“Goaltending is a big part of it. I thought the best player in the series was their goalie, and in the end, he made the big saves when we had five or six close-in chances.”
That was Ken Hitchcock’s initial explanation for his season coming to an end at the hands of the LA Kings.
Once he got warmed up, he escalated his comments. Speaking of the goal that did the Blues in, which came from Dustin Penner with .2 seconds left on the clock in the second period, he said, “It was a cast of errors. We didn’t get the puck deep, twice, when we had a chance to clear. We didn’t check the right players. . . . You can’t blame Elliott on that . . . but we didn’t get it cleared. We panicked with the puck.”
And finally, he pointed directly at his players. “What I’m going to tell [my players] is that it’s not good enough. If you want to be a champion, it’s not good enough. You can’t allow the goalie to outwork you. If you’re going to be a champion, you’re going to have to find a way.”
He finished saying that his team has bought into his system the last two months, and so they’ve felt good about themselves, but that not capitalizing on their chances cost them. “I hope our players, when they pause and reflect about it, are really, really pissed off, and disappointed in the opportunity that we missed here. We took everything to the beach, but we didn’t finish putting it in the water. We’re going to have to live with that all summer.”
But think of the irony. Penner, variously loved and reviled by fans in Los Angeles, gets the goal that ends up winning the series on a shot that was just one of those might-as-wells after he stole the puck on his side of center and headed toward the St. Louis net. He got inside the blueline and leaned into a slapshot. It went off the defenseman’s stick, deflecting four feet up, according to Hitchcock, and past the goalie.
Penner described his goal this way: “I didn’t know how much time was left. I heard my team yelling; I was right by the bench, and . . . the bench was yelling shoot. I didn’t think there was a lot of time, so they weren’t playing tricks on me.” When asked how hard he shot, he said, “Oh, I put everything into it, all 242.5. It may have deflected off a shaft. It may have, but it was going pretty hard.” By this point, he had told the story already, so the second time, he goofed with it a little bit.
His coach said after, “He matched his season. He matched his goal total for the season,” when asked about Penner. When asked whether he was “going more” and thus used more, Sutter said no. “It’s strictly attrition. That’s how it goes. You’ve played six in ten days with not much rest in between.” Penner, the numbers show, played about fifteen minutes, close to average for the forwards and tied with Mike Richards. His linemates were Lewis and Stoll, and they were visible from the first period, when Penner held a puck and took it down the right side for a chance early in the game and setting the tone for a night that would see lots of zone time lead to nothing, and all the goals come off of rushes, opportunistic plays, and mistakes.
Coach Sutter said a couple of days ago that these two teams play essentially the same way, and that they each do it almost perfectly. It was that way again on Friday night. The stats show few shots, 22 for St. Louis and 16 for the Kings. The goal differential was again one, as it had been every game all series. But here’s a more telling number: the hits were 37-36 for the Kings, a difference of one. One. That means that nobody who had the puck had any time to do anything with it. Hence the seemingly low offensive totals, or, rather, the numbers which look like the offenses weren’t pressing. They were. There was just nowhere to go.
Faceoffs were nearly even too. But one thing that was radically different—giveaways. The Kings did that 21 times, the Blues just seven. What that means is that the Blues were pressuring the Kings, forcing them to work more quickly than they were comfortable with, and to make mistakes. If you looked at the score and the shots, you might surmise that these two teams don’t play much offense. But as Penner said, “It’s a game of inches, and we were a bit better tonight.” There were chances at both ends, and good saves to go with those.
Most of the chances were on forced errors rather than setups in the zone, because most of the time when a team did get set up, they couldn’t penetrate the perimeter. So, for instance, Steen came out from behind the Kings’ net and tried a shot, then got his rebound and shot it through the crease. Chris Stewart beat Quick to the far side but rung it off the post near where it meets the crossbar. Perron took a shot from the left hashmark and saw it go into Quick’s leg. The goalie didn’t know where it was, but he had it.
The Kings countered with Dustin Brown going across the slot and taking a wrister back across the grain, forcing Elliott to make a leg save. Before that, Doughty had put the first goal of the game into the St. Louis net by taking the puck into the zone, faking a slapper and holding the puck, pulling it back to change the angle, then firing a wrister through Roman Polak, whom he was using as a screen.
That was period one. The second was much the same, with the Blues wasting a power play chance and then taking over by getting pucks in deep. They also benefited from a couple of turnovers, including to Stewart, who turned and flung a wrister from out high that almost beat Quick. Jaden Schwartz stole a puck and went right in on net, throwing a wrist shot wide. Dustin Brown of the Kings stole one himself and went in on a breakaway, but deked and saw the puck go wide as he slammed into the post. All of that after the Blues had tied the game before the five-minute mark of frame two. Then Penner scored late, and it seemed like that would be all.
Going into the third, “We just wanted to stifle any offense they might have and get the pucks in good places. We didn’t do a good enough job with that, but we got away with it,” Penner summarized.
There were chances in the third, not because the game opened up, particularly, but because the Blues were desperate. They got off eight shots to the Kings’ three, the best chance being Oshie’s feed to Berglund that sent him across the crease with a shot-rebound combination that he finished by shooting the puck back across the crease, hoping for a bank-in off the defenseman. Their last best chance came with a few minutes left when a puck was thrown to the net by Bouwmeester and was deflected, but rang off the post.
In closing the night out, Sutter invoked the “defending champion” label for the first time in my memory this year. He said “Quite honestly, there’s a lot of pressure on my players, but they’ve responded really well. They’ve had a tough go this series. Talk to our guys, you know, St. Louis won a series last year and we played them in the second round. There’s not a lot of difference in their team.”
Of course, there is, that being the addition of Bouwmeester and Leopold, and Hitchcock said that those two players made a big difference. He added that the talent the Blues have grown themselves needs to be a step better, and that that would be addressed with them.
A few days ago, Hitchcock and his players alike said that they needed to bury their chances, that six or eight had gone by the boards in game four. The same was true on this evening, leading one to ask the bigger question: Is it that the so-called “homegrown” talent has not matured, or do they need a hands guy, a Jeff Carter, who so perfectly completed the Kings’ lineup last year, and then tore a hole in the scoresheet this season night after night? Most observers think the latter, putting St. Louis’s record to this point under Hitchcock as its likely high point unless something changes.
So the Blues go home, frustrated again but having done better than at least half the teams in the league (you could finish this sentence, “and thus ensuring themselves only a middling draft pick—again” if you wished to). The Kings rest Saturday, practice Sunday, and learn who their opponent is that night. If Anaheim beats Detroit, it’s them. If they lose, then the Kings get the Sharks. Either way, an easy travel series awaits after the grind of flying to Missouri and back with no extra day between since the series started last week.
Kyle Clifford was the only subtraction to the roster, with Jordan Nolan being added. He got about seven minutes. Youngster Tyler Tiffoli was also in, his second game in a row, getting eight. As usual, Doughty led the team in icetime from the D, with about 25.
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