Blues left wing Alexander Steen (left) is pulled down by a hooking penalty from Los Angeles center Mike Richards in third period action during a second-round playoff game between the St. Louis Blues and the Los Angeles Kings on Monday, April 30, 2012, at the Scottrade Center in St. Louis. (AP Photo/Post Dispatch, Chris Lee)
EL SEGUNDO, Calif. - Jeff Carter realizes how smooth the Los Angeles Kings' 6-1 run through the post-season must look from the outside.
The power forward knows most people don't realize how the Western Conference's eighth seeds had to grind, scratch and scrape just to get a chance to look so good.
"The last month of the regular season, we were playing playoff hockey," Carter said Tuesday after the Kings returned from consecutive victories in St. Louis to open their second-round series.
"We had to fight just to get in, and once you get in, anything can happen with how close the teams are," he added. "An eight seed doesn't really mean anything once you're in. Anything can happen. That month before the playoffs started has helped us. We just kept rolling the way we've been playing. It's good."
And it keeps getting better heading into Game 3 on Thursday night. The West's lowest seeds are in a commanding position after winning twice in St. Louis with gritty road efforts that left the hard-nosed Blues criticizing their own work ethic and defence.
For a franchise with no Stanley Cup championships and just one playoff series victory in the previous 18 years, the Kings are adapting splendidly to the high stakes and physical style of the NHL post-season. After blowing out top-seeded Vancouver in the opening round, they've largely dominated the West's top two teams.
Yet the Kings know it's not nearly as simple as it looked in Vancouver and St. Louis. Anze Kopitar believes there's no chance of overconfidence against the powerful Blues when they return to Staples Center, where Los Angeles has lost six of its last seven post-season games.
"We're definitely feeling good right now," said Kopitar, whose deflating short-handed goal in Game 2 was set up by captain Dustin Brown's hustle. "Getting into that building (where) they've had so much success and winning both games puts us in a great spot, but it's not over yet. They have a great team. They can turn it around pretty quick."
After replacing coach Terry Murray with Darryl Sutter at midseason, Los Angeles finished the regular season with a 9-2-3 push, earning a playoff spot right before its 81st game. Sutter might be the overseer of this playoff run, but the crusty veteran coach insists he's "just along for the ride" in this post-season surge, claiming the Kings figured it out for themselves from midseason onward.
"It made us a stronger team," Kopitar said of Murray's departure and their season-long offensive struggles. "Mental toughness is a big part of 82 games plus the post-season. We've gone through a lot of stuff this season, and at the end of the day, it matters what the guys in the locker room think."
The Kings took control of Game 2 with an utterly dominant first period, starting with Mike Richards' alert rebound goal just 31 seconds in. Kopitar then scored Los Angeles' fourth short-handed goal of the playoffs, and the Kings added two late goals to take a four-goal lead that flat-lined the playoff emotion in St. Louis' long-suffering crowd.
"It was embarrassing, the work ethic we had as a team, I think," Blues forward T.J. Oshie said. "For our team defence to be that poor, it's embarrassing. ... There were a lot of guys running around. Everyone's working hard, but they're not working hard and using their head at the same time. We've got to work hard but work smart."
The Blues didn't practice Tuesday, taking a day for physical healing and mental resets before boarding a flight to the West Coast. While Los Angeles started the season terribly and finally got itself together, St. Louis was remarkably consistent after coach Ken Hitchcock replaced Davis Payne 13 games in, unexpectedly rising atop the conference standings for a long stretch.
But the downside of that success could be a lack of late-season urgency. St. Louis was the first team to clinch a playoff spot and the first to clinch its division, although it didn't hurt the Blues in their first-round elimination of dangerous San Jose.
The Blues don't blame their weak efforts against Los Angeles on the regular season, but they also realize they can learn a few things from the Kings' desperate approach to the first two games.
"They don't stop coming," Blues captain David Backes said. "They earned their two wins, and it's kind of disappointing that we didn't have more digging in and solidarity as a group to push them back and see what they are made of. We've got other levels we can get to, to hopefully make them earn it more."