NHL Playoffs: St. Louis Melts Down, Ovechkin Rises Up

It can’t be shocking that the St. Louis Blues lost last night to the Los Angeles Kings in Game 2 of the NHL’s Western Conference semi-final—I’m surprised to be sure, that they’ve dumped the first two games of this series at home, but home ice matters less in the NHL than any other sport, and with a goalie like the Kings’ Jonathan Quick, they’re going to be in every game. What has to be considered shocking is the way St. Louis completely melted down right from the start. TheSportsNotebook recaps this, as well as the New York-Washington game from last night in the NHL playoffs, and looks ahead to tonight.

Los Angeles 5 St. Louis 2: Team defense and goaltending have been the St. Louis calling card this season and the reason they were the #2 seed in the West. Both qualities were nowhere apparent in the first twenty minutes of action last night. LA center Brad Richards took a pass from Dustin Penner and gave the Kings a quick goal before the crowd could get settled in. Then Dustin Brown, a big emergence in these playoffs, fed center Anze Kopitar, a player Los Angeles needs to get rolling. A 2-0 lead with Quick in goal has you thinking lights-out already, but the Kings had more to come. Penner delivered another assist, and then the Brown-to-Kopitar combo lit the lamp and it was 4-zip Kings by the end of the period. Did I miss anything? Oh, yes, the second of those goals came on the power play—the St. Louis power play.

Brown cashed in another assist before the game was over, but what has to alarm St. Louis—aside from the 0-2 series hole, the two impending road games and the horrible start—is Los Angeles didn’t play some extraordinary game. They got 21 shots in goal, which against the Blue defense and Brian Elliot usually can spell shutout. The Kings were whistled for penalties and St. Louis got nine power play chances—but that shorthanded goal Los Angeles scored was the only one on any of the nine. For those that don’t follow hockey regularly, to illustrate how many power plays that is, note that the Rangers-Capitals game we’re about to discuss had a combined six for both teams. I’ve agitated for St. Loo to play Elliot in goal over Jaroslav Halak and the latter’s injury—he’s now expected out the rest of this series with a  bad ankle—made the decision for St. Louis coach Ken Hitchcock. But Elliot didn’t make those of us in his camp look very smart last night in a pretty big game.

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Washington 3 NY Rangers 2: Ranger goalie Henrik Lundqvist didn’t have a meltdown, nor is his status the subject of any real debate. But hockey observers do wonder whether Lundqvist can translate regular season excellence into postseason dominance. Last night in MSG gave the critics some material. Washington, after a completely impotent offensive showing in Game 1, came out with two early goals, including an assist by Joel Ward, the man who scored the Game 7 OT goal against Boston in the first round. Trailing 2-0, the Ranger offense got its key people involved. Marian Gaborik fed Dustin Richards to cut the lead in half. Nobody scored again until the third period, when Ryan Callahan tied the game on a power play feed from Richards. But nobody creates havoc through their activity on the offensive end like Washington’s Alex Ovechkin and with a 7 ½ minutes left he scored a power play goal of his own that stood and the Capitals had tied the series at a game apiece.

New York did a good job in getting Richards, Gaborik and Callahan to all be a part of the offense. Now the shots need to be distributed more to the latter two. Richards, an excellent passing center, took five shots, more than Gaborik and Callahan, scoring forwards, took combined. Now Richards shooting is better than mediocre talent or defenseman launching the puck, but the New York offense will be its highest level if its best scorers are taking the shots (ingenious theory, huh?). Contrast that with Ovechkin, who got seven shots at the net. Get your big guns enough shots, and they’ll find the back of the net eventually. And overall, a mediocre outing from Lundqvist, who got reasonable defensive protection and only faced 25 shots.

There’s only one game on the NHL schedule tonight and it’s New Jersey-Philadelphia for Game 2. Even though the Devils lost Game 1 in overtime, I thought they did a good job defensively against a potent Philly attack. If they can keep the shots under 30 and prevent Claude Giroux and Sean Courtierer, the centers on the top two lines from creating situations, New Jersey will win. And I think they’ll get it done tonight. By the conclusion of this evening, all four series will have two games under their belt.