By LOUIE KORAC
ST. LOUIS -- As the Blues and Los Angeles Kings finally lace the skates and strap into what is expected to be a hard-hitting, hard-nosed and physical Western Conference Semifinals, two players quite familiar with one another will get re-acclimated at tonight's drop of the puck.
The Blues' David Backes and the Kings' Anze Kopitar will see a lot of ice time together, and they'll be in each other's grills more times than they might care to see but both will be faced with the challenge of overcoming what the other has to bring.
Backes is the Blues' checking specialist and just got done engaging with San Jose's Joe Thornton in the Western Conference Quarterfinals. It will be contrasting styles when going up against Kopitar and his linemates.
"Joe's a little bit bigger of a body, but I think Kopitar's got a speed element ... he's one of the fastest guys in the league," said Backes, who finished with one point in five games against the Sharks. "If you've seen me skate, I'm not.
"There's a physical element on my side that needs to balance out his speed. It's not one-on-one. We're not out there playing one-on-one on a full sheet [of ice]. I've got linemates [David Perron and T.J. Oshie] and he's got linemates [Dustin Brown and Justin Williams] helping him. I think the collective unit needs to be better than their collective unit and we'll see if that happens."
Kopitar, who saw a lot of Vancouver's Ryan Kesler in their quarterfinal series, had a goal and three assists in five games. He expects a different challenge facing Backes but is quite familiar with it.
"It's going to be a physical game," Kopitar said. "I have seen him quite a bit over the last couple seasons. It's nothing new. I'm sure the intensity's going to be high and I'm sure it's going to be a physical game.
"I don't think [Kings coach] Darryl [Sutter] was too big on matchups even the first series. He was rotating lines and was pretty much going with his feeling on whoever was going. ... We're going to come out, we're going to have to play. If the matchups are important to them, they're probably going to match it since we're here. For us, we just have to go out and play."
Brown was a teammate of Backes' at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver.
"Just a big, straight-line body ... he does a lot of the little things right," Brown said of Backes. "You don't see him change his game too much. That's why he's probably successful on a nightly basis. He's big, he's strong and he knows a straight-line game, physical ... he's just hard to play against in general."
Sutter is equally as impressed with Backes.
"He's one of the really good young captains in the league," Sutter said. "I think he has an identity and it's a strong one. He plays both sides of the puck, plays a 200-foot game. We're lucky we have a couple centermen like that, too, so hopefully we can saw that off a little."
Blues coach Ken Hitchcock would like to see more offense from the Backes line, which collected two goals and five assists but understands their commitment to defending playing with a lead the majority of the last series.
"The first thing he has to do is trust his linemates a little more and secondly he's got to play more reckless," Hitchcock said. "He played safe ... and playing against Joe is no day at the beach. Joe was dialed in and Joe was playing for his life. He was a terrific player in our series, so David had his hands full. The other thing is, sometimes 5-on-5 with as much as David plays on the power play and he kills penalties, sometimes 5-on-5 is a rest and we want to get him past that, where he's really contributing more 5-on-5 because he's back playing a little more reckless and not so careful. He plays reckless on the power play, which is great, it helps us. He's obviously a great penalty killer. We just want him to trust his linemates and not have to be the safety net that he thinks he has to be all the time."
Added Backes: "It's kind of situational, who you're out against, time of the game, score of the game ... that kind of dictates it. Luckily in the series against San Jose, we were faced with leads and just protecting them and making sure we took care of mostly in the defensive side.
"There's going to be times in tie games when you need a goal and we're going to have to wade it on the other side. There's a balance there that needs to be found; I don't think it was perfect in the first round. It was good, but we need to be great in order to win this series."
- - -
As has been the case all week, both the Blues and Kings are eager and anxious to begin the playoff series.
There's only so much the respective teams can do in practice and there's only so much a team can do to simulate what the other is going to do.
For the Blues, there was no speech from Hitchcock, who is just as anxious to get the series started as his players.
"If you need a speech before the first game of Round 2 and you've had a week off, then there's something wrong with your competitive nature," Backes said. "Guys are ready to get at it, we waited long enough to see the schedule and now we get to play it here. It's going to be fast and furious to start."
From a rest standpoint, getting a week off for St. Louis and six days off for LA wasa blessing, but from a game standpoint, since both teams were 4-1 in their first round series, there's caution that there might be some rust to shake off tonight.
"You look at Nashville last night, they came out a little slow," Blues winger Chris Stewart said. "We've definitely got to get out there and get on our toes and take it to them. We have to show why we can use home ice advantage."
Added Blues winger Andy McDonald: "We've had some rest, a lot of practice and it gives you a lot more time. We knew before they did when we would be playing and who we'd be playing against. It gives guys a little bit more time to recover, we've got some bumps and bruises but I think we're ready to go. It's been kind of a long layoff. I think guys are pretty anxious."
The Kings agreed.
"You want to play. You watch games on TV," Brown said. "Getting some rest obviously is important. Both teams had ample time to get ready, both physically and mentally. Guys are ready to go now."
Added Kings center Mike Richards: "I don't think there's much of a process. I think you just get excited. A week looking at tape, a week of practicing ... it doesn't take much to get out there and you feel the excitement.
"Coming here this morning, I think there's a lot of excitement. Finally gameday's come. I don't think there's going to be much of an amping up process."
Watching the Predators and Phoenix Coyotes Friday night definitely gave players an eagerness to get started.
"It's been a long week," Blues defenseman Alex Pietrangelo said. "There's been a lot of practice, a lot of things that we've gone over but at the same time, we're excited to get this thing going and jump into it. Watching the game last night gives you that itch to get things started."
- - -
Both the Blues and Kings are spotless on the road in these playoffs, but for the Blues, they have home ice and were one of the best teams at Scottrade Center this season with a 30-5-6 regular season record and two wins and an overtime loss against San Jose in the first round.
But the Kings won all three games at Rogers Arena against the Canucks.
"We were a pretty confident group going in," Brown said of the road success. "I think a lot of players have been in this room for a while, have been playing together for a while.
"We understood the situation we were in and we understand the type of team we have. Knocking off the top seed Vancouver obviously adds a little bit of confidence, but I think we all understand that St. Louis is a different type of beast and it's going to be a hard series.
"They're just a different team than Vancouver," Brown continued. "We found a way to be successful against Vancouver and now it's a new challenge. There's different things that we have to do to be successful against the Blues. A lot of it comes down to work. That's the one thing you can control, which is a good thing. To beat a team like St. Louis, you've got to be willing to do all those little things on every single play."
The Blues hope to be as relentless as the Kings are advertising them to be.
"Just a strong defensive game like we had all year and in the San Jose series," Blues defenseman Barret Jackman said. "We're going to really have to work for our chances, throw everything we can on net and get second chances. It's going to be predictable hockey from both sides, a hard-fought series and it's going to start right from the first drop of the puck."
Added Blues veteran center Jason Arnott: "We just can't get out of our element. We have to stick to our system. You can't get frustrated, that's the biggest thing. We know we're going up against a great defense and a great goaltender. They play a solid defensive game. It's going to be tough and frustration's going to creep in here or there, but we just have to stick to our system and play to our game plan and keep funneling pucks as much as we can and hopefully a few go in for us."
- - -
For those expecting 1-0, 2-1 types of games, the two head coaches aren't buying it.
Hitchcock and Sutter both spoke of the series and said to expect the unexpected.
"Anybody that's saying it's low-scoring ... it's more imagination than anything," Sutter said. "How do you know? How do I know and how does anybody know? Injuries, officiating, top players ... that impacts that all so much. Top players involving these two teams also involves goalies."
Added Hitchcock, who said too much emphasis has been placed on goaltenders Brian Elliott of the Blues and Jonathan Quick of the Kings.
"I think this series is going to shock and surprise people because I don't think you can keep that standard up of one goal, one goal, one goal," Hitchcock said. "I don't think you can keep that up. I think when emotion gets as high as it did, just like last night [in Phoenix], I think the legs get a little bit rubbery. I think you see the players play more on the move like you did last night and I think you're going to see more scoring chances because of it.
"I think when you've got young teams and it's very emotional and very intense, it's hard to get players to focus and stop on pucks like you can in the regular-season game. So I think you're going to see more errors, I think you're going to see more mistakes, I think you're going to see more scoring chances because of it and I think you're going to see more games like you did last night, where there was a ton of scoring chances. I think you're going to see that happen here."
For those that think there's no talented players in this series, think again.
"Both teams have really high-skilled players," Brown said. "There'll be flashes of that, but it's going to be a very grinding series in terms of just working to get chances. Special teams are going to be a huge part for both teams. That's probably the one area where you can probably get chances if you're doing the right things. Five-on-five, you're going to have to really work to get your chances."
Added Blues winger Alex Steen: "Yeah, it's the second round of the playoffs. You can't get too lost in everything that's going on around you. ... For us, it's Game 1. We want to get off to a good start. We're preparing for LA and that's how we've got to think about it. You can't get lost in everything that's going on ... the media and everything that happens. It's about us in here, what we need to do and how we need to prepare. That's just how you go about business."
- - -
The Blues' probable lineup:
David Perron-David Backes-T.J. Oshie
Andy McDonald-Patrik Berglund-Alex Steen
Vladimir Sobotka-Jason Arnott-Chris Stewart
Jamie Langenbrunner-Scott Nichol-B.J. Crombeen
Carlo Colaiacovo-Alex Pietrangelo
Barret Jackman-Kevin Shattenkirk
Kris Russell-Roman Polak
Brian Elliott starts in goal; Jake Allen is the backup.
Goalie Jaroslav Halak [lower-body] will not be available for Games 1 and 2 but has been skating and is progressing; healthy scratches include forwards Matt D'Agostini, Ryan Reaves, Chris Porter and Jaden Schwartz along with defensemen Kent Huskins and Ian Cole.
- - -
The Kings' probable lineup:
Dustin Brown-Anze Kopitar-Justin Williams
Dustin Penner-Mike Richards-Jeff Carter
Dwight King-Jarret Stoll-Trevor Lewis
Brad Richardson-Colin Fraser-Jordan Nolan
Rob Scuderi-Drew Doughty
Willie Mitchell-Slava Voynov
Alec Martinez-Matt Greene
Jonathan Quick gets the start in goal; Jonathan Bernier is the backup.
Forwards Kyle Clifford [concussion] and Scott Parse [hip] will not play. Healthy scratches include forwards Andrei Loktionov and Kevin Westgarth as well as defenseman Davis Drewiske.