EL SEGUNDO, Calif. (AP) David Backes was grateful the St. Louis Blues were out of their homes and comfort zones Wednesday, practicing in an opponent’s practice rink just a few slap shots from the Pacific Ocean.
Still reeling from the shock of two home playoff losses, the St. Louis captain realizes that a strong road trip is the only way to save his team’s season.
“It’s good to get away from home and all the people that told us how good we were all year,” Backes said. “We’ve had a little trouble dealing with success, with all the talk about Presidents’ trophies and Jennings trophies … and now we’re stumbling on our toes.”
Indeed, St. Louis is in an 0-2 hole in its second-round playoff series against the Los Angeles Kings, giving up eight goals at home to the lowest-scoring team that made the NHL playoffs. Game 3 on Thursday night is vital to the Blues, who know that only three teams have overcome an 0-3 deficit and advanced.
After the Blues’ stellar regular season and an impressive first-round win over San Jose, Backes can see slippage in the Western Conference semifinal series. St. Louis isn’t playing with the precision or the all-out energy necessary to compete with the eighth-seeded Kings, who have extended their late-season surge into the playoffs.
“We’ve had times in the season where we’ve all bought in, and we’ve had times when we’re half in, half out,” said Backes, who had two assists in the Blues’ 5-3 loss in Game 2. “That’s where we are right now. … Enough is enough, and we’ve got to determine as a group if we’re going to attack this thing, or if we’re going to tuck tail and run.”
Backes’ unusual frankness, echoed by coach Ken Hitchcock in more friendly terms, might be just what this gifted team needs to hear.
The Blues were the first team to clinch a playoff berth and a division title this season, so they didn’t have to push down the regular-season stretch. St. Louis isn’t extraordinarily gifted offensively, and its defense in front of beleaguered goalie Brian Elliott must be much better for the Blues to keep chasing their first Stanley Cup championship.
Hitchcock echoes his captain’s thoughts about the Kings, who have been remarkably consistent in their seven playoff games, putting them halfway to their first conference final series since 1993.
“The difference is the resolve in the opponent,” Hitchcock said after the Blues’ afternoon practice. “L.A. has had to be dug in for a long time. Their commitment is 100, and ours is maybe 85 right now.”
Whatever the Kings are doing right on the road, coach Darryl Sutter appears to be going to remarkable lengths to see it in Game 3: His team is staying in a downtown hotel the night before both games, and their pregame skate Thursday will be at Staples Center – a rare opportunity in a building with all three of its pro sports franchises currently in the playoffs.
Sutter wouldn’t confirm he made the changes to preserve the Kings’ good feelings from the road, where they are 5 for 5 in playoff games this season. Los Angeles has been remarkably inept at home in the past three postseasons, losing six of its last seven – including a potential clinching Game 4 in the first round against Vancouver.
“We just haven’t done it this year,” Sutter said of the Kings’ pregame plans. “That’s one of things we talked about when I came here was never being able to be at your own home rink. It’s just hard to do, because of the basketball schedule. It’s an opportunity for us to do that.”
The Kings probably shouldn’t look to change much else about their playoff efforts to date. They have outscored their opponents 20-11, and goalie Jonathan Quick is thriving behind an improved defensive effort.
Los Angeles also realizes it can’t expect another halfhearted, mistake-prone effort similar to the Blues’ stumbles in Game 2.
“That was probably one of the worst they’ve had in their season so far, and they said it,” said Anze Kopitar, whose short-handed goal in the first period opened the floodgates. “They said it themselves. We know they’re going to be ready to go, and we’re sure they’re going to throw everything at the table.”
While Quick has been largely impenetrable, the Blues need a return to form from Elliott, who hasn’t received much help from his teammates while getting shelled in the first two games. Elliott is by himself after spending all season in a tandem with injured Jaroslav Halak, and Hitchcock is hopeful the part-time goalie can produce full-time success.
“The break (between games) has been good for him,” Hitchcock said. “It was a frustrating last couple of games for him, both mentally and physically. The break is good.”
Although Jason Arnott didn’t practice Wednesday while nursing a lower body injury, the Blues might get a much-needed boost from defenseman Alex Pietrangelo, who returned to practice in California after getting hurt on a check by Los Angeles’ Dwight King in Game 1. Hitchcock said St. Louis’ best defenseman felt “OK.”
“If he feels OK (Thursday) and wants to give it a go, we’ll let him go,” Hitchcock said.