Consider how they arrived at their second-round matchup:
• Both teams advanced in just five games while allowing a league-low eight goals apiece in the process, thanks to their All-Star netminders.
• Both employed smothering penalty-kills that gave them a clear edge in the special teams battle.
• Both turned their series with multiple wins on the road.
• Both improved on their regular season goals-per-game averages, despite scant production from their top offensive lines.
Heading into the series, there's not much separating the two sides on paper. And given how physical it's shaping up to be, it might be tough separating them on the ice, as well.
The Blues arrive having sloughed off concerns that coach Ken Hitchcock had already extracted their maximum effort during the race for the Presidents' Trophy. After a surprising Game 1 loss to San Jose, they were able to amp up their intensity while maintaining a total (well, nearly -- see the X-factor below) buy-in of his demanding 200-foot system.
St. Louis got superlative goaltending from Brian Elliott, who somehow managed to better both his league-leading save percentage (.949) and record-setting goals-against average (1.37). Out front, they consistently outworked the Sharks, dominating in the corners and along the walls, and generating quality chances off turnovers. Scott Nichol led the Blues with 17 hits in that series and should make a understated impact against the Kings. Also watch for defender Roman Polak, who did an excellent job shutting down Logan Couture's line and beat the resistance right out of San Jose in Game 2 with a one-sided thrashing of Justin Braun.
The Blues will find a little more fight in the Kings. Los Angeles upset Vancouver with an aggressive forecheck coupled with the defensive foundation laid by former coach Terry Murray. Dustin Brown led both the offense and the hit parade, but it was the step-up contributions of depth forwards Trevor Lewis, Brad Richardson and Dwight King that allowed the Kings to exert their will over the Canucks. This group will have ample opportunities to set the tone against the Blues.
And then there's Jonathan Quick. The Vezina nominee made the stops that his Vancouver counterparts couldn't, and that was the biggest difference in their series. He enters this set with the best save percentage (.953) among the surviving goaltenders and memories of shutting out the Blues twice this season.
With offense likely to be at a premium, both teams are looking to get more out of key units. The Mike Richards-Jeff Carter-Dustin Penner line managed just two goals and seven points in the five-game series against the Canucks. David Backes, David Perron and T.J. Oshie put up identical numbers against the Sharks. Both lines were given passes in the first round because of their abilities to shut down their opposition. There won't be any similar leeway available this time around.
The Berglund on display against the Sharks was a force, finding his way onto the scoresheet in four of the five games. More important, he was an absolute pain to play against, especially when he was working the forecheck or planting himself near Antti Niemi's crease. While Backes and the first line struggled, it was the second unit of Berglund, Andy McDonald and Alex Steen that made short work of San Jose, shredding them for six power play goals.
The sledding will be considerably tougher against the Kings, so the Blues' success could depend on how Berglund's crew handles the match-up.
Stewart responded to the call-out, showing a bit more jam upon his return, but went pointless and really failed to put together a consistent game. It's clear that he's struggling within the strict confines of Hitchcock's system, so it wouldn't be a surprise to see him spend some more time in the press box if the coach decides that someone like Matt D'Agostini might be a better fit.
Still, in a series where offense will be precious, it's hard not to look at a player who has scored 28 goals in two of his past three seasons as someone who might be able to make a critical contribution...as long as he remembers to take care of his defensive responsibilities first.
Fair to say he doesn't have to be the team's leading scorer to be effective in the playoffs, but two assists in five games? That's a bit underwhelming for a guy who scored 40 goals not that long ago.
Ah, but there's hope. It seemed like there was more than a flicker of chemistry when Penner was slotted alongside Richards and Carter near the end of the Vancouver series. If that group clicks, Carter could help spark a power play that connected on just three of 26 chances against the Canucks.
I like their chances better.
Blues in six