Spector: Blues, Kings bringing the hits

Blues forward Vladimir Sobotka checks Los Angeles Kings defenceman Jake Muzzin into the boards.

EL SEGUNDO — In New Jersey, back when beloved head coach Jacques Lemaire was ruining the game of hockey in the 90s, they loved the way their Devils played. Even though it bored the rest of the hockey world to tears.

It was the same in Dallas in the 90s, when Ken Hitchcock rolled out what his star player, Brett Hull, once called the “Triple Chip Offence.”

“We chip it out (of the zone), chip it over (the red line), and chip it in,” Hull lamented. “It’s the triple chip!”

For the first three games of this series between the St. Louis Blues and the Los Angeles Kings, it threatened to be one of those “you had to be there” series. For those folks who were in the buildings to hear the crashing and banging of the body checks, or for whose hopes were invested in either team, six regulation goals in the first three games wasn’t an issue.

No fan ever complains when his teams wins 1-0. But watching from afar, this chanceless, low-shots, two-goal-per-night series was a reminder that this is the kind of hockey that is winning once again.

So what’s changed in this series for Los Angeles, that they’ve now won three straight and are on the verge of KO’ing the Blues at Staples Center on Friday night?

“We scored three goals and four goals, and in one of the games we didn’t allow a goal,” said Kings head coach Darryl Sutter. “Playoffs, you score three or four, you should win. If you don’t allow a goal, you always win.”

Truthfully, in a series played at the physical pace of this one, there is plenty of entertainment without the red light going on.

“I don’t remember all the statistics from all the series’ past,” said two-time Stanley Cup winner Dustin Penner, “but I read there were 370-some hits (in this series) going into (Game 5). I have to think this is the most physical one I’ve been a part of so far.

“When you’re inside the game, as players, you don’t maybe notice it. But when you hear it from other guys around the league — ‘Wow’ — from friends on different teams, that’s when you take a step back and say, ‘Yeah, it actually is as physical as they’re saying.’”

It is what makes Round 1 so fantastic. While Los Angeles was winning on a grand total of 18 shots in regulation of Game 5, Anaheim was firing 18 shots on Detroit’s goal in the first period alone.

Both games went into overtime, both ended 3-2.

It’s like chocolate and strawberry ice cream — some like the hits and battles, others like goals. This series, however, has taken physical, playoff hockey to a new level, by all accounts.

“You know, both teams check so well, both teams try and forecheck, and they’ve probably spent more time in our zone than we’d like, but it’s been like that — a banging series,” Sutter said. “Everybody talks about how physical it is, I think there’s a lot of oohin’ and aahin’ when there is a hit, but I watched the Toronto-Boston game this morning and I think it’s really similar to ours.”

Facts are facts: In last year’s playoffs, only Pittsburgh (4.33 goals per game) and Philadelphia (3.73) scored more playoff goals per game than the eventual champions from L.A. But the Kings were best in allowing just 1.50 goals per game, and early in this post-season, L.A. and St. Louis are the 14th and 15th ranked offences respectively. That’s out of 16 teams.

In these copycat days, it is worrisome when the teams playing 2-1 hockey are the teams that succeed. We’ve been down this road twice before, and it won’t be an easy fix if hard-hitting, passionate but low-scoring playoff hockey morphs into low-scoring regular season hockey — with nowhere near the passion and physicality, because that’s how it works.

That’s a problem for another day though. For now, the Blues and Kings are beating each other’s brains in, and it is making for what has been the consensus best series in Round 1.

“There’s hasn’t been a lot of open ice in the series, and all the goals that have been scored have been odd-man rushes, even on their side,” said Kings captain Dustin Brown. “Those are the only times the goals are scored because all the other times the ice is so hard to gain an advantage on because you’ve got guys running into each other, rubbing each other out and playing hard.”

The rink is smaller in this series than in the other seven, and heads are on swivels.

Now it’s an elimination game. This could be good.

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