Thursday, April 26, 2012

Next Stop To Stanley: Kings vs. Blues Preview

As we noted before, the Kings are who we thought they are. After destroying the dreams of Vancouver's children, the boys from LA turn their focus to the St. Louis Blues.

If Vancouver was supposed to be the offensive Goliath of the playoffs, providing a serious threat to the Kings, the Blues are the defensive equivalent. Besides the Blues, there was no other team in hockey that played defense as well as the Kings. Both teams are made up of strong defenseman and Goalies who play with supernatural abilities. Many, including Kings Coach Daryl Sutter, are calling for this series to be one of the lowest-scoring series of all time. 

While I think this certainly will be a series with tight play on the defensive-end, I believe goals will come at a greater clip than expected. The Kings found an offensive rhythm in the Canucks series that should carry over even against the large bodies of the Blues.

Many will point to the Kings 3-1 record against the Blues in the regular season as a sign that this will be a cakewalk. However, the wins earlier this season do not count for squat as the Blues were playing without a healthy Andy McDonald and Alexander Steen. These two players provide a huge offensive kick for the Blues and will change the dynamics/matchups for the series. My predictions will follow below but first the Mambino 3 keys to the Kings-Blues series.

1. Goaltending

Jonathan Quick is the best goalie in hockey. Sure the statistics may say otherwise but no keeper has done more with less than Quick. He played out of his mind this year under two different coaches and singlehandedly kept the playoffs hopes alive for the Kings. He is going to meet his match with the duo of keepers from the Blues.

St. Louis has played with the pair of Brian Elliott and Jaroslav Halak minding the nets. Elliott started the season as the backup for the Blues but wound up having a ridiculous, league leading, 1.56 goals against average. Elliott only played 38 games to Quick’s 69 (Quick managed to be second in the league with an equally ridiculous 1.95 GAA and a league leading 10 shutouts), but still proved his worth throughout the regular season. Halak is nursing a “lower-body injury” (see: sprained ankle) and will likely be ready to return by game 3 at the latest. This means the matchup will likely be Quick-Elliott in St. Louis.

The series outcome will undoubtedly be decided by how well Quick plays. If he continues to stop pucks like the 405 stops traffic nobody can beat the Kings. Read that sentence again. The Kings will stand on Quick’s shoulders as far as he can carry them.

2. Oh Captain, My Captain

Dustin Brown is my captain. He proved in the last series that he is the spark the Kings need to get rolling. With a stat line of 4 goals-1 assist-5 points in 5 games, Brown utterly dismantled the Canucks. He is going to be facing a more formidable Defensive group with the offensive Alex Pietrangelo paired alongside Carlo Colaiacovo.
The Blues, unlike the Kings, received a consistent offensive spark from their defense during the regular season. Though the Kings can look to Drew Doughty as their best offensive threat on defense, the Canucks showed how effectively teams can swarm the wily Doughty. It will again fall upon Brown to help keep the fore-check running strong and create gaps, keeping the pressure on the Blues goaltenders. It was certainly surprising to see the two shorthanded goals Brown scored last series but that type of heads up pressure from the Captain is going to be needed to keep the Kings heading deeper into the playoffs.

3. Staples Center Shittiness 

The Kings have played poorly at home during the playoffs over the last few years. In fact, their win in game 3 of the Canucks series was their first at home 8 years.  Plenty of experts have weighed in on why the Kings play with a perceived lack of intensity at home. I think from a fan’s standpoint, and as somebody who has watched plenty of Kings regular season home games (they went a respectable 22-14-5 at Staples), I can tell you the Kings can win at home.  

The young core of the Kings has to figure out a way to make home-ice their advantage. Staples Center provides a raucous crowd and most importantly, one of the worst surfaces to play on in the NHL. During a 2011 NHL All-Star weekend player poll, Staples was listed as the fifth worst ice in the league. This makes a whole lot of sense when the Kings are one of 4 full time professional sports franchises to call Staples home.

During this series, the Clippers, Lakers, and Kings will all play games in the house that Anschutz built. This wouldn’t be a huge issue if the Clippers and Lakers played on ice. But unfortunately, basketball is played on hardwood. Meaning, the temperature will be turned up a bit, the ice will sit underneath the arena (yes that’s right! Watch this video to get an idea of how crazy it is they play basketball and hockey games back to back), and the playing surface will be undoubtedly shitty.

In spite of the lack of intensity against the Canucks in game 3 of the last series, the Kings watched the Canadians lose their edge on the horrendous playing surface. The puck continually skipped and splashed around and eroded many of the chances the Canucks had on offense by disrupting what would normally be easy connecting passes through the zones.

The Kings have shown they can ratchet up the intensity on the road and play well in hostile road environments (Quick had a 1.58 GAA in Vancouver, superhuman). However, if they want to win this series, they are going to need to take advantage of their experience in the crappy pond known as Staples Center and steals some dirty wins.

Prediction: Kings win in 6

I  like the way the Kings have played on the road this postseason. They went into the belly of hockey country (see: Canada) and dialed up the intensity for 3 big wins. Playing in St. Louis, a town known for having great baseball fans, scares me a whole lot less.

This series is going to be a grind, and both teams are going to kick the crap out of each other. There will be plenty of penalty minutes and I wouldn’t be shocked to see a guy like Dustin Penner being suspended for taking someone’s head off.

If the Kings can capitalize with a few timely power play goals and Quick can keep control of the net on the road this series will be over in 6 games, with the Kings moving on to the third round.

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