St. Louis vs. Los Angeles
Round 2 Preview
The St. Louis Blues will take on the Los Angeles Kings in the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs. The two teams met four times over the course of the regular season and now will square off with a ticket to the third round on the line. Which team holds an edge heading into the series? Will scoring truly be at a premium as we all expect? Find out in the Round 2 preview below.
The schedule for STL vs. LA can be found here
How Did They Get Here?
The Blues (#2 seed) defeated another West Coast team, San Jose (#7 seed), four games to one to reach the second round. The Blues used strong performances by Brian Elliott in net mixed with a team effort defensively to stifle San Jose's offense. The Blues went 2-1 at home while winning both of the two road games in impressive fashion at the Shark Tank. The lone loss came when the Blues coughed up a lead late in Game 1 only to lose in double overtime.
Los Angeles (#8 seed) had the pleasure of meeting the Vancouver Canucks (#1 seed) in the first round. The Kings did all of us Blues fans a favor, making short work of the Canucks in five games. On paper, the #1 seed is supposed to enjoy a first round meeting with the #8 seed but in the modern NHL an easy playoff series doesn't exist. The Kings won all three games they played in Vancouver while going 1-1 at the STAPLES Center.
The Blues faced off against the Kings four times over the course of the regular season, going 1-2-1.
October 18th: 0-5 loss @ Los Angeles. (Davis Payne)
November 22nd: 2-3 loss in St. Louis
February 3rd: 1-0 win in St. Louis
March 22nd: 0-1 OT loss @ Los Angeles
Above is how the regular season played out between LA and St. Louis. It's safe to throw out the 0-5 loss at the start of the year as that was before the Blues turned things around under Ken Hitchcock. The other three games gives us a lot more to go off of.
As you can see three of the four games were tight contests separated by one goal or even a shootout. However, one could make the argument that excluding the final game in March, the Kings faced the Blues when they were less than 100%. Injuries to Alex Steen, Andy McDonald, Matt D'Agostini as well as several others kept the Blues from sending a complete roster out against the Kings. This makes it tough to accurately draw any solid conclusions from when the two clubs competed during the regular season. Still, we can assume things will be tight offensively. To see why, read on below.
On paper this will be the area to watch in round two. Fans and writers are all expecting this series to be short on goals and here is one of the main reasons why.
The Kings have one of the elite goaltenders in the NHL with Jonathan Quick between the pipes. During the regular season Quick posted a 35-21-13 record with a 1.95 GAA and a save percentage of .929%. In the first round Quick cemented his legacy as being one of the most dependable netminders in the NHL by going 4-1 with a 1.59 GAA and a save percentage of .953% against the Vancouver Canucks. The Canucks fired 172 shots at Quick. He stopped 164.
On the other end of things will be Brian Elliott and Jaroslav Halak. Halak has already been ruled out for the first two games in the series but he will likely be cleared to play or back Elliott as the series progresses.
Elliott jumped into the fray in Game 2 when Halak suffered an ankle injury upon colliding with defenseman Barret Jackman. Despite not being the tabbed starter Elliott shined, allowing just five goals in 219 minutes of playing time. He stopped 93 of the 98 shots he faced giving him a save percentage of .949% and a GAA of 1.37.
If Jaroslav Halak was at 100% entering the series it is safe to assume that Elliott would still be tabbed as the starter due to the fact he is the hot hand and remained cool under pressure in the first round. That's not to say Halak wouldn't be up to the task that is the Los Angeles Kings but it is to say that at times he looked shaky in the overtime periods during the team's Game 1 loss in round one.
This will be a topic to reexamine when Halak is finally cleared to play. If Elliott is still wielding a hot glove, Halak will likely find himself on the bench. However, if Elliott and the Blues are struggling to stop LA's attack Halak may get the call.
This one is tough. It boils down to Quick vs. Elliott & Halak. It's safe to say that barring an injury, Jonathan Bernier won't be a factor. Quick may get a slight edge as he is the stereotypical number one goaltender you would want to rely on during a deep playoff run. Still, that's not enough to give LA the complete advantage in the goaltending department. St. Louis needs to hope that Elliott continues his hot run and that Halak will be back at 100% in the near future. The current form of Quick vs. Elliott is almost identical, forcing this category to a tie.
Offense was an area both LA and St. Louis struggled in at times during the 2011-12 regular season.
Need proof? During the regular season the Blues averaged 2.51 goals per game (21st in the NHL) while the Kings managed 2.29 goals per game (29th in the NHL). Both teams had long stretches where goals were at a premium, putting immense pressure on their defense and goaltenders.
In the playoffs, the Blues are averaging 2.80 goals a game (3rd in the NHL) while LA is at 2.40 (8th in the NHL).
When it comes to shots fired, LA and St. Louis were nearly identical during the regular season with each team averaging 30.6 shots a game.
For LA, the bulk of their offense this season came from Anze Kopitar (76 points), Justin Williams (59 points), Dustin Brown (54 points) and Mike Richards (44 points). They bolstered this group prior to the trade deadline through the addition of Jeff Carter (9 points in 16 games). They did receive some help offensively from their blueliners, with Drew Doughty recording 36 points and Willie Mitchell chipping in 24 points.
For St. Louis, the offense spreads out and doesn't focus on one player as much as it does in LA with Kopitar. The picture from the regular season is pretty unreliable here as David Perron (42 points in 57 games) and Andy McDonald (22 points in 25 games) missed large amounts of time in 2011-12. The club was led by David Backes (54 points) and T.J. Oshie (54 points). The Blues had a ton of their offensive chances created by their defenseman with Alex Pietrangelo accounting for 51 points and Kevin Shattenkirk taking credit for 43 more.
In the playoffs, LA was led by Brown (5 points) and Kopitar (4 points) while the Blues have been lead by McDonald (8 points) and Berglund (7 points).
LA has the group with more name recognition around the NHL. Kopitar, Richards and Carter are names most casual fans have heard. The Blues counter with the more unfamiliar group but that isn't to say they lack talent. Brown and Backes are pretty comparable as they both play a very physical game but are capable of creating chances offensively. Where the Kings have Kopitar the Blues can counter with McDonald. The Kings have Carter and Richards while the Blues have Oshie and Perron.
EDGE: LA offense from forwards, STL offense from defenseman
: The Kings may have a slight edge offensively when it comes to their forwards but the Blues hold an edge offensively when it comes to their defenseman. LA's Drew Doughty is a great weapon but the Blues have two weapons of their own in Pietrangelo and Shattenkirk. When you add in Carlo Colaiacovo and Kris Russell, it appears the Blues hold an edge in terms of offense from the blue line.
Both teams know how to play defense and both are very good at it. You probably won't see the type of scoring that we all witnessed in the Philadelphia/Pittsburgh series. In fact, players have noted that the series will likely be one void of any big offensive explosions.
Evidently, David Perron joked that one of the games in the STL/LA series might be the first to post a zero to negative one final score.
Seriously though, these two teams are skillful at limiting offense. The Blues allowed just 155 regular season goals, a mark that not only was first in the NHL but one that set a new NHL record. The Kings were just a bit off their pace finishing second in the NHL with a 170 goals allowed.
The defensive dominance continues in the shots allowed statistic where the Blues allowed an average of 26.7 a game (1st in the NHL) while the Kings allowed 27.4 (5th)
In the playoffs, the Blues allowed eight goals in five games against San Jose while the Kings allowed eight goals in five games against the Canucks.
EDGE: Too close to call:
Again, it's tough to find a distinctive edge between the two clubs. Both have some outstanding young talent - Doughty & Voynov for LA, Pietrangelo & Shattenkirk for STL - as well as some proven veteran talent - Mitchell for LA, Jackman for STL. Both clubs can smother the opposition offensively and are quite talented at trapping the opponent within their own zone. Defense is a team effort for both squads.
Did you think we would find some separation here between the Blues and Kings? Wrong again. The regular season saw the Blues click at a rate of 16.7% (19th in the NHL) and the Kings at a success rate of 17.0% (17th in the NHL).
In the playoffs, the Blues thrived off San Jose's weak penalty kill converting at a rate of 33.3%. The Kings power play was 11.5%, but were facing a much tougher PK unit in the Vancouver Canucks.
EDGE: Slight edge to STL
: The Blues hold a slight advantage as they enter the second round of the playoffs with a power play unit that has mostly been unstoppable. Granted, this was partially due to the fact San Jose's PK was dreadful all season long and continued to struggle in the playoffs. Still, this recent success should bode well for the Blues as they prepare to face a penalty kill unit that is much more imposing.
The LA Kings had a penalty kill ranked 4th in the NHL (87.0%) while the Blues ended the regular season ranked 7th (85.8%). For both teams the PK has been one of their specialties and has been a large reason why both teams finished near the top of the NHL in total team defense.
The Blues have been a bit better in the playoffs killing penalties with a success rate of 88.2% compared to LA's 85.7%. Both teams were facing strong power play units (San Jose - 2nd, Vancouver - 4th) in the first round but were able to mostly eliminate the advantage for the opposing team.
EDGE: Too close to call
: Again, it's too close to call. Both teams have forwards that love to join in on defense and both have strong schemes that are capable of neutralizing even the strongest of power play units.
Summary & Prediction
On paper, it's like looking at two nearly identical teams. Remove the logos and named and you might have a tough time telling the two squads apart based purely on how they play on the ice. These two teams use strong, relentless defensive pursuit mixed with strong goaltending to cripple an opponent into making bad turnovers and bad mistakes that both LA and St. Louis can capitalize on.
When we get to the this stage of the playoffs it often comes down to one simple fact to decide a series - which team can make the fewest mistakes?
Where the Blues lack playoff experience they make up for it with a coach that has every player on the roster buying into what he is selling. The Kings may appear to be the team with more playoff experience but fans shouldn't forget that this is a team that also just ended a long playoff drought, winning its first series since the 2000-01 season.
I'm not a fan of giving predictions as they often are based on a gut feeling or an instinct that often isn't bound in fact. The above shows that these two teams are nearly identical and had eerily similar years statistically. Is there any data that would allow you to convincingly select one team instead of the other?
My prediction is that this series will go at least six games and will likely require seven. It will be mentally and physically draining as two similar systems batter away at each other. It will be a series where one little mistake will be the difference in joining the third round or looking at tee times.
Simply put, it should be a great one. As a fan of the Blues I can only hope the end result is like the photo below, but ultimately I know it will be the team's toughest test to date.