After ten long days without Blues hockey, local fans will see the new and improved Los Angeles Kings return tonight to try and grab two more points from the Note. Jaro Halak suffered both losses to the Kings earlier this season and will get a third chance tonight to avenge the Blues most embarrassing loss so far, a 5-0 shellacking in the City of Angels. The playoff-contending Kings reached the 60-point level with a win over Columbus Wednesday and now only trail the Blues by five points. However, St. Louis has games in hand over Los Angeles and every Western Conference contender except division-leading San Jose. Of course, the Blues must win those games as they jockey for an advantageous playoff position, especially since the club will be on extended road trips in February and March.
Like the Blues, the Kings have never won the Stanley Cup. Unlike the Blues who have had three shots at Lord Stanley’s trophy, the Kings have only had one, which was in 1993. However, the events leading up to that Cup Final series really began in 1987 when millionaire coin-collector Bruce McNall bought the team from real estate magnate Jerry Buss, who had purchased the Kings franchise from original owner Jack Kent Cooke in 1979. McNall changed the team colors to black and silver and turned the mediocre Kings into Stanley Cup contenders almost overnight in August 1988, when he acquired Wayne Gretzky in a blockbuster trade with Edmonton. In his first season as a King, Wayne scored 54 goals and 168 points and won the Hart Trophy as league MVP. Gretzky spearheaded the Kings to their first (and only) regular season division title in franchise history in 1991, although playoff success would not come until the 1992-93 season.
That season started on a bad note when it was learned that Gretzky had suffered a career-threatening herniated thoracic disk, dating back to a game in 1990 when he was checked from behind by the Islanders’ Alan Kerr. The injury was aggravated in September 1991, when the Great One was hit from behind by defenseman Gary Suter during a Canada Cup game and yet again in an exhibition game in Las Vegas later that month. While Gretzky was treated and began rehabilitation, the Kings made do with forwards Luc Robitaille, Jarri Kurri, Tony Granato, defensemen Rob Blake and Alex Zhitnik and goaltender Kelly Hrudey. Gretzky returned to play 45 games, scoring 16 goals and 65 points as the Kings finished third in their division and barely made the playoffs. First-year coach Barry Melrose saw his team score 33 goals in the opening round against Calgary, easily winning the series. They defeated the heavily favored Vancouver Canucks in six and faced the Doug Gilmour-led Toronto Maple Leafs in the Conference Finals. The Kings won the hard-fought series in seven games, including two decided in overtime. Gretzky clinched game seven with a hat-trick and an assist in a 5-4 victory.
The underdog Kings met the well-rested Montreal Canadiens for the Cup. Los Angeles surprised the mighty Habs in Montreal with an opening game 4-1 win. Game two turned out to be the turning point in the series, though. Late in the third period, the Kings led 2-1 and were on the way to another solid win when Montreal coach Jacques Demers requested a measurement of Kings defenseman Marty McSorley’s stick blade. Demers’ suspicion that the curve was too great was correct, and the Canadiens got a power play. Demers pulled goaltender Patrick Roy, and Eric Desjardins scored six on four to tie the game. Desjardins also scored the winner in overtime, and the demoralized Kings never recovered, losing the next two games in overtime in southern California. Montreal returned home to win their 24th Stanley Cup in game five, the last Cup victory in the old Forum.
The Kings’ major problem so far for new coach Darryl Sutter has been a dismal offense, currently the worst in the entire NHL with only 114 goals. The big off-season trade with Philadelphia for center Mike Richards has not worked out so well as Richards has performed well below expectations, although he is one of three Kings with more than ten goals. The biggest liability is a lack of scoring power from the wingers, especially the port side, with only 14 goals. By comparison, Blues left wingers have potted twice that number. Like the Blues, defense has been the Kings best attribute, led by All-Star goaltender Jonathan Quick, whose statistical numbers are not that far behind Blues All-Star counterpart, Brian Elliott. The Los Angeles penalty killing has been excellent as well, ranked fifth in the league, so the Blues’ recent attempts in long practice sessions to revive their faltering power play will be sorely tested tonight against the Kings. Expect yet another tight-checking, hard-fought Western Division contest that will be decided by the club that makes the fewest mistakes.
Led by snipers Evgeni Malkin and James Neal, the red-hot Penguins have won six games in a row. Both players scored their 26th goals of the season Sunday in a thrilling overtime victory over Washington. Pittsburgh’s offense, ranked sixth in the league, is still potent, despite the absence of Sidney Crosby and Jordan Staal, both on IR with concussion and knee problems respectively. The Pens have always provided the Blues with a formidable opponent and tonight’s game will be yet another barn burner as both teams vie for two important points. Expect a knock-down, rough, tough 200-foot game for a complete 60 minutes. A consistent effort will be necessary and required from all the players on both clubs. And, of course, everyone hopes that consistency will be also provided by the referees and linesmen.
NHL officiating, both on and off the ice, remains terribly inconsistent as fans around the league shake their heads in bewilderment. In Pittsburgh, spectators could not help but wonder why the Capitals Alex Ovechkin escaped on-ice punishment for smashing defenseman Zbynek Michalek’s head into the glass. Ovechkin was suspended for three games yesterday by the NHL. So, a third-time offender who recklessly left his feet to deliver a deliberate head-shot gets the same as Ian Cole, a first-time offender with no intent to head shot. Fans in Columbus saw Red Wings forward Henrik Zetterberg push Nikita Nikitin as the Blue Jacket defenseman lost an edge and tumbled into the boards. Despite being assessed a major for boarding and a game misconduct, Zetterberg (who later admitted to NHL.com correspondent Brian Hedger, “The rule is the rule, I made contact and he went down… I don’t think I pushed him hard.”) was not suspended because he did not intend to injure Nikitin. Of course, Ian Cole and Chris Stewart of the Blues did not intend to cause injury to the Red Wings players they hit, as noted by Brendan Shanahan in his ruling on Cole, yet nevertheless each received three game suspensions, even for a first offense. And that’s the problem. Shanahan contradicts himself with just about each new video explaining his rulings. One unintentional hit is worth 3 games, another is worth no suspension at all. In one case, intent is taken into consideration; yet in another, intent is discounted. Some first offenses get more punishment than some repeat offenders. And if the ultimate purpose is to eliminate head shots, then how can fighting be tolerated, especially in cases in which there is no actual fight, yet blows to the head occur, as in the skirmish in which Detroit’s Jimmy Howard attacked the Blues David Perron? And so the beat goes on as the one consistent factor concerning NHL officiating is total inconsistency.
Both the Blues and Penguins came out of the NHL expansion womb in 1967. While the St. Louis franchise was granted conditionally, the Pittsburgh bid was guaranteed even before the NHL decided to double in size that year. In the spring of 1965, Pennsylvania state Senator Jack McGregor began lobbying some of his campaign contributors to bring an NHL franchise back to Pittsburgh. Previously, the Pittsburgh Pirates had played in the NHL from 1925 to 1930. The group of local investors included H.J. Heinz III, heir to the food company fortune, Steelers owner Art Rooney and Richard Mellon Scaife, billionaire newspaper publisher. With the help and influence of Chicago Blackhawks owner James Norris and brother Bruce Norris, owner of the Detroit Red Wings, the bid was quickly approved. Of course, the Red Wings received an undisclosed indemnification payment since they had sponsored the AHL Hornets as their farm club. And McGregor became president and chief executive officer of the Penguins as well as a Governor on the NHL Board. It was very nice how all that worked out, eh?
Since the six expansion franchises were hampered by restrictive rules that kept most of the major talent with the Original Six clubs, the first Penguin team was made up of minor leaguers with the exception of aging star forwards Andy Bathgate, Ab McDonald and Earl Ingarfield and defenseman Leo Boivin. The Pens would finish out of the playoffs with the third worst record in the league. The Blues, on the other hand, finished third, a mere three points behind Western Division leading Philadelphia and went to the Stanley Cup Finals, only to lose four straight to the Montreal Canadiens. However, the first-year Blues could take solace and pride in being in every game, losing each by a single goal, two in overtime.
The Blues have had an incredibly amazing run on home ice, winning 14 out of the last 15 games, including wins over the Red Wings, Sharks, Rangers and Predators. In those 14 games, the Note outscored the opposing teams 46-21. Well-rested All-Star Brian Elliott is expected to continue his excellent play this season and stifle the Penguin sharp shooters. With extended road trips coming up after the All-Star Game, the Blues need every possible point.