(Sports Network) - Two of the biggest reasons the St. Louis Blues won their first division title in 12 years this season was the club's overall defensive play and their tandem approach to goaltending.
Both of those strengths served the Blues well in the first round of the postseason, as St. Louis rolled past the San Jose Sharks in five games. It marked the first time the Blues won a playoff series since the spring of 2002, when they ousted Chicago in the opening round before losing to Detroit in the Western Conference semifinals.
The Blues were the best defensive team in the NHL during the regular season, allowing an average of 1.89 goals per game. The Central Division champions were even stingier than that in the opening round, holding San Jose to eight goals (1.60 goals per game) over the five meetings.
One of the reasons St. Louis is so hard to score against is it has not one, but two legitimate starting goaltenders in Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliott.
Halak was 26-12-7 with six shutouts and 1.97 goals-against average during the regular season and Blues head coach Ken Hitchcock opted to start him at the beginning of the playoffs. However, when Halak went down with a lower-body injury in Game 2, Elliott showed he was more than capable of taking over as the No. 1 option between the pipes.
Elliott, who was 23-10-4 with a 1.56 GAA and nine shutouts during the regular season, started the final three games of St. Louis' conference quarterfinal matchup with the Sharks and won all three tilts. He stopped 93-of-98 shots in the series for a .949 save percentage.
Halak has not been able to suit up since going down to injury after colliding with teammate Barret Jackman. He is expected to miss at least the first two tests of the second round, meaning Jake Allen will serve as the backup at the start of the conference semifinals. Even when Halak is ready to play, it seems unlikely that Hitchcock will remove Elliott from the starting role if he continues to play well.
St. Louis is not known for its offensive firepower, but forwards Andy McDonald and Patrik Berglund are both coming off productive series against the Sharks. McDonald posted four goals and a team-high eight points, while Berglund had three markers and four assists. They were the only two Blues players to score more than one goal in the five games against San Jose.
Alexander Steen garnered the most ice time out of Blues forwards in the opening round, posting a goal and two assists while skating for an average of 22 minutes, 6 seconds per game.
David Backes was recently named as one of three finalists for this year's Frank J. Selke Trophy (Best Defensive Forward), but he did not have a particularly strong series against the Sharks. Backes posted a goal and was a minus-three over the five games.
T.J. Oshie, who tied Backes for the team lead with 54 points during the regular season, had three assists in the first round. Veterans Jason Arnott and Jamie Langenbrunner are two of the most experienced players up front for St. Louis and each player managed to post a goal in Round 1 against the Sharks.
All told, St. Louis posted 14 goals in the five games against the Sharks. They also scored six times on 18 power-play chances for a 33.3-percent success rate. The Blues converted on just 16.7-percent of their opportunities with the man advantage during the regular season.
The Blues did not get a single goal from a defenseman in the opening round, but it wasn't for a lack of shooting. Alex Pietrangelo and Kevin Shattenkirk are the best scoring options from the blue line for St. Louis and the two youngsters combined to fire 31 shots on goal against the Sharks.
The 22-year-old Pietrangelo tied Carlo Colaiacovo for the team lead with three assists in the first round and he also led all Blues players with an average ice time of 26:15. Shattenkirk, 23, had one assist in the series after finishing second to Pietrangelo among St. Louis defensemen this year with 43 points.
St. Louis' stout defensive corps, which also includes Barret Jackman, Kris Russell and Roman Polak, helped the Blues rank seventh in the NHL in penalty killing during the regular season. The Blues killed off 85.8-percent of their penalties in 2011-12 and upped that number to 88.2-percent in the opening round against the Sharks.
LOS ANGELES KINGS (8th seed, West)
REGULAR SEASON RECORD: 40-27-15
2012 PLAYOFFS: Defeated Vancouver 4-1 in conference quarterfinals
(Sports Network) - Just like the Blues, the Los Angeles Kings rediscovered what winning a postseason series feels like in this year's Western Conference quarterfinals.
The only difference was St. Louis was the favorite in its series while the eighth-seeded Kings needed to pull off a surprising upset of the Vancouver Canucks. By downing last year's Western Conference champions in five games, Los Angeles won its first playoff series since the spring of 2001, The Kings haven't been past the second round since Wayne Gretzky led the franchise to its only Stanley Cup Finals appearance in 1993.
Also, with their upset of the Canucks, Los Angeles became the 10th No. 8 seed to knock out the top seed since the NHL playoffs began its current format in 1994.
Jonathan Quick has been the best player for the Kings all season long and the 2011-12 Vezina Trophy finalist continued that trend with a stellar performance in the opening round. Quick, who led the NHL with 10 shutouts in 2011-12, went 4-1 with a 1.59 GAA and .953 save percentage in five games against a Vancouver team that had the league's fifth-ranked offense during the regular season.
With his team struggling to score goals for much of the season, Quick learned how to excel in close games. However, Los Angeles fared well in the scoring department in the first round against the Canucks, scoring 12 times over the five games.
Kings captain Dustin Brown was the club's best skater in the opening round, leading his team in goals (4), points (5), shots on goal (25) and plus-minus (plus-4). The only other King to score more than one goal against Vancouver was Jarret Stoll, who had two markers, including the overtime game-winner in the fifth and final game.
Forwards Anze Kopitar and Justin Williams finished behind Brown with four points apiece against the Canucks, while Mike Richards recorded a goal and two assists.
Jeff Carter, who was acquired from Columbus before this year's trade deadline to give LA some added offensive punch, had two assists over the five games in Round 1.
The Kings did not generate a great deal of offense from the blue line in the opening series, as LA defensemen combined to post just one goal and four assists. Willie Mitchell led the way with a goal and an assist, while Drew Doughty had a pair of helpers.
Doughty is the best all-around defenseman for the Kings and he averaged a team-high ice time of 26:32 per game in five tests against the Canucks. Mitchell was second on the list with 25:27 and Rob Scuderi was next in the defensive rotation at 20:32.
Slava Voynov, Matt Greene and Alec Martinez round out the Los Angeles defense.
One key for Los Angeles in this series will be improving its power-play numbers. The Kings were tied for 16th in the league on the man advantage during the regular season with a 17-percent success rate, but was only 3- for-26 (11.5-percent) in the first round against Vancouver.
The Kings were fourth in the NHL in penalty killing this season, stopping 87- percent of the opposition's chances with the extra man. LA killed off 18 of Vancouver's 21 power-play opportunities (85.7-percent) in the opening round.
The coaches of both teams in this series did not start the season with their current clubs. Hitchcock took over head coaching duties for the fired Davis Payne after 13 games, while Darryl Sutter replaced Terry Murray in December.
The Kings claimed the regular-season series against St. Louis this season, winning three of the four encounters. Quick made 35 saves in a 1-0 shootout win over the Blues when the clubs met last on March 22 in Los Angeles. The Kings outscored St. Louis by a combined 9-3 margin in the four meetings.
There's not much playoff history between these clubs, but St. Louis has swept both postseason encounters. The Blues took both the 1969 West Division semifinals and the 1998 Western Conference quarterfinals in four games.
This series has the potential to be an extremely low-scoring one as these clubs finished 1-2 in the NHL in team defense during the regular season. Both teams are stacked in net and are extremely comfortable playing in close games, so it will not be surprising to see a few of these meetings going past regulation.
The Blues are still a young team, but they haven't played like one since Hitchcock took over behind the bench. It seems that St. Louis has fully committed to the coach's system and it paid dividends in the opening round. However, the Kings figure to be a tougher matchup for St. Louis than the disappointing Sharks were in the conference quarters.
With neither team producing a great deal of offense this season, this series will likely come down to goaltending and special teams. In the end, the Blues should have just enough to get past an LA team that has proven to be a dangerous eighth seed.
Sports Network predicted outcome: Blues in 7