Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown. So now we find out how strong the Kings really are.
A year ago, the Los Angeles Kings and St. Louis Blues met in the Western semifinals. The Blues were in the position with the higher expectations given their position as the second seed vs. the Kings' spot in the eighth seed. The Blues might be the higher seed again this time, but the expectations are different.
The Kings are the champs, truly beginning their defense. Eyes are on them to see if we can have our first repeat Stanley Cup champs since the Red Wings in 1997 and again in '98. The Blues are just the challengers. St. Louis could have worse news.
Before that meeting last postseason, the Kings were the team with the momentum. Sure, St. Louis had a great year and came off a convincing first-round win over San Jose, but L.A. was pretty torrid down the stretch despite the eighth-place finish. The scenarios are reversed now. It's the Blues who are the streaking team, winning 12 of their last 15 games. The Kings, meanwhile, were a bit staler down the stretch, going 5-3-2 to close out.
The Kings did win all three games against the Blues this season, but all of those were before the Blues really turned it on starting this month.
This could be the best first-round matchup in the entire NHL. It has two very good teams, plenty of big, physical players, capable goal scorers and goalies with great potential. As an added bonus, the series has two of the best minds (and quotes) in the game behind the benches with Darryl Sutter and Ken Hitchcock.
If, sadly, you are able to watch only one playoff series in the first round, you should make sure it's this one.
STL Offense vs. LA Defense
Statistically speaking, the Blues were average on offense this season. They were 17th in the league with an average of 2.58 goals per game. That's a small step up from last year's team that was more focused on defense. Perceptions aside, they are a pretty strong offensive team, believe it or not. There are 11 guys on the team this season on a pace to score 12 or more goals in a full 82-game season, led by Chris Stewart. They have balance. Not to mention they do a good job of possessing the puck, consistently outshooting and out-attempting opponents in close games.
However, they still aren't complete world-beaters on offense whereas the Kings defense is pretty strong. You know about Drew Doughty and Rob Scuderi, but they also have Matt Greene, Robyn Regehr, Slava Voynov and Jake Muzzin, who emerged to have a really good seasons. They miss Willie Mitchell. But even without him, they have a strong group. It's why, despite sub-par goaltending, the Kings still finished seventh in fewest goals against this season.
LA Offense vs. STL Defense
The Kings were terrible offensively last season until the acquisition of Jeff Carter. Perhaps it was coincidence, but they took off from there and that offense carried into this season. The Kings put up an average of 2.73 goals per game while also taking the honor of the NHL's best possession team. You stand a better chance to outscore your opponents when you are taking the majority of the attempts, and that's what the Kings do better than any team.
For St. Louis, defense is still the bread and butter. After all, they are coached by Ken Hitchcock. They were nowhere near as stingy this season as a season ago, but that had as much to do with the goaltending as anything. The addition of Jay Bouwmeester at the deadline was dismissed by some as he has been the butt of a few jokes over the years, but the Blues have been very stout since he came aboard. Since he joined the lineup, the Blues are 11-3-0 and have allowed more than one goal in only twice. Think about that. Plus, they get some good offensive production from the defensemen.
These were arguably the two best goalies last season in the entire league except for Henrik Lundqvist. But this season was a disappointment both for L.A.'s Jonathan Quick and St. Louis' Brian Elliott.
At the same time, both guys have rebounded down the stretch, particularly Elliott. Believe in him as much or as little as you want, but he's effective. Elliott finished the season with a .907 save percentage and 2.28 goals against average. Neither of those seems particularly impressive until you consider that Elliott had a save percentage around .850 before April. This month, he gave up 16 goals in 13 games and had a .948 save percentage. We all know what hot goalies can do in the postseason.
We know because we saw it last postseason in Quick. He was simply a monster, winning the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoff MVP. However, he fell way below expectations this season. He finished with just a .902 save percentage and only one shutout, disappointing numbers compared to the previous campaign. But, similar to Elliott, he did play better hockey in the final month, holding a .917 save percentage.
Given how tight these teams match up, the goalies could be the difference.
No surprise that two of the strongest overall teams are also strong on both special-teams units. The Kings are slightly better on the man advantage given that top-end scoring, but St. Louis is a little stronger on the penalty kill.
With this series having the potential to get awfully physical and thus filled with a lot of penalties, special-teams play could be another really key factor. Neither team has a decided edge on paper if that's the case, so a swing in either direction could be big.