The mind-boggling collapse of the St. Louis Blues ended yesterday afternoon in Los Angeles, as the Kings completed a four-game sweep and moved to the Western Conference Finals. In the East, New Jersey put Philadelphia on the brink with a Game 4 win. TheSportsNotebook recaps both games and looks ahead to another hockey twinbill on Monday night…
Los Angeles 3 St. Louis 1: Few teams looked less likely to see their frontline offensive talent step up in the postseason than Los Angeles, mainly because the key players hadn’t been all that great in the regular season. But no core group has impacted games more than Anze Kopitar, Dustin Brown and Dustin Penner have for the Kings throughout their improbable run in beating the West’s top two teams, Vancouver and St. Louis, eight of nine times in these playoffs. Penner fed Jordan Nolan to start the scoring yesterday in the first period, and Kopitar was part of an assist to Brown later in the period, with both goals sandwiched around a St. Louis score. The Blues fired their best shots in the second period—or least the most raw volume of shots, as they got 13 of their 24 shots at Jonathan Quick in the middle period. Quick turned them all back and by the final minute of the third period Kopitar fed Brown for the empty net goal that clinched it. The Blues came to play defensively, limiting Los Angeles to 18 shots, but Brian Elliot played a bad series in goal at the worst possible time, while Quick is locked in. Sports in Los Angeles are riding high right now, with the Dodgers in first place and the Lakers and Clippers leading their NBA series. Even in the NFL, the possibility of the City of Angels getting a team again is back on the agenda. Improbably, the Kings have become a part of that good story.
New Jersey 4 Philadelphia 2: In yesterday’s preview the importance of Flyer center Claude Giroux getting re-engaged into this series was emphasized. I’ll immodestly claim credit then for motivating Giroux to come out of the gate firing, first feeding Scott Hartnell on a power play goal, then scoring a shorthanded goal himself. With an early lead and Hartnell also ready to play on the wing—he would end up with six shots—Philly had control. Then their defense kicked into gear. Normally these meltdowns are at the expense of goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov, but I can’t blame the goalie for the fact New Jersey got off 43 shots. It was a relative unknown in Mareck Zidlicky who had a goal and an assist to wipe out the lead before the first period was out. Then it was Dainius Zubrus who scored in the second period. Bryzgalov still hung in and the Devils didn’t score again until the final minute when Zubrus put one in the empty net. I often emphasize offensive activity in this space, so even though New Jersey’s meal tickets, Ilya Kovalchuk (can we have a limit on the number of guys named Ilya involved in the same series?) and Zach Parise both took four shots and even though they weren’t the ones that scored, I can’t separate their engagement in the action with New Jersey’s offensive success. The Devils now lead the series 3-1.
Tonight Phoenix looks to join Los Angeles in the Western Conference Finals. The Coyotes can close their series with Nashville in Game 5 in the desert. Nashville goalie Pekka Rinne looks to be back on his game after a bad first two times out, thus giving the Preds the answer to Phoenix goalie Mike Smith. What Nashville has not done in this series is decisively outplay Phoenix in the 5-on-5 game, getting high numbers of good shots, challenging Smith and limiting Phoenix offensively. The Coyotes are not a talented team, so this can be done—indeed, given how good Smith is it must be done if Nashville wants to play for the home fans again in Game 6.
And the most competitive of the second-round series, at least thus far, as Washington-New York, where hostilities resume for Game 5 in a series tied 2-2. Alex Ovechkin has taken some heat from the Ranger front office for leaving his skates on a hit in Game 4 and I would expect #8 to get a strong reception from the crowd at MSG. New York needs to be less concerned with Ovechkin’s hits, and more about the fact that he and Alexander Semin outplayed their forward counterparts, Marian Gaborik and Ryan Callahan, in Game 4. Gaborik is coming to life in this round. Callahan can’t disappear the way he did on Saturday.