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Monday, April 29, 2013

St. Louis Blues: 4 keys to beating Kings in re-match of last year's second round sweep

Time to throw away the razors and start growing the playoff beards!  The NHL playoffs will begin in St. Louis on Tuesday as the St. Louis Blues take on the defending Stanley Cup Champion Los Angeles Kings.  Being as it takes 4 wins to complete a series victory, below are 4 keys to help the Blues win the series against the Kings.

GOALTENDING - Brian Elliott has had his shares of ups and downs this season.  The year didn’t start off very well for the Blues netminder.  Everyone knew he would work hard to get back to his 2012 form.  What no one knew was he would have to go down to Peoria in order to find his stride.

In LA Jonathon Quick has been steady the entire season, but his numbers are down just a bit compared to last season.  Quick, last season’s Conn Smythe winner, moves well in the net and takes away everything down low.  The key to the Blues will be to get pucks through from the point and be ready to take rebounds upstairs to score.

Also, Brian Elliott is going to make saves when the play is five-on-five, but he is going to need to make some difficult saves when the Blues are shorthanded.  Can Elliott make those big saves when the Blues need it, and can Quick return to MVP form?  Goaltending will be very important in order to move forward to the 2nd round.

PHYSICAL PLAY – Both teams play a “heavy” style of hockey, and rely on an aggressive forecheck to establish the play. Getting that first guy into the zone and making the opposing team’s defenseman pay the price to get the puck will be very important.

The Blues’ defensemen like to carry the puck, but the longer you hold on to the puck the more guys there are waiting to take it away from you.  The Blues defensemen need to get to the puck and move it up the ice quickly.  Once they have moved the puck out of the zone they can jump into the play as the 3rd or 4th guy entering the zone, but they can’t be the players that try and carry the puck for the Blues to be successful.  If the Blues defensemen can move the puck quickly and avoid taking “heavy” hits that will help them keep it simple and turn defense into offense.

DAVID BACKES and CHRIS STEWART – Last season in the Stanley Cup Playoffs against the Kings, David Backes was a man possessed and played every shift the way it is supposed to be played.  He chipped in several goals and assists along with his physical presence on the way in the series sweep by the Kings.

This season, David Backes has led this Blues team in a variety of ways.  Scoring goals has not been one of them.  While Backes finished second on the team in points, he scored only 6 goals on the season.  To put that in perspective, Ryan Reaves scored 4 goals this season.

Backes has always been a good defensive player and recently he has been in an energy role and shutting down the opposing team’s top line.  That is good, but he is capable of so much more offensively, and the Blues are going to need that offense in the playoffs.

Chris Stewart led the Blues in goals this season and they are going to need his scoring touch to continue if they are going to be successful vs. LA.  This time last season, Stewart was a healthy scratch and barely was getting in the lineup in the playoffs.  This season the Blues are going to need that same production from Stewart to be successful against this Kings squad.  The Blues highly touted power forwards are going to have to carry the mail and be productive in this series for the Blues to have any type of success.

TRAVEL SCHEDULE – I know what you’re thinking!  It’s the Stanley Cup Playoffs, these guys are professionals, etc.  All that being said look no further than last season’s playoffs.  Both the Blues and the Kings wrapped up their series relatively easily before matching up against each other.  The difference being the Kings stayed on the West Coast and in their own time zone for the 1st round match up, while the Blues traveled back-and-forth from St. Louis to San Jose three times over the course of two weeks.

Compare this to the potential matchup in the second round with Chicago when their first round matchup is against Minnesota which is an hour flight.  If the Blues are going to make a run in the playoffs they are going to have to be successful early in this series against the Kings.  If this series goes six or seven games like it could/should, that could have a detrimental effect on the Blues in the next series.

I’m looking forward to this series between the Blues and Kings as it is sure to be the epitome of playoff hockey.  For the Blues to be successful against the Kings, they are going to need to be solid in the areas mentioned above to defeat the defending Stanley Cup Champs.

Dennis Vickers is a prep high school coach at Rice Memorial High School in Vermont and covers the NHL and St. Louis Blues for StlSportsMinute.com. You can follow him on Twitter (@dtrain2121) and read the rest of his stuff here.