Do you like goals? Too bad! Because there will be very few of them as St. Louis continues its tour of California, taking on the equally defensive-minded Los Angeles Kings. The good news is that the lower the score, the more random variations can affect outcomes, which means this series excitingly unpredictable.
Quick digression: hopefully when the game is 0-0, the announcers won't say there's no score, because technically, they have a score: 0-0. This is just one of my pet peeves, like when an announcer says that a goalie had "no chance" on a shot, when anyone that's on the ice with his pads on has at least some chance. "No score" is what you have before the game even begins, but once it starts there is a score: 0-0. That is a score. And it's a score that we'll see quite often throughout this second round match-up.
The value of puck possession was proven once again in the first round as the league's top possession team, the St. Louis Blues, beat the seventh-best San Jose Sharks, while the league's fourth-best puck possession team, the Los Angeles Kings, "upset" the eighth-best Vancouver Canucks.
St. Louis Offense vs. Los Angeles Defense
St. Louis Blues Offense: -12.2 GVT (Rank: 21st in the NHL)
Los Angeles Kings Defense: +22.0 GVT (Rank: 2nd in NHL)
Los Angeles Kings Goaltending: +20.8 GVT (Rank: 4th in NHL)
Total: St. Louis Blues, -55.0 GVT
The lack of scoring from both clubs is not a new trend, as Los Angeles ranks 22nd in post-lockout goal scoring, and St. Louis 25th. In fact, only once in that time have the Blues managed more goals than the league average. If they relied solely on their offense, St. Louis would have struggled to even make the postseason, let alone finish atop the league's best division.
Most of their offense in the first round came from Patrik Berglund and Andy McDonald, who combined for 15 points in five games, and registered half of the team's 14 goals all by themselves, but that's not typical for them. Berglund and McDonald aren't the team's only offensive weapons; indeed, there were three forwards that outscored them both in the regular season, the tremendous two-way forwards David Backes, T.J. Oshie, and David Perron.
St. Louis may not have tremendous scoring punch, but the offense they do have is spread out over a wide range, all the way through their third line and beyondeven depth options like Chris Stewart and Matt d'Agostini are only a year removed from 20-goal seasons.
Unfortunately, they'll be facing one of the league's best defensive teams, who allowed the fourth-fewest shots in the league. Drew Doughty and Willie Mitchell form a tremendous two-way shutdown pairing, while still leaving proven defensive gems like Rob Scuderi to handle the remaining tough minutes.
What few shots that do get past them are bound to be stopped by Jonathan Quick, who stopped 95.3% of shots against the Vancouver Canucks in the first round. One of the reasons we had Los Angeles as the favorite over Vancouver in the first round is because of Quick's greater consistency. Quality Starts demonstrate how Jonathan Quick routinely limits goals against to 0, 1, or 2very rarely having the blowout nights that occasionally plague Roberto Luongo. Unfortunately, by the time the Canucks caught on and switched to Cory Schneider, whose Quality Start percentage exceeds even that of Jonathan Quick, it was too late for them.
Advantage: Los Angeles Kings
Los Angeles Offense vs. St. Louis Defense
Los Angeles Kings Offense: -30.2 GVT (Rank: 29th in NHL)
St. Louis Blues Defense: 31.2 GVT (Rank: 1st in the NHL)
St. Louis Blues Goaltending: 31.1 GVT (Rank: 1st in the NHL)
Total: Los Angeles Kings, -92.5 GVT
The Kings may have ranked 29th in the league offensively this season, but part of that is due to having the league's worst shooting percentage. In reality, they get a great deal of offense from their top players Anze Kopitar, Justin Williams, Dustin Brown, Mike Richards, and Jeff Carter, but unlike the Blues, they have great difficulty getting anything going beyond thatJarret Stoll's six goals and 21 points is actually good enough for fifth.
The Kings managed 12 goals in the first round against the Vancouver Canucks, four of which were scored by Dustin Browntwo of them while killing penalties. The challenge for St. Louis is going to be to shut down that small handful of potent scorers, and hope that none of the depth options like Stoll, Dustin Penner, or Dwight King replace them.
Barret Jackman is their key shutdown guy on the blue line, and up front they have the nearly incomparable Selke candidate David Backes. As we wrote in Hockey Prospectus 2011-12, they're also complemented by a wealth of two-way do-it-all players like Norris candidate Alex Pietrangelo, Alexander Steen, and T. J. Oshie. This collection of unique talent allows coach Ken Hitchcock tremendous flexibility regardless of the score or how the Kings match lines at home.
And of course, behind their talented and flexible defense lies the virtually impenetrable goaltending of Brian Elliott, who enjoyed a .949 save percentage in the first round, winning all three games he played. Jaroslav Halak, who will be out for at least a couple of games, stopped .935.
Advantage: St. Louis Blues
St. Louis Power Play vs. Los Angeles Penalty Kill
St. Louis Blues Power Play: +1.5 GVT (Rank: 13th in the NHL)
Los Angeles Penalty Kill: +12.7 GVT (Rank: 4th in NHL)
Total: St. Louis Blues, -11.2 GVT
Though they had a decent season, the St. Louis Blues actually have the second-worst post-lockout power play in the league, better than only Columbus. They typically use Andy McDonald, Alexander Steen, Patrik Berglund, David Perron, David Backes, T.J. Oshie, and Jason Arnott up front, with Kevin Shattenkirk, Alex Pietrangelo, Carlo Colaiacovo, and Kris Russell on defense. This group was good for six power play goals in the first roundMcDonald and Berglund with two each, Steen and Arnott with the others.
Unfortunately, they'll be facing the league's fourth-best penalty kill, spearheaded by Mike Richards, Jarret Stoll, Anze Kopitar, Trevor Lewis, and Dustin Brown up front, with Matt Greene, Willie Mitchell, Rob Scuderi, and Drew Doughty on defenseand coach Darryl Sutter has recently added Jeff Carter to the forward rotation. Not only is this group highly effective at preventing goals, allowing only three to the mighty Vancouver Canucks, but it can also be effective at scoring goals, and Dustin Brown demonstrated on two occasions in the first round.
Advantage: Los Angeles Kings
Los Angeles Power Play vs. St. Louis Penalty Kill
Los Angeles Power Play: -1.0 GVT (Rank: 17th in NHL)
St. Louis Blues Penalty Kill: +9.4 GVT (Rank: 7th in the NHL)
Total: Los Angeles Kings, -10.4 GVT
Los Angeles has a typically average power play, and scored three power play goals in the first round. They've got Mike Richards, Anze Kopitar, Jeff Carter, Justin Williams, Jarret Stoll, and Dustin Brown up front (gee, that looks vaguely familiar), with Drew Doughty, Alec Martinez, and Slava Voynov on defenseto which Sutter has recently added Willie Mitchell.
Unfortunately, they're up against a strong penalty kill, featuring Vladimir Sobotka, Alexander Steen, David Backes, T.J. Oshie, Patrik Berglund, and Scott Nichol up front with Barret Jackman, Alex Pietrangelo, Roman Polak, and Kevin Shattenkirk manning the blue line. In Ken Hitchcock's hands this can be a highly effective penalty kill, which allowed just three goals against Joe Thornton and the San Jose Sharks in the first round.
Advantage: St. Louis Blues
Season Series Results
Their last two regular season contests were 1-0 games, foreshadowing the defensive struggle that is about to come. Overall, the Kings outscored the Blues 8-3, thereby edging the Blues 2-1 (with one other ending regulation and overtime in a draw).
Advantage: Los Angeles Kings
Injuries and Intangibles
It's time for another classic coaching duel, as two Alberta-born midseason replacement coaches face off in a hard-hitting and defensive-minded clash.
St. Louis coach Ken Hitchcock is the best coach everywhere he goes, including a tour with Columbus, whom he guided to the sole playoff appearance in franchise history. He was three-for-three in getting 100 points for the Flyers, which took them four years to do again after him. In Dallas, he coached a sub-.500 team to five straight 100-point seasons, all first place finishes, including two Stanley Cup finals and one Cup. Simply fantastic.
As for Darryl Sutter, while he was solid in Chicago and San Jose, his true claim to fame was taking a Calgary team that had missed the postseason for seven straight years to within a video review of the Stanley Cup, which he followed up with their only 100-point season since 1990-91. Somehow he, like Hitchcock, managed to avoid winning the Jack Adams despite those tremendous achievements.
The two primary injuries affecting this series include Simon Gagne, a two-way forward without whom Los Angeles have been managing for quite some time, and Jaroslav Halak, whose ankle injury will probably keep him out of the first couple of games.
Both teams enter the season with a lot of momentum, but it can't be understated how strong the Kings finished the season, and defeated the Canucks. Unfortunately, they rely heavily on their top players for both offense and defense, and fatigue is bound to set in the longer this series goes.
A few lucky goal-causing bounces in the Pittsburgh-Philadelphia series probably wouldn't have changed the outcomeperhaps that 8-4 game would have been 7-5, and the 10-3 contest would have ended up 9-4. But in a series like this, where the games are likely to end 2-1, a single bad bounce can change the outcome of a game, and possibly the series.
Play this series 100 times and the Blues would win over 50 of them. Unfortunately, they're going to play only once, so really, it's anybody's guess.
Blues in seven games
Robert Vollman is an author of Hockey Prospectus.
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