(Hockey StL) -- A month ago, the Blues were out of a playoff spot. They were sitting in ninth place, with one game in hand, but they were not heading in the right direction. The team altered its course in a hurry, went 12-3 in April, and clinched the fourth seed in the Western Conference.
The Blues have been one of the league’s hottest teams of late. Since bolstering their defense at the trade deadline with the acquisitions of Jordan Leopold and Jay Bouwmeester, the Blues’ defense has gone from being a liability to an asset. Not to mention, the team’s goaltending has vastly improved under Brian Elliott. The Blues are very much like last year’s champion Los Angeles Kings, and ironically enough, that is the team the Blues will be matching up against in the first round of this year’s playoffs.
The Blues clinched the fourth seed on Saturday night when they defeated the Chicago Blackhawks. The team had to wait for the conclusion of the Sharks-Kings game to find out their first round opponent. The Kings were victorious, and their victory sets up a rematch of last year’s semifinal series where the Kings swept the Blues on their way to their franchise’s first Stanley Cup victory.
“Three weeks ago we looked up and we were in legit ninth place,” said Blues head coach Ken Hitchcock. “We were behind. We earned this. We fought hard to get back in this. That reality check of waking up one morning and just assuming you are going to be in the playoffs and being in ninth place was exactly what this team needed. The right people took this team over. The buy-in became a lot easier.”
The so-called ‘buy-in’ has been rhetoric for much of the year. It just recently became a reality for the Blues. As the Blues get set to face off against the highly-regarded Kings, they do so remembering last year’s playoffs.
Last year, the Kings’ got hot at the right time, and were able to cruise through the playoffs with little adversity. The Kings swept the Blues, knocking them out of the playoffs, and ultimately the Kings went on to win the Stanley Cup. Like last year, there aren’t too many differences between the Kings and the Blues.
The Kings were, and continue to be led by a passionate captain in Dustin Brown, who, during last year’s playoff campaign, was a difference maker. Brown was the driving force for Los Angeles in each of their four series. The Blues have a similar leader in David Backes, who lately has been showing a new level of leadership.
The Blues have seen a new Backes ever since the team’s win over the Vancouver Canucks on April 16. While he has not been as potent offensively this season, he was still second on the team in points (28), and first on the team in assists (22).
Backes has had much higher expectations since becoming the Blues’ captain. His emotion on the ice speaks for his commitment to his teammates, and his devotion to winning. Much like Brown was for the Kings last year, Backes needs to be a true leader for the Note in the playoffs. His team will face adversity and he needs to be the one to perform and be strong for his team.
Not only does Backes need to continue to step up, there are many others as well. The Blues have been without their top offensive players for the better part of the season. Unlike last year, when injuries were plaguing the Blues, this year’s team has remained relatively healthy. However, the Blues are still missing a huge chunk of their offense. Where it has disappeared to, nobody knows. The Blues will be looking for players like David Perron, Alex Steen, Andy McDonald, and T.J. Oshie to produce on a more consistent basis.
“For us to be effective, certain players have to play out of character,” said Hitchcock. “That’s six or eight weeks of hockey playing out of character. We are going to need more from certain people. Everybody starts Tuesday with a clean slate.”
Last year’s Kings were able to roll four lines every night, making them hard to play against. Not only did they get production from their top guys, they got consistency from the lower half of their lineup. This is something the Blues will look to do to make it tough on opponents, but for the most part the Blues have done this effectively for the entire season.
It is very likely that this series comes down to defense and goaltending, as most playoff series do. The Blues will begin the series with Brian Elliott in net. The Kings will counter with Jonathan Quick. Last year, Quick was the NHL’s best goaltender in the playoffs. The Blues’ goaltending bested that of the Kings in last year’s regular season, but they came nowhere close in the postseason. Quick went 16-4 in the postseason for the Kings, and had a strong .926 save percentage. The Blues should expect nothing less from Quick this year, and are hoping Elliott’s red-hot play continues. If not, the Blues have Jaroslav Halak healthy to step in at any time. The depth of the Blues, up and down their roster, is arguably the best in the league. With the playoffs being rather lengthy, it is an asset any team would love to have.
Not many are choosing the Blues over the Kings in this series. The Blues were bested by the Kings in all three of their meetings this season, but there is reason to believe it will be different in the postseason.
The wins will not be easy to come by. The series will wear on both teams, and the club that prevails will do so because they were willing to sacrifice.
The Blues know what to expect from the Kings. They witnessed first-hand last year what it takes to win it all. The Blues have earned everything they have gotten this season. Now they are hoping they have what it takes to earn the ultimate prize.
“You’ve got a lot of teams that think they can go deep (in the playoffs),” said Hitchcock. “We just want a chance to prove ourselves here.”