SERIES REVIEW: Defending Champion Kings battle past St. Louis in Six
In a repeat of the 2012 Western Conference Semi-finals, the L.A Kings and St. Louis Blues met in the first round of this year’s playoffs. Last time out, the Kings had dominated in a four-game sweep on route to winning the Stanley Cup. This season’s match-up was a far tighter affair and although L.A were again victorious, the 4-2 final score doesn’t tell the entire tale of the series.
L.A had a slow start to the shortened season before really finding their stride in March and at the beginning of April, finishing up fifth in the Western Conference. Although inconsistent towards the end of regular campaign, they had shown glimpses of the form which had taken them to Sir Stanley’s Cup and were favourites heading into the postseason match-up with the Blues, boasting a 8-0-0 record in their previous eight meetings.
St. Louis had added defensive depth before the trade deadline, namely Jay Bouwmeester and Jordan leopold, who helped their solid team excel in the final third of the regular season. Finishing an impressive fourth in the conference, they had home advantage in the series. Many felt that their physical approach could really test the Kings, especially if goaltender Brian Elliot could rediscover his best form.
St. Louis controlled the first game in the series on home ice, outshooting L.A by 42 shots to 29. The Blues opened the scoring in the first period with Alexander Steen pouncing on a rebound, after Jonathan Quick had failed to handle Kevin Shattenkirk’s shot from the point on a power-play. After the Blues struggled to capitalise on their dominance in the faceoff circle and take further chances to score in the second period, an out of sorts L.A got the equaliser with 32 seconds left in the game. After Quick had been replaced by an extra skater, Justin Williams fired a sharp effort past Brian Elliot, who made 28 saves on the night.
The momentum of the game, and perhaps even the series, threatened to change in overtime as Shattenkirk was assessed a double-minor for a high stick on Dustin Penner. Although L.A managed ten shots during the overtime period and began to find their flow on the man advantage, it was a moment of pure opportunism from Alexander Steen that won the game. After intercepting a pass from Quick behind the goal, he slid the puck into an unguarded net on the wrap-around for a shorthanded tally. St. Louis took Game 1 with their first playoff overtime winner since 2001.
The Kings were a lot better in Game two, but still not themselves. After St. Louis went shorthanded four times in the first period, L.A finally punished them on a 5-on-3 opportunity. Dustin Brown deflected Mike Richard’s effort past Brian Elliot to give them a 1-0 lead with 9:55 gone. The game was a scrappy affair and St Louis managed to equalise with a great stroke of fortune at the start of the third period. Alex Pietrangelo’s speculative play to the crease hitting Patrik Berglund in the skate and finding its way into the L.A net, a video review correctly determining that there was no kicking motion involved.
The Blues then stunned L.A with 50 seconds remaining in the third period. Veteran defenceman Barret Jackman stepped up into a 3-on-2 rush before ripping a venomous shot past Jonathan Quick for his first career playoff goal. Maybe it was just the sheer surprise at seeing Jackman shooting, or in the offensive zone at all, but the L.A goaltender felt he still should have made the stop. The effort was enough for a St. Louis win and despite outshooting their opponents in the game, the Kings were in a 0-2 hole in the series heading back to Staples Centre.
Game three was a story of missed opportunities. Mostly by St. Louis, who with a touch more luck or offensive quality, could have taken a giant step into the second round. The Blues high forechecking caused problems for L.A throughout the first period and the champions responded by bringing their most physical game of the series so far, registering 53 hits. The power-plays from both teams were dreadful once more, both going 0/4 and St. Louis missed the target with a host of glaring opportunities in the slot. That being said, Jonathan Quick put in an outstanding performance and stopped all 30 of the shots that he faced.
The crucial game-winning goal was scored by Slava Voynov and in keeping with the tone, wasn’t pretty. After a scramble in the crease in which the Blues couldn’t clear the puck, it eventually found its way to the defenceman who tucked it home for L.A’s first even strength goal of the series. Despite their special teams troubles, the Kings had halved the deficit to 2-1 heading into Game four.
The series really sparked into life in Game four and so did the Los Angeles Kings’ star players. The top line of Justin Williams, Anze Kopitar and Dustin Brown combined for 15 of their teams 29 total shots. The St. Louis Blues took an early 2-0 lead in the game. David Backes scored after just 72 seconds, shooting into an open net after the shot from the point went wide. Then T.J. Oshie tipped in Kevin Shattenkirk’s shot from the point on the power-play, ending an 0-for-12 run on the man advantage.
The lead was erased before the first intermission after two odd-man rushes from L.A resulted in goals. Jeff Carter backhanded in a pass from Mike Richards after a 2-on-1 before Dustin Penner took a Jarrot Stoll pass after a 3-on-1 and slid home. T.J. Oshie then halted the comeback at the start of the second, by putting the Blues back ahead 3-2 after reacting first to the rebound from Vladimir Sobotka’s shot.
In a vital third period for the Kings, they showed just why they are defending champions by raising their game to a level that St. Louis simply could not match. After a nice play from Dustin Brown, Kopitar tapped in at the back post, breaking a career long 19-game scoring drought, before Justin Williams tipped in yet another Mike Richard shot for the game-winner. This win was huge, not only levelling the series at 2-2, but reawakening L.A’s confidence in their own game. They were a dangerous prospect heading back to St. Louis for Game five.
Game 5 was pivotal, with the Blues looking to regain momentum back in their own building and L.A looking to win a third straight game. After Quick made some excellent saves to keep the game scoreless, The first goal came in the second period, Drew Doughty’s shot cannoned off Brian Elliot to be poked home by Jeff Carter. L.A’s lead didn’t last long, Alexander Steen once more the player stepping up for St. Louis. After carrying the puck all the way around from behind the goal, he fired a shot over Quick’s right shoulder to level it at 1-1.
The Kings responded well to settle the game down and then cashed in on a power-play opportunity in the third, Anze Kopitar sliding a perfect pass to Jeff Carter who added his second of the game. It looked as though L.A had done enough to hold on, but Alex Pietrangelo had other ideas. He equalised with 44 seconds left in the game, throwing a puck towards a crowded goal-front which ended up in the bottom corner of the net.
L.A composed themselves once more during the overtime period and really showed their experience, displaying solid defence and picking their moments to attack. Slava Voynov was again the hero, making a good play in his own defensive zone before skating up ice to finish off a flowing move for the game-winner, Kopitar again the provider. The Kings were rolling now, becoming the first team to win an away game in the series and taking a 3-2 lead heading back to California.
In a tense Game six, despite being outshot 22 to 16, the Kings managed to get the result they needed to progress. Drew Doughty opened the scoring. After faking once to back up the St. Louis defence, he fired a shortside effort past Brian Elliot to give L.A a crucial first period lead. In typical fashion, the Blues fought back in the second, a Roman Polak shot from the point deflecting off Chris Porter’s hip for his first ever playoff goal to tie it at 1-1.
Once again, L.A got the extra stroke of inspiration from one of their players to get the game-winner. This time it was Dustin Penner, who in the dying seconds of second period, skated inside the blue line and hit a thunderous 60-foot slapshot into the top corner. After holding off a late surge with more stellar goaltending from Quick, the Kings had the win that finished the series.
Keys to the series:
– L.A staying calm after losing the first two games. Their Stanley Cup triumph last year has really helped this team in terms of their psychological approach to matches and sticking to their tactics even if a game is getting away from them. A lesser team may have capitulated after St. Louis took a 2-0 lead in the series, but with the experience they now have in the locker room, it was clear in Game three that they believed a comeback was possible.
– St. Louis’ struggles on the power-play. The Blues went 2-for-16 on the man advantage and many came at crucial times. In particular, their inability to convert on four chances in Game three allowed the Kings a foothold back in the series rather than being an insurmountable 3-0 down. The special teams were always going to be vital for the Blues, with L.A’s line-up carrying greater depth and being more effective 5 vs 5.
– St. Louis lacking goals. In a gruelling and tight series in which the two teams combined for 479 hits, there were never going to be a huge amount of goals, but the Blues failed to get enough past Jonathan Quick for the volume of chances they created. They only managed at total of 10 goals in 6 games and missing the target from the slot is unacceptable.
– L.A getting production from their top lines. From Game three onwards, the players who had been so successful for the Kings last season reappeared after a slow start to the series. Mike Richards totalled 5 assists while Anze Kopitar had 4 points in the final three games, Justin Williams and Jeff Carter also had 3 points each for the series.
– Jonathan Quick was superb for his team, looking unbelievably solid after a few unlucky bounces in Games one and two, before shining in the third installment. He posted a stunning goals against average of 1.58 and and .944 save percentage over the six games.