In a rematch of last year's conference semifinal of two strong and well-coached possession monsters, including the defending Stanley Cup champions and potentially the league's hottest team, it's quite unfortunate that one of them has to go home so early.
Last year, Los Angeles was tied with St. Louis and Toronto for the longest Stanley Cup drought. Now that the Kings have finally ended their drought, they stand in the way of the Blues ending theirs.
Los Angeles Kings close-game Fenwick: 56.9% (Rank: 1st in NHL)
St. Louis Blues close-game Fenwick: 54.0% (Rank: 5th in NHL)
Total: Los Angeles Kings, +2.9%
These are unquestionably two of the league's strongest possession teams, and for a couple of seasons now. Don't expect a lot of dump-ins, even on line changes, but instead crisp passing and puck-moving action.
St. Louis offense vs. Los Angeles defense
St. Louis Blues offense: -3.4 GVT (Rank: 17th in NHL)
Los Angeles Kings defense: 16.2 GVT (Rank: 4th in NHL)
Los Angeles Kings goaltending: -4.2 GVT (Rank: 17th in NHL)
Total: St. Louis Blues, -8.6 GVT
Streaky Chris Stewart came back to life this season, leading the team in goals and points, but the Blues were quite badly outshot when he was on the ice. In contrast, by consistently helping his team dominate the shot counts, Alex Steen was ranked as one of the league's best players by Michael Schuckers' recently introduced THoR metric, which is similar to our own Tom Awad's shot-based DeltaSOT. Though that's probably a bit of an exaggeration, he is definitely highly underrated.
Patrik Berglund scored on an amazing 23.0% of his shots, leading the league, and besting his previous career high of 14.7%. While that may have involved some luck, the complete player Hitchcock is gradually helping him become will likely be permanent. On the blue line, Kevin Shattenkirk is becoming one of the league's best offensive-minded defensemen, ranking third among active defensemen recently in passes (that result in shots), with 2.33 per game.
Unfortunately, the Blues are up against one of the league's best defensive teams, who started just 26.4% of their shifts in the defensive zone, the lowest total in the league. Jordan Nolan, though highly sheltered, was the only player on the team with whom they were outshot. Anze Kopitar is one of the league's best two-way forwards, the only one in the league with at least 20.0 GVT over the four preceding seasons. Mike Richards has the fourth-most Selke votes since 2008-09, and Dustin Brown is not far behind those two in most defensive metrics.
On defense, they added Robyn Regehr at the trade deadline, who has played his team's toughest minutes for years, though he gets badly mauled statistically as a result. In fact, Regehr is one of only two defensemen to face his blue line's top competition for five seasons in a row; Zdeno Chara is the other. Fortunately, Regehr is now on a blue line with other defensive weapons, including Rob Scuderi, who going into this season was third to only Duncan Keith and Nicklas Lidstrom in defensive GVT since 2008-09. Drew Doughty, who was seventh, and Slava Voynov, are also quite solid, as is Matt Greene, if healthy.
In net, the save percentage of last year's Conn Smythe winner and Vezina runner-up Jonathan Quick came crashing down to earth from .929 to a five-season career low of .902. The Kings are fortunately well-served by backup Jonathan Bernier, who would be the starter on most other teams.
Advantage: Los Angeles Kings
Los Angeles offense vs. St. Louis defense
Los Angeles Kings offense: 3.6 GVT (Rank: 10th in NHL)
St. Louis Blues defense: 19.2 GVT (Rank: 2nd in NHL)
St. Louis Blues goaltending: -7.3 GVT (Rank: 21st in NHL)
Total: Los Angeles Kings, -8.3 GVT
The Kings started 36.7% of their shifts in the offensive zone, the highest in the league, thanks in part to possession monsters like Justin Williams, who came into this season with the second highest relative Corsi (shot-based plus minus relative to his teammates) over the previous four seasons (Daniel Sedin was first).
Jeff Carter led the team with 26 goals, but had just seven assists. Carter doesn't pass, which made him a very odd choice to complement Rick Nash in Columbus last year, but perfect for the Kings. Despite his scoring, Carter was actually outshot by both Williams and the penalty-drawing Brown, but he managed to convert on 19.5% of his chances, besting his previous seven-season personal high of 13.5%. Still, their most dangerous offensive weapon is playmaker Kopitar, who led the team in assists and points for the sixth straight season.
The Kings will be facing the league's second-best defense, and one that was further bolstered with the deadline acquisition of one of the league's best defensive defensemen in Jay Bouwmeester. Bouwmeester can eat up huge minutes against the league's best players, and will be invaluable even though he has never played in the postseason. The Blues also gave up on the carefully-sheltered Wade Redden, instead acquiring Jordan Leopold from Buffalo for much-needed veteran depth. Alex Pietrangelo is one of the league's rising star defenseman, Barret Jackman is always responsible defensively, Roman Polak isn't badthe weak links for the Kings to exploit will be Shattenkirk and Kris Russell.
Up front, the Blues are blessed with a good many two-way, do-it-all players, like perennial Selke contender David Backes, who has the sixth-most Selke votes since 2008-09 and is second only to Anze Kopitar in defensive GVT over the previous four seasons. The highly-underrated T.J. Oshie is very unfortunately recovering from foot surgery and may not play at 100% (or at all).
Last year's Jennings-winning tandem took a big step back this season. Jaroslav Halak, who was sixth in Quality Start percentage going into this season, plunged from a career-best .926 to .899, and Brian Elliott dropped from league-leading .940 to just .907, which is actually quite typical for him. Jake Allen was .905 when injuries struck Halak, which is actually higher than the .904 he registered in the AHL. Fortunately, the Blues' goaltending has been white hot lately, with Elliott sporting a .947 save percentage down the stretch.
Advantage: St. Louis Blues
St. Louis power play vs. Los Angeles penalty kill
St. Louis Blues power play: -0.2 GVT (Rank: 15th in NHL)
Los Angeles Kings penalty kill: +1.2 GVT (Rank: 14th in NHL)
Total: St. Louis Blues, -1.4 GVT
Shattenkirk is a highly-effective power play quarterback, especially alongside Pietrangelo. The Blues have no superstars up front, but a depth of rotating forwards, including eight who scored between five and Stewart's 12 points on the man advantage in 2012-13.
The Kings' penalty kill was greatly improved with Robyn Regehr joining Rob Scuderi on the blue line. Jarret Stoll and Trevor Lewis are the top King penalty killers, although their very sound top players Kopitar, Brown, Carter, and Richards can certainly kill penalties just as well (Williams is more offense-only).
Advantage: Los Angeles Kings
Los Angeles power play vs. St. Louis penalty kill
Los Angeles Kings power play: 5.0 GVT (Rank: 7th in NHL)
St. Louis Blues penalty kill: 4.4 GVT (Rank: 8th in NHL)
Total: Los Angeles Kings, 0.6 GVT
Carter, Brown, Richards, Doughty, and Jake Muzzin combined for 28 of LA's 33 power play goals. Kopitar didn't score one of his own, but assisted on a team-leading 16. Voynov tied Doughty on defense with seven power play assists.
In Bouwmeester, St. Louis has added a great penalty killer to their blue line, and with a hopefully healthy Barret Jackman, who is sixth among defensemen over the past five years in killing 56.9% of his team's penalties, they can relieve Pietrangelo of some of his defensive responsibilities. Unfortunately, two of their top penalty killing forwards are out, Scott Nichol and potentially T.J. Oshie, but they still have Vladimir Sobotka, Backes, and Steen, which fortunately includes their top faceoff men.
Season series results
St. Louis and Los Angeles have met three times in the postseason, including last year's conference semifinals when the Kings outscored the Blues 15-6. The series has been a four-game sweep every single time, with St. Louis skunking Los Angeles in both 1968-69 and 1997-98.
As for the regular season, they have faced each other 187 times in their mutually-long histories. In regulation, the Blues have won 97 and the Kings 67, while the post-regulation record is an even two wins apiece with 22 ties. St. Louis outscored Los Angeles 599 to 550 in total. As for just this season, the Kings won all three games by a combined score of 14-7.
Advantage: Los Angeles Kings
St. Louis Blues faceoff percentage: 50.7% (Rank: 13th in NHL)
Los Angeles Kings faceoff percentage: 52.0% (Rank: 4th in NHL)
Total: Los Angeles Kings, 1.3%
A lot of the most exciting draws will occur between each team's star defensive forward, LA's. Anze Kopitar (53.3%) and St. Louis' David Backes (52.3%). Both teams also have a faceoff specialist on their depth lines, Jarret Stoll for the Kings (56.0%) and Vladimir Sobotka for the Blues (56.5%). The Kings have a slight edge on all other matchups.
Advantage: Los Angeles Kings
Injuries and intangibles
The obvious experience factor of the Los Angeles Kings winning the Stanley Cup last year is the most significant intangible, which is partially negated by their horrible road recordjust eight wins all season. The Kings are a big team coached by someone with a record of unexpected success everywhere he's gone, Darryl Sutterwho ranks fourth among active coaches and 16th all-time in my recent coaching study.
Of course, St. Louis has an even better coach, last year's Jack Adams winner Ken Hitchcock, who potentially also deserved the award when he helped Dallas win their only Stanley Cup, or Columbus achieve their only playoff berth. According to our recent study on coaches, Hitchcock is the second-best coach of all-time, albeit a very, very distant second behind their great former coach Scotty Bowman.
The Blues also enter the postseason on a crazy hot streak, going 12-3 in April, including 11 games where they gave up a single goal, at most. Their worst injury is most certainly to underrated star two-way player Oshie (should he be unable to play), though goalie Halak (groin) and blueliner Jackman (ankle) are recovering from minor injuries. Role-playing veterans Jamie Langenbrunner and Nichol are out. As for the Kings, shutdown defenseman Willie Mitchell is out with knee surgery, and Greene's status is somewhat questionable.
St. Louis Blues: 14.0 GVT (Rank: 9th in NHL)
Los Angeles Kings: 15.0 GVT (Rank: 8th in NHL)
Total difference: Los Angeles Kings, 1.0 GVT
There has been a sweep all three times these two teams have faced in other in the postseason, but we don't see it this time. The Blues are a very strong team, well-coached and on a hot streak, and would likely be the favorite against any team except possession kings like the Kings and Hawks. It is unfortunate that one of the West's best teams has to be eliminated within seven games from now.
Los Angeles Kings in seven games
Robert Vollman is an author of Hockey Prospectus.
You can contact Robert by clicking here or click here to see Robert's other articles.