Before the Los Angeles Kings and St. Louis Blues met in their second-round series, much was made of how similar these teams were. Blues coach Ken Hitchcock, despite his team's home ice advantage, even referred to the Kings as the new No. 1 seed after they knocked off the top-seeded Vancouver Canucks.
It may have been the two seed versus the eighth seed on paper, but in reality it was going to be a dogfight between two of the NHL's best teams. The Kings, making their third consecutive playoff experience, were prepared for that fight. The Blues, making just their second playoff appearance since the lockout, were not.
"Meet the challenge but enjoy the experience," Kings coach Darryl Sutter tells his troops as they prepare for each series. In sweeping the Blues with a 3-1 victory Sunday, the Kings have sure done both, with captain Dustin Brown enjoying an inspiring series.
The Blues, in contrast, did it too seldom and too late. Outside of the opening period of Game 1 and the desperate final periods of Game 4 when it was win or go home, the Blues never found their game -- never imposed their game -- against a tough opponent. Worse, the elevated emotional atmosphere of the postseason got the best of them. As Hitchcock said in his post-game media conference:
"When the temperature emotionally of the games went up, I think our personal discipline wasn't there. The little edge you need is a learned skill, and we didn't have it. So we took penalties at the wrong time. We got emotionally wrapped up in the shift, and couldn't shut it down when you need to shut it down."
It was a physical series as expected, but too often Blues players -- even their most experienced ones -- were caught taking penalties at inopportune times, erasing Blues power plays and squandering Blues momentum just as the team finally put a string of positive shifts together that hinted they might finally find a crack in Jonathan Quick's armor.
"To be quite honest with you, you almost have to go through that to figure it out," Hitchcock said. "You can talk and bark about it all you want, but you almost have to go through it [to learn it]. And we went through it."
The Blues' untimely lack of discipline was hardly the only difference in the series, however. It's just what made a sweep out of what could have been a close series between two strong possession teams.
The Kings repeatedly diffused the Blues forecheck with smart positioning and swift puck movement out of their own zone. Just like in the teams' regular season meetings, the approach was one of the few that gave the Blues difficulty on their way to a 109-point season.
And while Quick rightly gets the accolades for keeping the Kings' goals against down, the defense in front of him is far from reliant on his heroics. As Hitchcock said in the post-mortem:
"Their ability to defend is very underrated. Their gap ... they make you play an offensive game that is very uncomfortable. So they test your will whether you're going to play an uncomfortable game. In the first period we tried to play around their gap and got burned, end up in our end the whole period. And in the second period we played right through the gap, the right way and were in their zone the whole time, and most of the third too."
The Blues controlled play and outshot the Kings, 20-9, over the final two periods but still couldn't get anything past Quick, and only on a few occasions did they create the rebounds necessary to do so. It was an effort that yielded no results in Game 4 but, had it been replicated in the rest of the series, might have made this series much closer and much longer.
Instead, the eighth-seeded Kings have just knocked off the top two seeds in the Western Conference in just nine games. But it was no fluke. They are on top of their game at the right time of the season. Along the way, they taught the Blues just how many ingredients you need working, in every game, to get past an imposing opponent.