Series Preview: Blues vs. Kings

I continue my analysis of the second round Stanley Cup playoff series by analyzing the playoff series between the St. Louis Blues and the Los Angeles Kings.

Both teams won their opening-round series in five games.  While the Blues erased their 10-year series-winning playoff drought in impressive fashion by dispatching the San Jose Sharks, the 8th-seeded Kings pulled off the Stanley Cup playoff’s biggest upset by eliminating the top-seeded and President’s Trophy-winning Vancouver Canucks.

The St. Louis Blues continued their success of the regular season by utilizing the same formula of stingy defense, stellar goaltending and timely scoring during their first-round playoff series, shutting down the likes of Joe Pavelski and Patrick Marleau who were held pointless in the five-game series.  Brian Elliott trumped his regular season performance, coming off the bench in Game 2 after Jaroslav Halak was injured in a collision with teammate Barret Jackman and stifling the Sharks for the next three plus games with a Goals Against Average (GAA) of 1.37 and a Save Percentage (Save%) of .949.  Andy McDonald’s return towards the end of the season was particularly welcomed during the first round series as McDonald registered four goals and eight total points during the five-game opening-round series.

The LA Kings stunned the Vancouver Canucks by opening up a three games to none lead in their series, the first two of which were by identical scores of 4-2, effectively chasing starting netminder Roberto Luongo to the bench and having backup Corey Schneider try to salvage the series.  While Schneider was spectacular during the next three games with a GAA of 1.31 and a Save% of .960, he was matched by the equally-spectacular goaltending of Jonathan Quick, who posted a GAA of 1.59 and a Save% of .953.  Kings team captain Dustin Brown led the scoring assault with four goals and five total points in the five-game series.  And while the Kings did not completely shut down the Sedin twins, they were able to contain them and were particularly effective in shutting down their other supporting cast, specifically Alex Burrows and Ryan Kessler.

This series also has all of the makings of a classic battle of stingy defenses and stellar goaltending as well as a chess game of two of the NHL’s best veteran head coaches in apparent Jack Adams trophy front-running Ken Hitchcock and mid-season disaster salvager Darryl Sutter.

I offer my predictions by assessing each team’s offense, defense, special teams, goaltending and finally each squad’s “X-Factor” – the intangibles that could decide the outcome of this series.  I will then conclude with my prediction as to how I see this series playing out – who wins the series and in how many games they will do it.

Here’s the Rundown:

Offense:

During the regular season, the Blues were somewhat an offensively-impaired as they finished 21st in the NHL in goals/game with 2.47 goals/game.  They are lead, offensively, by their ‘tough as nails’ captain David Backes as well as high-energy forward T.J. Oshie.  However, both Blues forwards tied for the lead in points with 54 total points which represented the 2nd lowest team point leader in the NHL, behind only the Minnesota Wild, the NHL’s lowest scoring team this past regular season.  As it relates to blueline scoring, the Blues possess one of the best blueline pairings in the NHL in Alex Pietrangelo and Kevin Shattenkirk.  Pietrangelo finished 4th in the NHL in scoring amongst defensemen and Shattenkirk finished 11th in blueline scoring.  The Blues do have adequate secondary scoring albeit not prolific with as many as nine Blues scoring at least ten goals during the regular season.

In their 1st round playoff series, the Blues were buoyed by the return of McDonald as well as the surprising contributions of Patrik Berglund with three goals and seven total points during the five-game first-round series.

The LA Kings offensive struggles were one of the NHL’s greatest mysteries, considering the offensive weaponry of their forwards lines in Justin Williams, Anze Kopitar, Mike Richards, Dustin Brown and Jeff Carter, who was acquired from the Columbus Blue Jackets near the NHL’s trade deadline and one of the NHL’s best defensemen in Drew Doughty.  The Kings finished 29th in the NHL with a putrid 2.25 goals/game, ahead of only the Minnesota Wild.  They are lead, offensively, by Kopitar who tallied 76 points during the regular season, followed by Williams with 59 points and Brown with 54 points.  As it relates to blueline scoring, Doughty led the Kings with 36 points, albeit a precipitous drop from his 59-point total during the 2009-10 season.

In their 1st round playoff series, the Kings were paced by Brown and followed by Williams, who scored four total points, all of them via assists.

As neither team produces much in the way of offense, the assessment as to which team gets the advantage is a…

Advantage:  Push

Defense:

The Kings do possess some solid defensive players who can execute a ‘stay at home’ philosophy, with Willie Mitchell and Matt Greene providing stellar shot-blocking support for Quick, their remaining defensive corps greatest strengths are their puck-moving capabilities and ability on the man advantage (Power Play), with Doughty and Slava Voynov.  The Kings finished right behind the Blues at 2nd NHL in Goals Allowed (GAA) during the regular season, having given up an avaricious 2.03 goals/game.  In their first-round series against the Canucks, the Kings gave up even fewer goals/game with a 1.58 GAA, again ranking only behind the Blues in that category.

The Blues defensive corps is the NHL’s stingiest bunch with stay at home, shot-blocking stalwarts such as Carlo Colaiacavo and BarrettJackman who provide a great deal of shot-blocking support for both Halak and Elliot.

However, it is Hitchcock’s approach to the game with an ‘all in’ philosophy that has elevated the Blues to the NHL’s rankings for the fewest goals allowed (GA), having given up a stingy 1.86 goals/game as well as surrendering the fewest shots on goal allowed at 26.8 shots/game.  That stinginess didn’t waiver in their first-round series against the Sharks as the Blues gave up an even stingier 1.48 goals/game.

The Blues’ defensive acumen and prowess is the NHL’s best, but only by a slight margin.  However, given the differing overall defense-first philosophies, in assessing to which team the advantage goes…

Advantage:  Blues (Very Slight)

Special Teams:

To assess each teams overall special teams play, they are mirror images of each other.  The Blues struggled at times on the man advantage during the regular season, finishing 20th on their power play conversion rate with a 16.7% success rate.  They are lead by Backes who registered eight Power Play goals during the regular season.  The Kings finished one position ahead of the Blues with a 17.0% conversion rate on the power play.  Williams and Brown tied for the lead with 10 power play tallies.

Regarding the Penalty Kill, the Blues finished 7th in the NHL with a stout 85.8% kill rate.  Not to be outdone, the Kings finished 4th on the penalty kill, with an even better kill rate of 87.0%.

In the respective first-round series, the Blues were outstanding on the man advantage with a stellar conversion rate of 33.3% whereas the Kings struggled a bit with an 11.5% conversion rate.  On the penalty kill, both teams were equally adept, with the Blues killing off penalties at a 88.2% kill rate with the Kings right behind them with a 85.7% kill rate.

So, to assess who possesses an advantage in this ‘strength versus strength’ Special Teams battle…

Advantage:  Push

 Goaltending:

Much like their special teams play, the teams are mirror images as it relates to goaltending, although they are different in that Quick is ‘the man’ in goal for the Kings, whereas the Blues utilize the NHL’s premier goaltending tandem with Vezina Trophy candidates Halak and Elliot leading the way.  Elliot led the NHL in lowest GAA with a 1.56 GAA and also led the NHL with a Save% of .940.  Halak was no slouch in net with a 1.97 GAA which tied him for 4th in that category and a Save% of .926 which ranked him 5th in the NHL regular season statistics.  Elliot was a stone wall in the last three and a half games after Halak was injured in Game 2, posting a GAA of 1.37 and a Save% of .949.

Quick paced the Kings goaltending duties during both the regular season and in the playoffs and should also be a Vezina Trophy finalist after posting a GAA of 1.95 and a Save% of .929, finishing 2nd and 4th in both respective categories.  There was no drop off in Quick’s performance in the first-round playoff series against the Canucks.  In fact, Quick’s numbers actually improved as he posted a GAA of 1.59 and a Save% of .953.

When assessing each team’s goaltending units, this one’s too close to call…

Advantage:  Push

X-Factor:

Under Ken Hitchcock, the Blues have won their first playoff series since 2002.  Hitchcock has the Blues completely buying into his system, which usually proves most effective during the playoffs, when clamping down on the respective opponent is the key to advancing further and often results in hoisting the Stanley Cup.  However, the Kings have nothing to lose at this stage, as they’ve pulled off the Stanley Cup playoff’s biggest upset, thus far.  While Sutter has not coached a Stanley Cup champion like Hitchcock did in 1999, he has coached his teams in the Stanley Cup playoffs during 11 of his 12 full seasons as a head coach, losing in the 2003-04 Stanley Cup finals against to the Tampa Bay Lightning.

One intriguing factor to watch in this series will be whether the Kings can shut down the Blues in the playoffs as they did during the regular season, as the Blues lost three of their four games against the Kings and were shut out in two of their three losses, although Hitchcock was not the head coach when the Kings pounded the Blues, 5-0 in October, 2011.

So when assessing the X-Factor, this one’s also very close to call, but the advantage goes to…

Advantage:  Blues (slight)

Prediction:

While the Blues are feeling supremely confident after dispatching the Sharks in five games and while the Kings may appear to portray the ‘just happy to be here’ vibe, this series should be an epic showdown of staunch defenses and elite goaltending.  The last three contests between the teams were all one-goal differential affairs, the last two of which resulted in 1-0 victories for each respective team.

But the Stanley Cup playoffs are an entirely different animal, so while the final scores should be quite similar, the Blues’ confidence and complete buy-in to Hitchcock and his system should prove to be the difference.  In short, this one should be a classic.

Given all those variables, here’s the guess:

Blues in Seven Games

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