The Blues have been thinking about the Los Angeles Kings much longer than the past 24 hours, since late Saturday night when their first-round matchup in the Western Conference playoffs was cemented.
“It’s something I’m sure everyone in this room has thought about over the last 12 months,” Blues defenseman Barret Jackman said.
On May 6, 2012, the Blues skated off the ice at LA’s Staples Center the victim of a four-game sweep by the Kings. They were outscored 15-6 in the series, outmuscled in every corner and suffered a meltdown in the composure department.
For weeks, Blues fans have feared an opening-round rematch with LA, citing the Kings’ ability to run through the West as the No. 8 seed last year and romp to the Stanley Cup. But as Jackman pointed out Sunday, and other Blues echoed, “We’ve got something to prove and it’s nice to be able to do that in the first round.”
The No. 4-seeded Blues will host No. 5 LA in a seven-game series that will open Tuesday at Scottrade Center. Game 2 is Thursday here, and then the 2-2-1-1-1 format will shift to LA for Games 3-4 on Saturday and Monday.
The Blues and Kings have met three times in postseason play in their history and each time the result was a sweep — before 2011-12, the Note came out clean in the other two series in 1998 and 1969.
But considering the Blues and Kings both have lengthy home winning streaks — the Blues have won six straight at Scottrade Center and the Kings seven in a row at Staples Center — this does not shape up as a short series.
“We’re playing better than we have all year,” Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said. “We’re deeper than we’ve ever been. Whether we’re good enough, this series is going to tell, but we think we’re 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.”
LA used the Blues’ bread-and-butter — quick exits and a strong forecheck — to dismantle teams in last year’s playoffs. In their 16-4 postseason run, the Kings averaged 36 hits per game. The Blues took 26 minor penalties in the four games, many of them in retaliation.
“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,” Blues forward David Perron said. “It’s going to be really key to get on them right away. We know they’re going to be really physical and we can’t reply to any of the stuff they’re trying to do to us.”
Including LA’s four-game sweep last May, the Kings have won eight consecutive games over the Blues, outscoring them 29-13. The last loss was March 28, a 4-2 defeat that dropped the club into ninth place in the West. But since that game, the Blues are 12-3, allowing 22 goals in those 15 games. That stretch coincides with the arrival of new defensemen Jay Boumweester and Jordan Leopold.
“They’re an improved team obviously from the last time we played them in the regular season, with the addition of Bouwmeester and Leopold,” LA coach Darryl Sutter said. “And probably the biggest difference would be they were really down to one goalie last year after splitting. I think it affected the team. So they’re clear who their goalie is now.”
Also coinciding with the team’s turnaround, Brian Elliott is 11-2 with a 1.28 goals-against average and a .948 save percentage since April 1, and despite Jaroslav Halak being 100 percent healthy, Elliott will be the starter in Game 1.
A year ago, LA came into the series having averaged just 2.29 goals per game, which ranked No. 29 in the NHL in 2011-12. The Kings averaged 2.73 goals per game in this regular season, ranking No. 10 in the league.
Jeff Carter leads the club with 26 goals and Anze Kopitar has a team-high 42 points. Kopitar has 10 goals but hasn't netted one in his last 16 games. His line will see plenty of David Backes' line.
"They have some big bodies and they play a heavy game," Kopitar said. "We have some big bodies and we’re pretty familiar. We know what we’re getting and they know what they’re getting so it’s a matter of getting ready and just go from there."
The Blues, led by Chris Stewart's 34 points, went through a scoring drought earlier this month, but in its past four games, the offense has managed 13 goals.
En route to his Conn Smythe trophy last season, LA goaltender Jonathan Quick surrendered just six goals to the Blues on 102 shots in the series. This year, he finished the regular season 18-3-4 with a 2.45 GAA and .902, but in his last seven games he's 5-1-1 with a 1.94 and .927.
"I think the biggest thing for him that makes him a successful goalie is he really comes out and he's aggressive on every single play," Perron said. "Even if you think you're on the goalie, he's going to be aggressive and he expects his 'D' to back him up if there's a puck in behind him. I think you've got to try and keep him in the crease."
Despite LA's strangle-hold on the Blues lately, Quick said the slates are wiped clean.
"We both start a 0-0," he said, "and we’re going to have to outwork them. They’re going to bring similar challenges to a lot of the teams in the top eight. I think it’s just going to come down to we've got to outwork them to get some wins."
The game plans are similar on both sides. It will come down to the execution, which the Kings have done a better job of against the Blues.
“They’ve proven right now that they’re a little bit better than us,” Hitchcock said. “It’s our opportunity now to see if we can catch up. Our players are hungry to try and see where we’re at.”