Sunday, April 28, 2013

Blues feel they're ready for battle-tested Kings

A rematch of 2012 Western Conference semifinal
where Los Angeles won in four-game sweep 

HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- When the Blues clinched home-ice in the first round of the playoffs Saturday night, the going consensus was that it would have been suited for them to avoid the defending Stanley Cup champions.

After all, it was the Los Angeles Kings that steamrolled the Blues -- and everyone else for that matter -- en route to their first-ever title a season ago. And the Kings did it as an eighth seed.

(St. Louis Blues/Mark Buckner)
The Blues' Jaden Schwartz (right) and the Kings' Jarret Stoll can get used
to a lot of hitting and checking in their upcoming series.

But here they are, the Blues and Kings on a collision course once again. But this time, they will square off in the Western Conference quarterfinals, with Game 1 slated for 7 p.m. in St. Louis.

The Kings, who were 16-4 in the postseason a year ago, rolled to a four-game sweep over the Blues in the conference semifinals, winning 3-1 and 5-2 in St. Louis, then 4-2 and 3-1 in Los Angeles.

The Kings, dating back to Feb. 3, 2012 last season when the Blues won 1-0, have won eight straight against the Blues, including all three meetings this season. But the saying is if you want to be the best, you have to beat the best. Maybe the Blues would have been best suited to see if someone else could knock the Kings from their perch, but if you have to run into them sooner or later, might as well be now.

"Yeah, we lost (last year's series) 4-0, but we've got something that we've got to prove," winger David Perron said. "I think the last little while, we've been playing our game the right way. The coaching staff has been pretty happy that way so hopefully it keeps going like that."

The Blues, who wrapped up the regular season with a 3-1 win over Chicago Saturday to secure home ice, finished 29-17-2, one point better than the Kings, who ended 27-16-5. But the Blues are 12-3-0 in April, and it helped thrust them into the position they're in today.

"We're playing better than we have all year," Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said. "We're deeper than we've ever been. We didn't have ... I think four players (defensemen Jay Bouwmeester and Jordan Leopold as well as forwards Adam Cracknell and Chris Porter) didn't play in that last game that we played against them (on March 28, a 4-2 defeat), so we're different. They've got one change (defenseman Robyn Regehr).

"We think we're better. Whether we're good enough this series is going to tell, but we think we're better than we've ever been and we think we're playing better than we've ever been. We're going to need to. Los Angeles is the team, the only team in the league with the experience of knowing what it takes to win. So until someone knocks them off, they're the only team with the knowledge of what it takes to win a Cup. We can all talk about it, but they've done it. We're going to have to tap into that experience as this series moves along and hopefully learn quickly from it. We learned a lot of lessons last year about how deep you have to go and how well you have to play, how disciplined you have to play and every little incident has a big reflection on it at the end of the day. I think we've learned a lot of those lessons. Hopefully we can put them into place now."

The Kings are well aware what they're getting, and that the understanding is the Blues are much different than what they saw previously this season.

hey’re an improved team obviously from the last time we played them in the regular season, with the addition of Bouwmeester and Leopold and probably the biggest difference would be they were really down to one goalie last year after splitting," Kings coach Darryl Sutter said. "I think it affected the team. So they’re clear who their goalie (Brian Elliott) is now."

The Blues claim their 0-7-1 record against LA in the last eight games is a fine line. There hasn't been a ton of difference but enough to give the Kings an edge.

"We've outplayed them for one or two periods in games, but they're a team that doesn't go away," defenseman Barret Jackman said of the Kings. "Maybe in those games that we played, we got on our heels and gave them an opportunity to continue their strong play and in the end, beat us. That's something we can't do. We can't give them the luxury of being comfortable in their game and sitting back and let them pick us apart."

As well as not allow the Kings to forecheck with regularity and authority in the offensive zone. The Blues need cleaner exits from the defensive zone as well as minimize turnovers.

(St. Louis Blues/Mark Buckner)
The Blues' Chris Stewart (left) led the team in goals (18) and points (36)
this past season. They'll need him to contribute against the Kings'
Jonathan Quick (right).
"One thing that I remember from last year, every time we chipped it out of the zone, it was right back in our zone before we knew it," Perron said. "I think it's going to be really key to get on them right away with our big guys and I guess everyone. You've got to be physical with (Drew) Doughty and (Slava) Voynov and all these guys. I think if we do that, we'll be successful."

Elliott, who will be the Game 1 starter, didn't make excuses then. He's not making them now either.

"No excuses in the playoffs as far as anything," Elliott said. "Everybody's battling something. Last year doesn't really matter. It's about how you're feeling right now. It's a shortened season, so I don't think the guys are going in as tired. We've had a condensed year, but you haven't played as many games -- or at least I haven't. I feel a little bit fresher, excited to get the second season moving. What better time to do it against than the defending champs. It's a challenge and we feel we're up for it."

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