The Kings and Blues are scheduled to kick off their Western Conference semifinal Saturday at 4:30 p.m. PT at Scottrade Center in St. Louis. Here’s a breakdown of what to watch for as the series unwinds.
KINGS OFFENSE vs. BLUES DEFENSE
Kings coach Darryl Sutter called the NHL a “3-2 league” when he was hired in mid-December to replace Terry Murray, a reference to the typical final score. This might be a 2-1 series, however. St. Louis was No. 1 in the league in goals-against average during the regular season, allowing an average of 1.89 goals a game, while the Kings were 29th in the league in scoring at 2.29 goals a game. The Blues are led on the blue line by 22-year-old Alex Pietrangelo, who had a breakout regular season with 12 goals, 59 points and a plus-14 rating. The Blues will be without No. 1 goalie Jaroslav Halak for the first two games after he injured his ankle in Game 2 of their first-round victory against the San Jose Sharks. That’s hardly a big blow for St. Louis, which features a quality backup in Brian Elliott, who won all three first-round starts and had better overall statistics than Halak during the regular season. The Kings may have finished second-to-last in the league in scoring, but they averaged 2.78 goals over the final 23 games. The top line of Anze Kopitar, Dustin Brown and Justin Williams scored 22 goals or more apiece during the regular season and combined for five goals and eight assists in the first-round victory against the Vancouver Canucks. The Kings also feature plenty of firepower and postseason experience on the second line with Mike Richards, Jeff Carter and Dustin Penner.
The Edge: Blues
BLUES OFFENSE vs. KINGS DEFENSE
The Kings were no slouch on defense either, allowing an average of 2.07 goals during the regular season, second best in the league behind the Blues. The Kings and St. Louis also allowed the fewest goals in the first round of the playoffs (eight). The backstop for the Kings is goalie Jonathan Quick, a Vezina Trophy finalist who led the league and established a franchise record with 10 shutouts during the regular season. He also blanked Vancouver in Game 3. The Kings feature a nice mix of offensive-minded defensemen, led by 2010 Norris Trophy finalist Drew Doughty, and defensive stoppers Willie Mitchell, Rob Scuderi and Matt Greene. The Blues will counter with a deep forward corps that features nine players who scored 10 goals or more in the regular season. The player to watch for St. Louis is center Andy McDonald, who missed 51 games with a concussion and six more with a shoulder injury, but flashed his talent in the first-round series, accounting for four goals and four assists in five games. Six of his points came on the power play. McDonald did not appear in any of the four games against the Kings this season.
The Edge: Kings
The Kings had one of the best penalty-kill units in the league during the season, but the group showed some vulnerability in recent weeks, allowing four power-play goals in the final two games of the regular season and three in the final two games against Vancouver. Quick is the team’s best penalty killer, but Mitchell, Scuderi and Greene are also smart positional players who won’t shy away from a blocked shot. Mitchell had a career-high eight blocks in the series-clinching victory Sunday against the Canucks. The Blues ranked seventh on the penalty kill during the regular season, three spots behind the Kings. They allowed just four power-play goals in the final seven weeks of the regular season and finished 15-for-17 in the first round of the playoffs. They’ll be up against an L.A. power play that was mediocre at best during the regular season, and 2-for-13 against the Blues. The Blues also ranked a bit lower than the Kings in that department during the regular season, but they’ve been hot in the playoffs, scoring six power-play goals in the first four games against the Sharks. They weren’t able to crack the Kings during the regular season, however, finishing 0-for-14 with the man advantage.
The Edge: Kings
It’s fair to say neither team would be where it is without the play of its netminders. Quick led the league in shutouts, but Elliott had just one fewer in 31 fewer games. Quick seems to be at his best in tight, low-scoring games, and seems to get better the more shots he faces. About his only black mark during the regular season was his 6-8 record in shootouts, but those aren’t a factor in the postseason. Quick’s 1.95 goals-against average was best among goalies with more than 40 appearances. Elliott has been just as good or better than Quick in nearly every category except volume of work. Like Quick, he also posted three consecutive shutouts this season and his minuscule 1.56 goals-against average speaks for itself.
The Edge: Kings
Neither coach in this series started the season with his club. Sutter was tending to his cattle ranch in Calgary when he got the call from Kings general manager Dean Lombardi in mid-December, asking if he wanted to try to turn things around in L.A. The Blues didn’t wait nearly as long to make a coaching change, firing Davis Payne after a 6-7-0 start and replacing him with Ken Hitchcock, who had been fired by the Columbus Blue Jackets 21 months earlier. Both clubs got what they wanted from the coaching change, a top-eight finish in the Western Conference and a trip to the postseason. One team will look even better with a berth in the Western Conference finals.
The Edge: Kings
Throw out the regular-season finish and the 3-1 record the Kings had against the Blues during the regular season. These teams are about as evenly matched as they come. Both are coming off five-game victories in the opening round of the playoffs and enjoyed their longest layoffs since the All-Star break. A key factor could be scoring first. The Blues were ninth in the league with 67 first-period goals, while the Kings were 29th with 54. When the Blues scored first during the regular season, they finished 34-8-3 for the sixth-best winning percentage in the NHL. The Kings were 9-23-7 when allowing the first goal, the third-worst winning percentage. The Blues also came back to win 40 percent of the games when they fell behind first, seventh best in the league.
Prediction: Kings in six.