NHL playoffs: St. Louis Blues upend Los Angeles Kings in overtime; more notes
By Allan Muir
News, notes and observations from the April 30 NHL postseason action:
Somehow, this game was there for the Los Angeles Kings to win. Despite being outmuscled, outhustled and outscored through the first 59 minutes by the St. Louis Blues, the defending champs got a goal from Justin Williams in the final minute to tie it up, then dominated the early going in overtime. And when St. Louis defender Kevin Shattenkirk earned a double minor for high sticking Dustin Penner, it seemed like just a matter of time before L.A. would earn its ninth consecutive win against the Blues.
Instead, a simple zone clear was fumbled by Kings goalie Jonathan Quick behind his net, allowing Alexander Steen an easy wraparound into the empty cage and giving the Blues a 2-1 win and 1-0 series lead.
Here are some key takeaways from the contest:
• Steen accounted for both of the Blues' goals, including a power play marker in the first. Take away those two scores and he was still the most dangerous player on the ice. He showed a lot of jump, both in pursuit of the puck and in getting into the open spaces. He put a couple of chances off the post, set up Jaden Schwartz for a spectacular bid from behind the net and generally wreaked havoc with his speed and desire.
• There were concerns about Quick's play coming into the series, but he looked close to last season's Conn Smythe form in the opener. With the Kings under siege for most of the night, he stopped 40-of-42 St. Louis shots (exactly twice as many as the Blues’ previous season-best 21 against the Kings) and showed a lot of composure as the Blues laid the body on him.
• On the deciding goal though? Brutal mistake, and it was all on him. There was a simple play to be made there -- corral the dump-in, bang it end-around and out of danger -- but he held onto the puck too long and then panicked when Steen landed on top of him, turning it over for the easy tuck into the empty net. Just brutal.
• Happy ending aside, the Blues need to figure out why they failed to convert on so many high-end scoring chances in regulation. They didn't always have a lot of time, but they did a great job battling for space. When you get the puck into those positions, you can't settle for simply getting it on net. That lack of finish left them exposed to Williams' late equalizer.
• If the line of Chris Porter, Ryan Reaves and Adam Cracknell plays like this the rest of the series, the Blues will win. Simple as that. Coach Ken Hitchcock said before the game that he had full faith in the trio and wouldn't treat them like a fourth line. He proved it, too, throwing them out there regardless of the matchup to launch a relentless assault on anyone in white. The trio ended up with 18 hits on the night -- nine from the particularly rambunctious Reaves alone -- and not one of them was a hometown softie. These were the kind of punishing hits that took the starch out of the Kings' defenders early on, the kind that take a toll over the course of a series. You know, exactly what Jordan Nolan and Dwight King and Brad Richardson did to them last spring.
• Brian Elliott set a record with 11 wins in April, and while this one won't count as No. 12, it was an obvious continuation of what's made him so effective since a brief refresher stint in the minors. He was sharp on his angles, he controlled his rebounds and he held his focus when the Kings sent the big bodies crashing into his crease. Outside of the one goal he allowed (which may have been deflected by Barret Jackman at the last second), he played a nearly perfect game. That's a nice bounce back for a guy whom the Kings lit up last year.
• Interesting to see the Kings focus their attack on short-side chances to Elliott's left. Mike Richards scored a pair on him from bad angles in last year's series, and they clearly feel that's still a weakness. Williams’ goal wasn't a bad angle, but did find room on that side, so maybe they're on to something. Even if they're not, it's clear they need to get more pucks on net in Game 2. They ended up with 29 shots on the night, but 14 of those came after 57 minutes of play. That's nowhere near enough pressure to put on a goalie whose confidence they ravaged last spring.
• Speaking of Richards, neither he nor Anze Kopitar was anywhere near good enough in Game 1. They combined for just three shots and went 19-of-44 on the draw. Puck possession is a big part of the team's recipe for success, and when the big boys aren't starting out with it, they need to go track it down. That didn't happen, either. Look for both to step up in Game 2.
• Keaton Ellerby, acquired ahead of the deadline from Florida to bolster L.A.'s defense, was wildly overmatched much of the night, getting beat cleanly on at least four scoring chances and offering mild resistance on several others. If Darryl Sutter can't do a better job of protecting him -- or better yet, replacing him altogether -- Ellerby could hurt the team. Rookie Jake Muzzin made a few mistakes of his own (he was twice caught deep chasing big hits), but proved far more reliable. I really liked Muzzin's physical game and, for the most part anyway, his reads at both ends of the ice.
Chicago Blackhawks 2, Minnesota Wild 1 (OT)
• The Hawks took the opener -- no surprise there -- but needed overtime to do it, and against a backup goaltender, no less. Minnesota starter Niklas Backstrom appeared to tweak something in his knee while making a routine stop during warmups, forcing Josh Harding into action for his first playoff start, and first appearance of any kind since the end of January. Harding met the challenge, making 35 stops on the night to get his team into overtime before being beaten by Bryan Bickell 16:35 into the extra frame. That was some kind of gritty effort from a player whose battle with Multiple Sclerosis threatened to end his career a year ago.
• That said, Harding owes one to his teammates, who blocked 21 shots on the night. Yeah, it's playoff time and everyone has to pay the price, but the Wild did everything they could to minimize the pressure he faced.
• Ryan Suter set a new franchise record with 41:08 worth of ice time, but he and partner Jonas Brodin were victimized on both of Chicago's goals. It's one thing to get beat by Marian Hossa and Patrick Kane, who combined on a nifty passing play to even up the game in the second. It's another to get used by Viktor Stalberg and Bickell in OT. Fair to ask if they were overworked at that point, right?
• The chance to face a cold backup should have been like blood in the water for the Presidents' Trophy winners, but they slept through the first period and didn't really find their legs after the Hossa goal. First-round series, undermanned opponent ... yeah, plenty of reasons to maybe take the foot of the gas a bit. But memories of last year's loss to a similarly overmatched Coyotes team should have prevented this kind of start. They need to be better prepared to compete from the opening whistle when the puck drops for Game 2.
• Jonathan Toews: 18-of-26 on the draw. Let's just start the Conn Smythe ball rolling here, shall we?
• The soft goal that Corey Crawford allowed to Cal Clutterbuck in the first had to cause flashbacks to his erratic performance against the Coyotes last spring, but he rebounded nicely, shutting out the Wild over the final 70-plus minutes to keep his team in the game. He made a heck of a blocker stop in OT on Zach Parise. That's exactly the kind of save he didn't provide last year, and exactly what the Hawks need from him this time around.
• Of course it was Teemu Selanne who buried a one-timer behind Jimmy Howard early in the third to break a 1-1 tie and send the Anaheim Ducks to a 3-1 win and a 1-0 series lead. It was the 42nd career playoff goal for Selanne, who has owned Detroit in the postseason, averaging better than a point per game against the Wings. Nick Bonino and Francois Beauchemin, into the empty net, also scored for Anaheim.
• Was this just a predictable letdown game for a team that had to win four games over the season's final six nights in order to secure a postseason spot? The Wings have to hope so. Putting 12 shots on net through the first 45 minutes of play doesn't suggest playoff readiness. Detroit looked tired before offering a bit of a push late, rarely showing the will to generate traffic in front of Jonas Hiller or the ability to win the battles that would lead to secondary chances. The Wings need to pump up the shooting volume in Game 2.
• No surprise that the one goal the Wings did score was created when a Jakub Kindl point shot deflected off Danny Cleary and into the net. If the Wings want to win this series, they'll have to commit to playing ugly.
• They'll also have to find a way to tighten their gaps. The defense was struggling to move the puck all night, and by the time they were ready to make a play, the forwards were too deep. It's a simple enough adjustment to make, so their inability to address it in-game is a bit troubling.
• Hiller was named the second star of the game, but honestly, he didn't do much. The Wings didn't challenge him with bodies or a barrage of shots, and when they did get a puck on net it was usually low and directly into his pillows. That made for a pretty comfortable night between the pipes.
• If there was one obvious edge the Ducks carried into this series, it was a power play that ranked fourth-best during the regular season. The unit scored twice on four chances in Game 1, but only had the two shots to show for that time with the extra man. Since that's probably an unsustainable shooting percentage, look for the Ducks to try to generate more initial action from the point, with greater presence down low in Game 2.