Having now dropped a pair at Scottrade Center, the St. Louis Blues are definitely in deep, deep trouble. But if their resilient play over the final two periods of Monday's 5-2 loss to the Los Angeles Kings is an indication of what's to come, starting with Game 3, this series has a way to go.
A long way.
That's not to sugarcoat the whipping administered by Los Angeles. The Kings were full marks for the win after jumping out to a shocking 4-0 lead during a relentless first period on goals by Mike Richards (whose strong play is making GM Dean Lombardi look awfully smart), Anze Kopitar (short-handed), Jeff Carter (although Dustin Penner was offside by three feet) and Kopitar again.
When the Blues showed signs of life with Andy McDonald's fifth goal of the playoffs 18 seconds into the second, Justin Williams administered last rites just over a minute later.
"That's a big goal for us right there," said Kings coach Darryl Sutter.
At that point, the game was over. But the series? Well, that's just when things started to get interesting.
Did the Kings take their foot off the gas? To some degree, certainly. It's impossible to maintain the kind of emotional investment they showed in the first period when you're rolling with a four-goal lead. But it might have been how the Blues adapted that turned the tide so dramatically in their favor.
You could see Ken Hitchcock on the bench extolling his players not to get cute while trying to salvage a game that already was out of hand. The key at that point was just getting back on track, returning to the style that earned them the second seed coming into the playoffs, so that they were ready to make their stand in Game 3. His message finally got through and the Blues simplified their approach. They employed shorter, high-percentage passes, and when they moved the puck it was north/south instead of east/west. That created penetration, which allowed their forecheck to begin exacting a toll, especially on young defensemen like Slava Voynov.
The result? St. Louis outscored the Kings 2-1 over the final 40 minutes. They outshot them 24-5. They outhit them 21-15. And they won the turnover battle thanks to a focus on puck pressure that was absent in that debacle of a first period.
It wasn't enough for a win, but it was a skate in the right direction. Of course, Hitchcock's message will be clear: it's not enough to simply try to build off those two periods.
"There are some obvious things we have to address," he said. "The power play is costing us in a big way. Short-handed goals are taking away a lot of momentum. We have to match their emotional investment."
No doubt the emotional investment is there after a chippy, penalty-filled third period in which both sides played like they were taking a testosterone test. But St. Louis needs more from frontliners like David Backes and T.J. Oshie and David Perron than a few highlight-reel hits. While L.A.'s top six came up with five goals and 12 points on the night, their counterparts in blue were held to just four assists.
And the power play? The Blues might take some heart in their ability to generate some chances, especially in the third, but it doesn't take reading that 0-for-9 stat line to see it's going to require some retooling. The Kings have taken away their preferred setup spot along the half-boards and forced them to create something off the point. That's tough enough to do even with Alex Pietrangelo in the lineup. When he's out, the threat's not there. And neither is the defensive responsibility as evidenced when the Kings got their second shortie of the series after a turnover by Kevin Shattenkirk ended with a spectacular stop-on-a-dime move by Kopitar to beat Brian Elliott far side in the first.
There probably will be some wondering about Elliott after this one. Every Los Angeles goal was the result of a Blues defensive breakdown, but he failed to come up with even one of the big stops that a goalie needs to provide when his team is quickly bleeding out.
But even after giving up as many goals in the first 22 minutes of this game (five) as he did during his four-game, first-round run against the San Jose Sharks, Elliott deserves the chance to right the ship ... not that the Blues have any real choice. Hitchcock revealed after the game that Jaroslav Halak, the team's 1A goalie, won't be available for the duration of the series. And it would be wildly unfair to ask Jake Allen to provide anything more than the breather he offered late in the third period to artificially create a timeout for a winded group of Blues forwards heading into a five-on-three power play.
So it's up to Elliott and the rest of the crew to find a way.
"We've got some looking in the mirror to do," Backes told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. "It's about intestinal fortitude and coming together as a group."
They'll get their chance on Thursday night. But if they wait until the second period to show up for that one, they will be in a hole they won't be able to climb out of.