ST. LOUIS - This time around, the St. Louis Blues are determined not to be a mere speed bump for the Los Angeles Kings.
Coach Ken Hitchcock likes his team's chances of making a deep playoff run, but scoffed away a suggestion that the Blues and Kings have a lot of similarities. After sweeping the Blues in the second round last spring en route to the franchise's first Stanley Cup, Los Angeles won all three games this season, too, and have taken eight in a row overall.
"Look, we haven't beaten them in two years," Hitchcock said Monday. "I think we're really hungry for this series. It's a matchup that quite frankly if we're going to go far, the confidence if we could win this series would be astronomical."
The Blues have won 12 of their last 15 with a mix of stingy goaltending, tight checking and just enough offence. They won their last six at home to claim the fourth seed in the Western Conference after finishing one point ahead of the Kings.
Forward T.J Oshie, expected back from ankle surgery for Game 1 Tuesday night, believes the key to the series is "probably not let them push us around and intimidate us."
"I think last year, not everyone, but we had some guys that just didn't really want to go into the hard areas," Oshie said. "They're going to come hard and we're going to do the same."
Hitchcock said the Kings' pace was a bigger factor last spring and added "physical play is the most over-rated thing in playoffs."
Yet the Kings didn't downplay expectations it'll be a physical series.
"Big bodies on each side, I don't anticipate anything else," forward Justin Williams said. "If you're a slow team, you're going to get hit.
"If you skate the puck quick, get out of your zone quick, you're not going to be hit."
The Kings were the first No. 8 seed to win the Cup last year, bumping off the No. 2-seeded Blues, and begin their bid for a repeat as a well-respected No. 5.
"Los Angeles is the only team that has the knowledge of what it takes to win," Hitchcock said. "Everybody else can talk about it, but they have it, they know how deep you have to go."
Captain Dustin Brown, who scored twice in the Kings' clinching victory over St. Louis last season, said it's important to remember how grueling the playoffs can be.
"We went through it just last year," Brown said. "But sometimes you've got to really focus on how hard it is, how much work you have to put in to be successful this time of the year. Shift by shift, literally taking it one period at a time."
Part of that mind-set means not taking their recent dominance in the series for granted. The Blues made significant moves on defence for the stretch and after the final meeting against the Kings, picking up Jay Bouwmeester and Jordan Leopold.
Jeff Carter had 26 goals and Anze Kopitar had a team-leading 42 points for the Kings.
"The playoffs are about players stepping up," Kings coach Darryl Sutter said. "Experience has got to help. It's not necessarily winning, it's understanding how long the haul is. We didn't play St. Louis until the second round last year, so St. Louis knows how to win, too.
The goalies figure to be in the spotlight, especially with neither team generating much offence. The Kings totalled two or fewer goals in five of their last seven and the Blues scored two or fewer goals in eight consecutive games this month.
Jonathan Quick was ready for it last year, allowing five goals against the Blues and taking the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoffs MVP with a 1.41 goals-against average.
Brian Elliott gets the Game 1 start for St. Louis ahead of Jaroslav Halak, recovered from a groin injury, off a spectacular rebound from early-season difficulties that included a benching and conditioning stint in the minors. He won nine games in April with three straight shutouts on the road.
Hitchcock said there was a good reason Elliott struggled in the Kings series last year. He was treated for an inner-ear infection throughout the series, and Hitchcock said "I wasn't in the medical thing, all I knew was he had no balance."