EL SEGUNDO, Calif. – The Los Angeles Kings made playoff hockey look almost easy last season, steamrolling four straight opponents on the way to their first Stanley Cup title.
The Kings are back to NHL reality this spring, and it’s considerably less pretty.
They’ve managed just two goals in two games against the hungry St. Louis Blues. Conn Smythe Trophy-winning goalie Jonathan Quick, nearly unbeatable throughout last spring, has made just enough mistakes to put the Kings into a 0-2 series hole with consecutive 2-1 road defeats.
Although Quick sought the blame for those losses because of his disastrous puck-handling in the overtime opener and the Blues’ last-minute goal in Game 2, his teammates know he doesn’t deserve it.
“That’s just the type of guy he is,” Mike Richards said Friday. “He’s a first-class teammate, and he’ll say those things.”
A goalie isn’t supposed to score goals, and unless the rest of the Kings start doing their jobs in Game 3 on Saturday night, their Stanley Cup defence will be over quickly.
“That won’t cut it,” Jarret Stoll said with a grimace. “That won’t win very many games when you score one goal.”
Los Angeles will have a raucous sellout crowd at Staples Center for its first home playoff game since raising its only Stanley Cup banner. The fifth-seeded Kings have been dominant at home lately, winning seven straight since March 23.
Nearly every player returned from last season’s championship team for this defence, and that’s why the Kings know it’s vital to avoid a 0-3 series deficit. They put all four of their opponents in 0-3 holes last spring, never even facing an elimination game.
“Last year we had a 3-0 series lead in every series we had, and it’s not always going to be that easy,” Kings defenceman Rob Scuderi said. “We’ve been in series before when we’ve been down and come back. You’ve just got to keep your head about you, make sure you pick up the desperation in your play, and try to get the next one.”
But they’ll need goals to do that. The Kings were the third highest-scoring team in the Western Conference this season, erasing their reputation as a grind-it-out team with skill shortages, but that scoring potency hasn’t translated to the playoffs, where they still haven’t scored at even strength in the series.
Jeff Carter led the conference with 26 goals this season, finishing fourth in the Richard Trophy race with his power-forward toughness and impressive shot. The Kings have no goals against St. Louis from Carter—or Richards, or 2012 playoff heroes Stoll and Dustin Penner, or puck-moving defenceman Drew Doughty, who dominated long stretches of the last post-season with his aggressive offensive play.
But the Kings’ most prominent absence from the scoresheet has been Anze Kopitar, the sublimely talented Slovenian centre who scored 25 goals in each of his previous five seasons and finished last spring as the post-season’s co-scoring leader with captain Dustin Brown.
Kopitar failed to score a goal in the Kings’ final 16 games of the regular season, finishing with just 10 in 47 games, and he hasn’t found the net against St. Louis. While Kopitar’s playmaking and faceoff acumen are still strong, his goal drought is getting tougher to ignore.
The Kings aren’t generating enough shots or good scoring chances against Brian Elliott. St. Louis’ rugged defence has kept Los Angeles’ top forwards largely outside the best scoring areas, limiting the traffic in front and the Kings’ rebound chances.
On the other end, the Blues’ confidence is growing with every successful shift against the Kings’ sturdy defence, which helped Quick to his playoff MVP award last season.
“We’re starting to get to him right now,” Blues forward David Perron said. “We’re trying to get some traffic going as many times as we can. We know he is a really good goalie. You’ve got to keep him in the back of his crease.”
St. Louis lost twice at Staples Center last season while getting swept out of the second round, and the Blues blew a three-goal lead in a fight-filled, 6-4 loss in their only trip to Los Angeles this season. St. Louis finished one point ahead of Los Angeles in the conference race this season, forcing the Kings to start this series on the road, where they’ve lost eight straight games.
“It’s really good to be up two games, but it’s going to be a long series,” said Blues forward Patrik Berglund, who didn’t even see the puck that bounced off him for St. Louis’ first goal in Game 2. “We’ve got to get bodies in front of him, obviously. Those are the kind (of goals) we have to score. There are not going to be too many pretty ones. … They’re going to come out really hard in L.A. I think we’re going to have to play the same kind of game, really physical, and do the right things.”
The Blues are in command of the series, but the Kings have the confidence of last season’s run and the knowledge they played two fairly even games against St. Louis despite the results—losing Game 1 on a fluke goal and blowing a third-period lead in Game 2. The Kings are betting heavily on a win in Game 3 to get their title defence rolling again.
“It’s not an easy situation to be in, but they held court in St. Louis,” Penner said. “We’re planning to do the same thing here.”