When I signed on to cover the first round of the NHL playoffs series pitting the St. Louis Blues against the Los Angeles Kings, I was looking forward to an evenly-matched pairing of teams that seemed destined to go six, maybe even the full seven, games before the outcome was ultimately decided.
So far, I’ve been half right.
With two games in the books, the St. Louis Blues hold a somewhat commanding 2-0 edge over the Kings. I say somewhat for two reasons:
1. Even a 3-0 series lead has been proven to be a surmountable challenge; and
2. With matching 2-1 victories, one of which was literally handed to St. Louis by LA goaltender Jonathan Quick, it would be irrational for the Blues to feel comfortable with anything less than four wins, since this series could easily be tied or even 2-0 in favor of the Kings.
Clearly, this series is as close at it could possibly be up through these first two games, with one overtime thriller already in the books and at least one more almost certain to come. Take away Quick’s glaring miscue in overtime of Game One, and I would be sitting here, discussing a series that was tied 1-all and telling you that I feel pretty good about my decision to pick LA to win this series in seven games.
If the series is so close, then, why do I no longer feel confident at all that LA can force this series to go even six games, much less the full seven?
Perhaps Emily Dickinson said it (technically, wrote it) best:
Success is counted sweetest
By those who ne’er succeed.
To comprehend a nectar
Requires sorest need.
Not one of all the purple Host
Who took the Flag today
Can tell the definition
So clear of Victory
As he defeated–dying–
On whose forbidden ear
The distant strains of triumph
Burst agonized and clear!
Deep, huh? Bet you didn’t plan on reading 19th century American poetry in a hockey article!
The point is: Los Angeles just won the Stanley Cup last year. They are not as hungry, as desperate, as St. Louis is. Game One illustrated my point perfectly. St Louis came out and took it to LA all night long. Yes, the Kings settled in toward the end are were on the verge of stealing a game that they had not earned . . . until this play happened:
Think about what happened there: the Kings were enjoying a four-minute power play. The puck is cleared out of the zone, and Jonathan Quick comes out of net to play it. This is as routine a play as you can get. There’s not a single player on St. Louis in LA’s end of the ice when Quick gets the puck on his stick. This play has zero business becoming anything other than “boring,” yet for some reason, Quick hangs on to the puck. And hangs onto it. And hangs onto it some more, which makes Alex Steen say to himself, “Well hell, I may as well go back there and take a shot in the dark.” AND IT WORKED. One player fell asleep; the other simply stayed aggressive on the play. That’s the story of the series so far. The Blues and Kings are evenly matched in pretty much every area – great goaltending, the ability to spread the wealth around on offense, strong defense – but whereas the Kings have been guilty of being out-hustled at times, and suffering from some crucial mental lapses, St. Louis has been aggressive and have not hurt themselves by making the sort of mistakes that accompany losing your focus. In short, the Blues are playing like the hungrier, more focused team right now, and that’s what scares me.
Everyone on the planet knows that LA can still turn this series around; they are going home, and should be fully awake by now, if indeed they did suffer from a case of “been there, done that.” The Kings still have Anze Kopitar, Jeff Carter, Dustin Brown, and Mike Richards, four guys who can explode for multiple points in a game any day now. And they have Quick, who is two mental lapses away from having a 1.00 GAA in this series. If the Kings return to the form they showed during last year’s magical run, they will make this a series worth watching . . . but if last year was the equivalent of catching lightning in a bottle, the Blues are going to live to fight another round.