EL SEGUNDO, Calif. – Three games into the Los Angeles Kings’ tremendously tense playoff series with the St. Louis Blues, it’s clear the scores are so low because the stakes are so high.
Two elite Western Conference teams have combined for just seven goals, and nobody has led by more than one goal at any point.
The highlight reels aren’t getting filled up when these two sturdy defences and standout goalies challenge each other, but the entertainment value has been tremendous for fans of tactical hockey and all-or-nothing playoff excitement.
With the Blues holding a 2-1 series lead heading to a pivotal Game 4 on Monday night at Staples Center, both teams are trying to break this defensive deadlock in time to save seasons that began with Stanley Cup aspirations.
“You’ve got to understand, it’s playoffs,” Los Angeles coach Darryl Sutter said after a light practice Sunday at the Kings’ training complex.
“It’s one-goal games. All three of them are one-goal games. Everybody is trying to score a goal, but it’s not that easy when you have the two best defensive teams in the conference.”
In the West, only Chicago allowed fewer goals than St. Louis during the regular season. Los Angeles allowed just three more goals than the Blues.
Fourth-seeded St. Louis’ imposing defence has allowed only three goals, outmuscling the Kings’ talented forwards and keeping their scoring chances largely outside the slot.
After their return to the playoffs ended in a second-round sweep last year, the Blues are desperate to win just their second playoff series since 2002, and their play in front of Brian Elliott has reflected it.
“We knew what we were in for,” Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said. “There’s not much difference between the two teams. Both goalies are on top of their game.”
The defending Stanley Cup champion Kings have yielded just four goals, with Jonathan Quick posting a shutout in Game 3 to trim the Blues’ series lead to 2-1.
Los Angeles has nearly the same roster as last season’s Cup-winning team, and the Kings are determined to show they weren’t a fluke during their run from the eighth seed to their first title last summer.
“It’s typical playoff hockey,” said defenceman Robyn Regehr, one of Los Angeles’ few new additions. “Every inch of ice is a battle out there. Both teams are struggling offensively, but both goaltenders are a reason for that. There’s all kinds of little things that happen within the game. Playoff hockey is the most fun.”
Quick has stopped 93 of the Blues’ 97 shots, returning to last season’s dominant form in his Saturday night shutout in Game 3, while Elliott has stopped 76 of 79 shots.
While St. Louis knew Quick was one of the NHL’s toughest matchups, the Kings have emerged from the first three games with renewed respect for Elliott, who shared the starting job with Jaroslav Halak again this season.
“He’s a good goalie,” Kings defenceman Drew Doughty said. “He makes the first save pretty much every time. I think the one area where he struggles is he lets some rebounds, and I think we haven’t been doing a good enough job of pouncing on those rebounds and putting in the second effort.
“Goalies are huge in any series. Elliott played great in the first two games, and that’s why they won two, and Quickie was great (in Game 3).”
Sutter shook up his lineup for Game 3, dressing seven defencemen by adding Alec Martinez back to the group. Jeff Carter, Dustin Brown and others double-shifted on the fourth line to make up for the absent forward, and Martinez rewarded the decision by picking up an assist on Slava Voynov’s goal in the 1-0 victory.
The Blues left Game 3 lamenting numerous missed scoring opportunities that could have given them a stranglehold on the series. That’s why St. Louis is considering the addition of Russian rookie right wing Vladimir Tarasenko to the lineup in Game 4, although Hitchcock said he won’t decide for sure until Monday.
“We got our fair share of chances, (but) we just have to be more determined and find ways to score,” said forward Alexander Steen, who has two of the Blues’ four goals in the series. “(In Game 3) I didn’t think it was Quick. I thought it was us. We had our chances, and we have to start putting them away.”
The Kings haven’t had as many chances, but they largely blame themselves. Los Angeles has been bullied out of the slot and into the corners by the Blues’ hulking defence, which added Jordan Leopold and Jay Bouwmeester this season to make a tough team even tougher.
“There’s not going to be an easy time for us,” Regehr said. “It’s going to be a challenge all the time.”
Unless the Blues figure out how to break the Kings’ mastery at home, they’ll be headed back to St. Louis with an even series. Los Angeles improved the NHL’s best home record to 20-4-1 with a victory in Game 3, winning every game since March 23. St. Louis has lost six straight games at Staples Center dating to the 2010-11 season.
“We’re confident in front of our fans,” Kings forward Justin Williams said. “We have to come out for Game 4 with the same emphasis. You can’t let up for even one period in a series like this, and we know it.”