Teams play similar games, styles, expect low-scoring, physical series
By LOUIE KORAC
HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- When the Blues and Los Angeles Kings square off in the Western Conference quarterfinals set to begin Tuesday night, what will both teams see?
All they have to do is look in the mirror, because there's not a lot of difference between the Western Conference powers.
Up front, both teams have big, bruising forwards that like to play a physical game and forecheck. On defense, there are heavy, punishing players that will make the forwards pay a price. And in goal for the Blues is Brian Elliott, who has resurrected his season in the month of April and for the Kings, Jonathan Quick, who was the Conn Smythe winner in last season's playoffs.
(St. Louis Blues/Mark Buckner)
Ryan Reaves will be counted on by the Blues to play a physical role in
the upcoming playoff series against the Kings.
"They're a mirror image of us," forward Chris Porter said of the Kings. "They want to play physical and get in on the forecheck and be heavy on our 'D.' I think we want to do the same to them, so it's kind of a mirror image of each other."
Winger David Perron agreed.
"We play a really similar game, I think," Perron said. "It's going to be a key for us to stick with our plan. I think that's the biggest point we can bring up is you've got to stick with it longer because when two teams play a really similar way, we know they're going to be really physical and we can't reply to any of the stuff they're trying to do to us. We've got to play through it and find a way to get pucks behind Quick. He was a key player for them last year."
Said Kings center Anze Kopitar: "We know what we're getting. They have some big bodies and they play a heavy game. We have some big bodies and we're pretty familiar. We've played them enough in the past seasons.
"We know what we're getting and they know what they're getting, so it's a matter of getting ready and just go from there."
They may feel like mirror images, but the results sure have been one-sided.
"We've caught a few bounces along the way," Kings center Mike Richards said. "That's not going to play at all into Game 1. We both start 0-0, and we're going to have to outwork them.
"They've got some big forwards, strong forwards, they go hard to the net. Strong on the backend, a couple skilled guys that can really create stuff on the power play, and obviously they've got great goaltending. They're going to bring similar challenges a lot of the teams in the top right are going to bring. I think it's just going to come down to we've got to outwork them to get some wins."
The Kings have won eight in a row, outscoring the Blues 29-13 (with one victory a 1-0 shootout win) and 15-6 in a 4-0 series sweep in the postseason last year.
"In three of the games, they were just a little bit better," Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said of the Kings. "That's the difference in hockey. They were a goal better in three of the games and they deserved to win. It doesn't matter to me whether you lose four straight, you lost four games. Whether it's four straight or in seven games, it doesn't matter to me. It's about the individual game and the changes you have to make, but I think it's also relevant that they beat us three times in the regular season (this year). They've proven right now that they're a little bit better than us. It's our opportunity now to see if we can catch up. Our players are hungry to try and see where we're at, at the end of the day here."
Why has Los Angeles been so persistent?
"I think their experience at going through this before helps them," Hitchcock said. "They've been through it as a group for a couple years before we have. They've learned the lessons that we're trying to learn. Hopefully last year, we learned a lot of lessons and we can play better this year."
Veteran defenseman Barret Jackman knows the Blues have a tall order.
"It's going to be a huge challenge," Jackman said. "It's something I'm sure everyone in this room has thought about over the last 12 months. They're a good team, they're a very similar team to us, and they outplayed us and did more to get the wins last year. We've got something to prove and it's nice to be able to do that in the first round.
"There's not many (different) guys. I think they've got (Robyn) Regehr in the backend and maybe (Jake) Muzzin, the young guy. They're very similar to what they had last year and another year of experience and a great run to the Cup. They're going to be even tougher to beat, but we're looking forward to it and we're looking forward to the challenge."
Quick (18-13-4 with a 2.45 goals-against average and .902 save percentage in the regular season) wasn't at his best after winning the Conn Smythe Trophy in the playoffs a season ago, then getting a whopping 10-year contract last summer. The Blues know they need to get him out of his comfort zone, because Quick was a difference-maker in last season's sweep.
"I think you've got to try and keep him in the crease," Perron said of Quick. "He likes to be aggressive. That's the main point. Every goalie, there's going to be some stuff that you can bring up, but I think the biggest thing for him that makes him a successful goalie is he really comes out and he's aggressive on every single play. Even if you think you're on the goalie, he's going to be aggressive and he expects his 'D' to back him up if there's a puck in behind him."
Elliott, who started the season 3-6-1 with a 3.65 GAA and .851 save percentage, is a far cry from what the start of the season brought. He's 11-2-0 with a 1.28 GAA and .948 save percentage this month with three shutouts and has taken the reigns in goal.
The Blues finally admitted (a year later) that Elliott played with an inner ear infection that affected his play in the series against LA last year, but Elliott never used it as an excuse, nor will he now.
(St. Louis Blues/Mark Buckner)
The Blues have been playing well and hope the return of T.J. Oshie
(right) can boost their overall game.
"I'm not talking about last year or years past," Elliott said. "It's about the next best game and the next game you're playing. It doesn't really matter what you've done in the past or what you're going to do in the future. It's about the present.
"A four-game series against a hard series can seem long. It doesn't matter how long it goes. It's just staying consistent and playing your game and not getting off your game plan and doing what you want to do out there."
The Blues' 12-3-0 April can be attributed to one key element that will be needed against the big, strong, heavy Kings.
"Checking. Started to check," Hitchcock said. "They bought into what we were trying to sell in March, and February, and January, but there wasn't a buy-in. There was in the last six weeks.
"When you check, you win hockey games. Sometimes you win it 4-1, sometimes you win it 5-1, sometimes you win it 1-0, but it's all about the bottom-end score. One-zero, two ... whatever. You give yourself a chance to win. It's not like we want to win 1-0, but the zero's important. When we started buying into the checking, we started to win hockey games."