By Stu Hackel
What a curious little theme we've had going recently in the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs -- addition by subtraction. The Devils were forced to play without sniper Ilya Kovalchuk and came up with a fine road performance in beating the Flyers 4-1 on Tuesday. The Capitals cut into Alex Ovechkin's ice time in Monday's Game 2 and beat the Rangers 3-2 (although he was certainly out there a lot in Game 3's near-doubleheader loss to New York). The Predators, playing poorly and down 2-0 in games to the Coyotes, suspended their two top scorers for Wednesday's Game 3 at home and pulled off one of their trademark textbook victories, a 2-0 Pekka Rinne shutout.
Unfortunately, it didn't work that way for the Blues earlier this week. They were without their best defenseman -- maybe their best player -- in Alex Pietrangelo for Game 2 at home against the Kings, and rather than respond positively to the adversity, they played their worst period in memory, falling behind 4-0, never recovering, and ultimately losing 5-2. Now, they must skate in Los Angeles for the next pair, and the upstart Kings have a chance to put them in the sleeperhold.
Pietrangelo is recovering from a pair of knocks he suffered in Game 1, a leg injury and what is being termed concussion-like symptoms (no one seems to want to call it a concussion) caused by this hit from Dwight King, and that's when everything started going sour for the Blues.
King was assessed only a minor penalty and not suspended by the league. The shorthanded goal that Matt Greene scored turned out to be the Game 1 winner, and in Game 2, King was invited to participate in a vengeance fight with B.J. Crombeen in which King the King -- a much bigger guy -- had no trouble. That scrap probably helped add to LA's first period momentum, reversing whatever galvanizing effect the Blues might have thought they'd gained from it.
The good news for the Blues is that Pietrangelo may be able to go in Game 3. The bad news is the hole they have dug for themselves may be too deep.
The Blues can't think that way. Their coach, Ken Hitchcock, spun the reminder that Sunday's debacle was only one loss, and that they had played well in the second and third periods (audio). It was that first period, however, that may turn out to be the defining stretch of this entire series by the time it's through. Four goals in one stanza from the supposedly offensively anemic Kings against the NHL's best defensive club is something of a mind-blower, especially in the supposed tight-checking playoffs. But only one team was checking in the early going -- the road team.
"Full marks to them: Their emotional investment in the first period was greater than ours," Hitchcock said. "We've got to invest a lot more early in the game. And, like I said, that's the nice part of the payoffs. It's only one game, one loss and you move on." Still, St. Louis' effort in the first 20 minutes was bad enough to cause CNBC analyst Mike Keenan to savage the Blues' players during the first intermission, saying that they were not prepared to play. It was a harsh indictment for any team coached by Hitchcock. With the score 5-1 after the second period, Keenan wasn't much nicer (video). "They're not even involved in this game," he said. And he also doled out some deserved praise for the play of the Kings, especially their excellent top line of Dustin Brown, Anze Kopitar and Justin Williams, who dominated the contest.
Praise should also have gone to Dustin Penner, who used his big frame to stun the Blues in the first minute, helping to set up the opening goal by Mike Richards and exploiting the absence of Pietrangelo. Hitchcock started Barret Jackman and Kevin Shattenkirk, and Penner easily bodied Shattenkirk aside to help create the tally.
Playing physically is not something that is normally associated with Penner, who Helene Elliott of The Los Angeles Times called "seemingly unmotivatable." But that's the kind of emotional investment of which Hitchcock spoke. The coach also lamented his team's costly turnovers, like the one by Carlo Colaiacovo that led to yet another shorthanded goal by the Kings, their fourth of the postseason.
"We're trying to force offense when its not there," Hitchcock said. "They're pressing up and we've got to make them turn...When you force offense, you try to play east-west. Against this team, they check too well."
The Blues didn't check at all. By the late stages of the first period they had also seemingly stopped skating as Penner took a face-off win and broke in with Jeff Carter, who became the first beneficiary...
...and Kopitar, as the period neared conclusion, again tallied while the Blues just watched.
If another team this spring has had a worse 20 minutes, I can't recall it. "It's embarrassing the way we came out in the first period," Jackman said.
If Pietrangelo does come back, the Blues can't view him as the one-man cavalry riding to their rescue. He alone won't be enough to remedy what's ailing them. Their entire defense corps looks discombobulated and they've gotten too little production from some key forwards like T.J. Oshie (0 goals, 3 assists), Alex Steen (1 goal, 2 assists) and David Perron (1 goal, 3 assists). And Brian Elliott, who couldn't come up with big saves to stop the bleeding, won't be getting relief from Jaroslav Halak, who is still sidelined with an ankle injury.
Meanwhile, everything is going right for the Kings, starting with goalie Jonathan Quick and radiating out from there. Brown and Richards, the two spark plugs, have fired up a team that too often this season looked disinterested when it didn't look confused. The Kings' clear physical dominance of first the Canucks and now the Blues -- the West's top two regular season teams -- has made it look as if those who called them the NHL's biggest underachievers all season were right.
So it's up to the Blues now to turn in a full effort on enemy ice or this one could be another short series for Los Angeles. Considering how well St. Louis played for most of the season, this is the first serious calamity that Hitchcock's young club has faced and it will be a big test to see if it can rediscover its confidence and focus that made it one of the NHL's best stories of 2011-12.
"We've had times in the season where we've all bought in, and we've had times when we're half in, half out," said captain David Backes, "That's where we are right now. ... Enough is enough, and we've got to determine as a group if we're going to attack this thing, or if we're going to tuck tail and run."
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