EL SEGUNDO, Calif. – Robyn Regehr broke his nose and got a puck in his ear, while captain Dustin Brown merely has a jagged cut on the bridge of his unbroken nose. Other Los Angeles Kings bear their own souvenirs, and several St. Louis Blues are similarly marked up.
After five bruising games of this first-round playoff series, the Kings and Blues are pretty certain they’re hitting each other harder and more often than most NHL clubs. Dustin Penner’s friends around the league can tell it’s a brutal matchup just by watching on television.
“I have to think it’s the most physical (series) I’ve played in so far,” said the Kings forward, a two-time Stanley Cup winner who is missing a front tooth.
With three straight victories heading into Game 6 on Friday night, the defending Stanley Cup champion Kings are on the brink of a remarkable comeback to win this punishing series. They know they’ll still have to knock over the Blues to get that last victory.
While NHL statistics on hits are highly subjective, the players realize the physical peril of this matchup. The Kings won the Cup last season with a roughneck brand of play, and the Blues’ roster is populated with big players who excel at hard-hitting hockey.
Put them together, and it’s a controlled brawl punctuated by bursts of offence—the slight majority from the Kings, who won Game 5 on Slava Voynov’s overtime goal.
“Both teams have some pretty physical guys, and part of what makes both teams successful is hard puck battles,” Brown said Thursday after the Kings returned from St. Louis. “When you have two teams that are like that, there’s going to be more physical play, I think. There hasn’t been a lot of open ice in the series. All the goals that have been scored are on odd-man rushes. All the other times, the ice is so hard to gain an advantage on with guys running into each other.”
Although the Kings have won three straight with the same relentless push they made to the Cup last season, the series has been awfully close in every aspect—no surprise from two tough Western Conference teams with similar makeups and attitudes. Every game has been decided by one goal, and neither team has held a large lead for any significant amount of time.
The Blues have won just one playoff series since 2002, but they’ve played right with the NHL champions through all five games. St. Louis isn’t intimidated—but it desperately needs to get a few more timely goals past Jonathan Quick.
“We’re still positive,” St. Louis defenceman Barret Jackman said. “We still feel we have a very good team that can skate with L.A. We’ve got to continue to wear them down, go into L.A. and continue to do the little things that we did (in Game 5).”
St. Louis coach Ken Hitchcock was concertedly upbeat after Game 5, praising the Blues’ effort and expressing optimism for a series-changing win in Los Angeles on Friday. That’s not always how Hitchcock deals with a defeat, but the Cup-winning coach had little criticism for a team that will be under tremendous pressure from the opening faceoff in Game 6.
“It’s always tough going into a road rink in the playoffs, (but) we did a lot of good things in L.A.,” said St. Louis defenceman Alex Pietrangelo, who tied Game 5 in the final minute of regulation. “We’ve just got to go there and play our game. … Every opportunity, every goal, is important here. You never know what kind of bounce is going to happen next. That’s playoff hockey. We’ve just got to keep grinding away.”
The Kings’ victory in Game 5 was their first road win since March 31, finally putting them back in the role they assumed so easily during their Stanley Cup run. Los Angeles was almost unbeatable on the road last spring, going 10-1 away from Staples Center in the playoffs and winning the first two games of every series on the road.
Staples Center has been largely impenetrable for opponents this season: The Kings have won nine straight home games since March 23, while the Blues are winless in their last seven trips to Los Angeles.
“Our mood hasn’t really changed from Game 1 to now,” Brown said. “Everyone understands. We went through it last year. … I think that feeling has never really left. We got down 0-2, but our confidence as a group and our belief system as a group has never really faltered. Being down 0-2, it’s one of those things you have to deal with, and we have the type of guys in here that can deal with adversity and find a way to get the job done.”
If the Kings intend to complete their second playoff series victory in franchise history after trailing 0-2 in the series, they’ll have to keep up their recent offensive improvements. Los Angeles has scored seven goals in the past two games after managing just three in the first three.
Los Angeles has failed to win a series after leading 3-2 just once in seven tries in club history, but the Kings are just 12-10 in series closeout games overall. They lost four potential closeout games during last season’s championship run, but their confidence is growing with every win.
“We’re playing up to our potential, or closer to our potential than we did in the first two (games),” said Anze Kopitar, who ended a 19-game goal drought in Game 4. “Maybe we got a little bit lucky in Game 3, but the last couple of games, we feel like we’ve been playing some pretty good hockey.
“We certainly realize what’s at stake. We don’t want to go back to St. Louis, (but) we have to get ready like every other game.”