The road to the Stanley Cup is always tougher the second time around.
The Los Angeles Kings used a focused bullrush into the postseason in 2012, riding an incredible second half of the season to become one of the more dominant playoff teams in recent memory. The Kings succeeded thanks to stellar goaltending and a relentless offensive attack that rarely allowed their opponent to gain momentum.
It was an incredibly impressive feat and each season moving forward we'll all be on the lookout for the next "Kings" team, the surprising bottom seed that inexplicably wins the Stanley Cup. When the target is suddenly shifted, and the Kings become the hunted, maintaining the energy of the aggressor isn't as easy as it once was.
On Tuesday night the St. Louis Blues took the fight to Los Angeles, an onslaught that lasted for nearly 60 minutes and gave a boisterous home crowd the energy needed to get their team over the initial nervousness of a playoff game. The Kings looked like the team facing the defending Cup champs, not the other way around, as several frustrating penalties eventually led to the first period power play goal by Alex Steen.
If not for the brilliance of Jonathan Quick in net, this game likely would have devolved into a farce. The Kings managed just 14 shots on goal in the first 50 minutes of the game, while the Blues peppered Quick from all over the ice while dominating possession. Every passing minute was a clinic in how effective puck movement up ice and a hard and relentless forecheck can put a team on its heels and never allow a counterstrike against.
There was too much momentum and too much energy for the Kings to overcome, especially with the Blues not taking a penalty after the first period for the remainder of regulation. How could they? Los Angeles found what it was like for other teams in the 2012 postseason, when the Kings utilized the same puck possession attack to put the Western Conference on the defensive on the way to the Stanley Cup.
Along the way, however, Quick put up a masterful performance in net and despite the barrage of shots levied his way remained in control and never really allowing complete chaos to break out around his net. Quick's ability to keep the Kings within a goal gave his team enough life to stage a comeback, with Los Angeles finally putting the pressure on the Blues and tying the game with just 32 seconds remaining in regulation.
Now, some of the fault lays with St. Louis. Despite nearly 55 minutes of continous attack zone time, the Blues backed off with the one-goal lead in the final minutes and instantly gave the Kings the opening they needed. Brian Eilliott had been solid in goal yet had faced just an odd smattering of shots throughout the game; suddenly, the Kings were knocking full force on the doorstep with the extra man and seized the momentum in the game.
Quick's ability to keep the Kings alive allowed Los Angeles to seize that momentum from the tying goal and maintain the pressure in overtime. Los Angeles put 10 shots on net in the first 12 minutes of overtime, and looked poised to stun the hometown crowd when Kevin Shattenkirk was hit with a four-minute minor for high sticking.
Yet just as Quick had been the hero of the game for the Kings, he would instantly turn into the goat.
The signs had been there before, as the Kings goaltender had already flubbed a few plays behind his net while handling the puck. This time around, Alex Steen's presence and hard forecheck caused Quick to hesitate and then attempt a poorly-executed blind pass behind the net. The Blues, on the penalty kill in overtime, scored a shorthanded goal to win the game.
With Quick laying on his stomach almost completely out of the goal.
It's tough to call such a loss a "heartbreaker" for the Kings, although you could certainly commend them for pushing so hard in the final minutes to tie the game. You can be certain that the Blues certainly learned a valuable lesson, even in victory, and a loss for the Kings almost assuredly isn't as devastating as a loss for St. Louis would have been.
The Blues have high expectations once more, a year after being swept by the Kings the second round last season. That series opened with a tough loss at home to Los Angeles and the Blues never recovered. The second game of this series will be incredibly intriguing, to see how the Blues respond after narrowly winning a game in which they were so dominant.
Was the close call at home enough to keep St. Louis from getting too overconfident? Ken Hitchcock will certainly remind his team just what the Kings are capable of, and just how closely Jonathan Quick nearly snatched away their victory before laying it right into their laps in overtime.
Game 2 is set for 9:30 p.m. ET, broadcast nationally on CNBC.