar was just as deserving of one, and of all the similarities shared between these two teams, the forwards' backchecking competence and assistance defensively are where they may be at their most similar. Mike Richards wasn't heard from much after a three-point Game 1 against Vancouver, and linemate Jeff Carter was never really able to make his presence felt other than a key assist off his skate that led to the game-winner in Game 1. The hope amongst Kings fans is that he may have gained a step after allowing his ankle to properly heal following an injury that kept him out of action for the final five regular season games. Penner will occupy the left wing spot on the second line, while Dwight King, who was scoreless in the first round, will play on the third line. More than anything, Carter's presence allows more space and opportunity for the Brown-Kopitar-Justin Williams line to find opportunities. Colin Fraser has excelled as a fourth line energy center for Los Angeles and was quick to praise 6'3 rookie forward Jordan Nolan, who provided an effective physical presence against the Canucks. "He's awesome to play with. He's big and strong and protects pucks well down low," Fraser said of Nolan. "He's been confident since day one, really, and has played well every game. Between him and Brad Richardson and Kyle Clifford, whomever we play with, there's so much speed on the wings that they're in on the forecheck first all the time. It was kind of nice for me. I just get to hang out and be F-3 a lot while they do all the dirty work down below the goalline." SPECIAL TEAMS As in the above matchups, Los Angeles and St. Louis shared similar special teams tendencies. Both teams' power plays shook off slow starts to finish near the middle of the pack in the regular season, though the Blues' six power play goals was a clear difference in the San Jose series. The Kings' penalty kill was dominant all year long and tied for fifth with nine shorthanded goals; inventory must always be kept of Richards, Kopitar and Brown, all of whom are capable of reading plays and picking off passes for shorthanded breakaways. In his career, Richards has potted 27 shorthanded goals in the regular season and three in the playoffs. St. Louis' power play enters the series much hotter than a Los Angeles unit that went scoreless in 14 power plays over the final three games of the Vancouver series. McDonald, Berglund and Steen combined for five of the team's six first round power play markers. "He's won a Stanley cup, plays on a really good line, he's got two really good linemates in Berglund and Steen," Sutter said of the crafty McDonald. "He's a really good power play guy." INTANGIBLES "I was born and raised in Viking, and he was born and raised in Sherwood Park," Sutter said of Hitchcock. "In Alberta, it's 80 miles." Though nearly the entirety of their coaching careers have overlapped (Sutter, seven years younger, became an NHL head coach three years before Hitchcock), two of Alberta's most accomplished coaches have only appeared opposite each other in a playoff series twice, with Hitchcock's Stars beating Sutter's Sharks in 1998 and 2000, a period of time when the Stars won nine playoff series as well as the 1999 Stanley Cup. Hitchcock was able to find immediate success with St. Louis, piloting the team to a 39-11-7 record over a 57-game stretch that proved to be the high-water mark of the regular season. While their first round competency against San Jose would appear to throw water on any flames, one question that the Blues must answer is whether they peaked too early. With a 4-4-4 record in the season's final 12 games, this was not a team that was playing its best hockey over the final month of the season. "We've played good, defensive hockey all year by managing the game, managing the puck properly. I think we've got away from managing the puck properly and played too much east-west, and it's hurt us," Hitchcock said before a 4-3 loss in Anaheim on March 21. "And then I thought in the last couple games we've got back playing the right way, and it's really helped our game again. So that's our focus to play the game the right way." Sutter has his own recipe for cooking up postseason success. "This one won't be any different than any other one. Goaltenders, special teams, top players, unsung heroes and discipline. Write it down and don't forget it," he said. "It's true. It's out of the hockey bible, and I've seen it for 35 years live." The Blues were the far better team at home this season and tied the Red Wings with 65 home points generated, the highest totals in the NHL this season. The Kings accounted for one of their six regulation home ice losses a 3-2 win on November 22 and with five consecutive playoff road wins, they should be as equipped as any team to handle the challenges that teams faced at Scottrade Center this year. A major coup for L.A. would be to win twice on the road this series, something that doesn't seem as farfetched after their 3-0 road record in round one. The trend of road teams finding success in the playoffs? Don't be fooled by the small sample size, says Sutter. "As you go along, that's all BS, quite honest," he said. "I know from the experience of the less travel you have, you want to be in your own building, it still does have a big psychological difference on a player. Very simple. I'd rather be having players getting treated in our treatment centers and not in a hotel, and not on an airplane. Getting to practice in your own buildingyou want to play the deciding game in your building, always." Optimism prevails in both Los Angeles and St. Louis, two cities where hockey fans have been tormented for over 40 years by the lack of postseason success. The Blues are 2-13 in the second round since their back-to-back-to-back finals appearances as the rulers of the Western Division following the NHL's expansion past six teams in 1967. Los Angeles, which has only won one second round series in its 43 previous years of existence, is clearly far closer to St. Louis' level than their misleading eight seed. "When you beat the Presidents Trophy winner, you become the No. 1 seed and I think everybody knows that," Hitchcock said. "Obviously when you beat the Presidents Trophy winner, that's very significant. To win it in five games gets the whole world's attention." It's a wide open Western Conference comprised of four teams yet to win a Stanley Cup who have a combined playoff record of 269-384, good for a .412 winning percentage. The current alignment marks the first time that a semi-final round has featured four teams with zero Stanley Cup wins since the 1984 postseason pit Edmonton against Calgary and St. Louis against Minnesota. "It's going to be a war. It's not going to be easy," Stoll said. "There's going to be definitely some tight games out there. We're going to play them well again. They have a great home record, we play well on the road, and hopefully we can come out and have a good start to this series. They're a good team. They block a lot of shots. We're going to have to figure out that, make sure we're getting too many shots blocked, and find a way how to get to Elliott."
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