First-round preview: Blues-Kings

A year ago, it was over barely after it started.

The eighth-seeded Los Angeles Kings steamrolled second-seeded St. Louis in four straight games, outscoring the higher seed 8-3 in the opening two games en route to crushing the Blues' spirit.

One year later, they meet again in perhaps the most hotly contested first-round series in the NHL, as the two clubs are separated by just one point in the standings and are very evenly matched all around.

The feeling here is that both the No. 4 Blues and No. 5 Kings are among the top five Stanley Cup contenders entering the playoffs. Sadly, one of them will go home early.

Best first-round series in the NHL playoffs? Very likely.

1. Do the Kings own the Blues?

The Kings followed up last spring's playoff sweep of the Blues by then sweeping this year's regular-season series 3-0.

And yet that might be a bit misleading. For starters, the Blues have played their best hockey of the season since their last game with the Kings, a 4-2 loss on March 28. Since then, the Blues have gone a remarkable 12-3 to go from playoff bubble team to home ice in the first round.

It also coincided with the arrivals of top-four blueliners Jay Bouwmeester and Jordan Leopold before the trade deadline -- neither have yet faced the Kings as Blues -- and the improved play in goal of Brian Elliott in April.

"Los Angeles hasn't seen our team," Blues coach Ken Hitchcock told ESPN.com on Sunday. "I don't think anyone really knows our team right now."

The Kings, meanwhile, have shed any doubt that they're suffering from a Cup hangover. They have looked refreshed, re-energized and just as dangerous as they did a year ago.

It's impressive the manner in which the Kings were able to avoid the pitfalls that past Cup champions have had in looking sluggish the following season.

"We had a great season, to be quite honest," Kings coach Darryl Sutter told reporters Saturday night after the team's win over San Jose in the regular-season finale.

2. Pass the Icy Hot

This is going to be a very physical series. The winner of this series might still be a loser for it, given the toll it's going to take to survive this matchup between two crunching teams.

"There's no easy ice between these two teams, there's no space," said Hitchcock.

These are both in-your-face clubs that make you earn every inch of the ice, particularly the way the Blues are playing over the past month.

"Well, we know what we're getting, they have some big bodies and they play a heavy game," Kings center Anze Kopitar told reporters Saturday night.

"I don't think it's going to be physical from people running over each other," Hitchcock said. "I think the physicality is on the boards. Los Angeles won the Stanley Cup based on their board play last year. They won the board battles against every team. Physicality is one thing -- running around hitting people -- but at this time of year, every player pretty much takes a check to make a play. The intimidation factor that Los Angeles had last year was that they hemmed you in and won board battles and races to the pucks. They did a heck of a job doing that. That's a game we can play, too. We're good at that, too."

Expect lots of big hits in this series, and extra pushing and shoving after the whistle. Both teams will attempt to intimidate and set the tone. The series officiating supervisor no doubt will have a long chat with both coaches before this series gets underway.

3. Goals are at a premium

The Kings and Blues are both once again stingy defensively, tying for seventh overall in the league at 114 goals against in 48 games (2.38 against per game).

So expect a low-scoring series in which the first goal might set the tone in each game.

"We made a big comeback to get there," Hitchcock said of the Blues' finishing seventh in the league in goals against. "At one time this season we were 28th, 29th. What we're banking on is that we've really improved there. Brian [Elliott] playing as well as he did has really helped us, but so has the trades for the two defensemen [Leopold and Bouwmeester]."

Despite the absence of Willie Mitchell all season, the trade for veteran Robyn Regehr, the surprise play of Jake Muzzin and the late-season return from injury of Matt Greene have the Kings' blue-line corps looking as deep and balanced as a year ago.

Both teams have good penalty-killing units as well (the Blues ranked seventh in the league while the Kings were 10th), further underlining how offense will be tough to come by in this series.

"Neither team gives you anything easy; you have to earn it," said Hitchcock.

4. Talking about an evolution

Last spring was the first taste of playoff action for this particular group of Blues players. Gaining that playoff experience in reaching the second round was an important step in figuring out how to win.

But perhaps just as important has been the journey this season, when the Blues fell apart after a quick start and had to redefine themselves and pick themselves off the mat.

"We've learned a lot of valuable lessons," said Hitchcock. "We've learned how hard it is to create chemistry. What's really changed for me is that we're able to create more offensively than we did a year ago. We're able to create more genuine scoring opportunities than we did last year. Last season, I think we had maybe three to four people who could create offense; I think we're deeper in that area now, we have more players involved in that area. We don't have that one or two big dogs that do all the stuff offensively, but we have a number of people who can contribute. That's where we're deeper. Even down the stretch here we've got scoring from our fourth line."

That offensive depth comes from the additions of rookies Vladimir Tarasenko and Jaden Schwartz, but perhaps more significantly from the continued maturation of Patrik Berglund and the huge bounce-back season from leading scorer Chris Stewart. A year ago, Stewart was a healthy scratch for two playoff games. He was out of shape and Hitchcock didn't trust him.

This season? A recommitted Stewart led the Blues with 36 points (18-18) in 48 games.

When you factor in David Backes, Alexander Steen, David Perron and Andy McDonald as well up front, the Blues indeed have more depth and balance to their attack.

Thing is, the Kings remain as deep as ever up front as well. Jeff Carter has been a goal-scoring machine (26 goals in 48 games), Kopitar's 200-foot game is among the best in the NHL and you know this is the time of year that Mike Richards plays his best.

5. Battle in goal

Jonathan Quick had his struggles in the lockout-shortened season, but it appears he has gotten his game together just in time for the playoffs.

And certainly, this is an area where you give the Kings the check mark over the Blues. L.A. boasts last season's Conn Smythe Trophy winner as playoff MVP, while Elliott was struggling so much at one point this season, he fell to No. 3 on the depth chart.

Having said that, Elliott has picked himself up and has been superb over the final month, going 11-2-0 with a 1.28 goals-against average, .948 save percentage and three shutouts -- simply sensational stuff.

"The confidence is that the players play for him," Hitchcock said. "His play and his disposition in the net has created great chemistry. We've got a lot of confidence in Jaro [Halak], obviously, but Brian deserves a lot of credit for recreating himself. He had a tough start to the season, but he went down to the AHL, got some game experience in and came back and has been the same guy as last year. Our players like playing in front of him. He's played very well for six weeks now. This isn't a fluke."

No, it's not a fluke, but the fact remains that Elliott's track record is that he gets very hot but can also get very cold.

No matter how you dice it, the Kings have the edge here.

• I hate having to predict a winner here because neither one of these teams deserves to go home this early. But I'm going to ride home ice and the Blues' scorching April record.
Blues in 7 (in triple overtime).