ST. LOUIS – Two long-time have-not franchises that took off after switching coaches midseason are among the last eight standing in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Ken Hitchcock of the St. Louis Blues and Darryl Sutter of the Los Angeles Kings both have top-shelf goaltending and the two stingiest defences overall. Both teams dispatched their first-round opponents in five games, too, with relentless styles of play.
That leaves plenty of time to prepare for Game 1 of the Western Conference semifinals Saturday night.
“If you look at the stats, the defence, the scoring, everything is very similar,” Kings captain Dustin Brown said. “We’ll see what the difference is in the game.
“I’m sure there’s going to be differences that show up once we have to play each other six, seven times or whatever it’s going to be.”
The second-seeded Blues hadn’t won a playoff game since 2004 before this spring. They’re coming off their first series win since 2002, and are the top seed remaining in the conference under Hitchcock, who replaced Davis Payne in November after a 6-7 start and guided the franchise to its first division title since 2000.
“It’s normal that people are putting us in there, but there’s also seven other teams that think the same as us,” Blues forward David Perron said.
One of them is the eighth-seeded Kings, who knocked off the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Vancouver Canucks for their first series win in 11 years. They won the season series 3-1, too, under the hard-nosed Sutter, who replaced Terry Murray in December.
“L.A. plays nasty, they play real nasty,” Hitchcock said. “They follow the coach’s orders, and they finish all their checks. They play with a level of commitment to physical play that’s going to be a challenge for any team.”
That sound just like what’s coming from the opposing locker room.
“You play these guys every time, you’re leaving the game beat up,” Kings defenceman Matt Greene said. “They grind you. They’re not high scoring, but definitely some action.”
The biggest stars are in the net.
Kings goalie Jonathan Quick is a finalist for the Vezina Trophy, set a franchise record with a league-leading 10 shutouts and had a 1.59 goals-against average in the first round while allowing just eight goals in 172 shots. He shut out the Blues twice in the regular season, the last time a 1-0 shootout victory March 22 at Los Angeles.
“To say he’s the hottest goalie with some of these great goalies that are still around is an argument,” Blues defenceman Barret Jackman said. “But he definitely stood on his head in that first series.”
The Blues can match that, even with one half of their goalie tandem.
Brian Elliott led the NHL with a 1.56 goals-against average in the regular season and the last of his nine shutouts in that shootout loss to the Kings. Elliott was better in the first round, stopping 98 of 103 shots after Jaroslav Halak was sidelined with an injury believed to be an ankle sprain in Game 2.
That should have been enough to earn the nod against the Kings.
“I think our goalie is pretty hot, too,” Perron said. “I don’t know if it’s called hot or not, he’s been like that all year.”
Hitchcock eliminated any suspense earlier this week when he ruled out Halak for the first two games. Untested rookie Jake Allen is the backup for now.
“I just don’t want to deal with it while the competition is on,” Hitchcock said. “Going at it every day, is he on the ice, is he whatever. He’s out and we’ve got our two goalies and away we go.”
The Blues’ top line stepped up in the first round, with speedy Andy McDonald getting four goals and four assists and Patrik Berglund totalling seven points and Alex Steen adding a goal and two assists. Forward David Backes, the captain, sets a blue collar standard and was plus-3.
McDonald missed all four regular-season meetings with a concussion and Steen missed two of the games, “so hopefully we’ve got a surprise for them,” Hitchcock said.
After surviving the first round, the Blues won’t be surprised by anything on the ice. St. Louis is in the playoffs for just the second time in seven seasons.
“To me, everything is getting out of the first round, it validates your season,” Hitchcock said. “Now, it’s just compete and play.”