The Blues have been strong since Ken Hitchcock took over as head coach: Thanks to thescore.com

The Blues have been strong since Ken Hitchcock took over as head coach: Thanks to thescore.com

While the St. Louis Blues’ roster may not have changed much since the Kings and Blues last met, the bench boss in St. Louis has. With a mediocre 6-7-0 record, the Blues fired head coach Davis Payne and hired Ken Hitchcock as his replacement, and have gone 4-0-2 since he took over. Coincidence? A better system for this team? A wakeup call? Regardless of what it’s been, the Blues are playing good hockey right and now and usually give the Kings fits, so the Kings will have their hands full tonight.

Usually, that is. They certainly didn’t give the Kings much trouble last month in the Kings’ home opener when they cruised to a 5-0 win over the Blues. The Kings hope that their struggles against St. Louis are a thing of the past, but it’s still noteworthy that before this season, the Blues had won seven straight games over the Kings, as well as eight of their last 10. They’ve also won eight of their last 10 games against the Kings at Scottrade Center, and the Kings are still searching for their first win in St. Louis since a 2-1 victory on October 10th, 2009.

Hitchcock is known as a defensive coach, and the Blues have been a very stingy team since he took over, allowing just six goals in six games, and overall this season rank fourth in the NHL with a goals against average of 2.16, which is better than the Kings’ eighth-ranked defense that’s allowing 2.30 goals per game. So for a Kings offense that is still searching for consistency, ranked 25th in the NHL averaging 2.41 goals per game, this may not be the best team to run into right now. On the other hand, the Kings put up five on the Blues last month when Davis Payne was still at the helm in St. Louis and they were stumbling out of the gates, but I don’t expect the Blues to play so poorly tonight.

That’s unfortunate news for Jonathan Bernier, who may not get much goal support tonight. Yes, it will be Bernier in goal for the Kings, making just his fourth start in 21 games this season and starting for the first time since a 4-3 victory over the Nashville Predators on November 8th. Since then, Bernier has spent the last five games on the bench. Terry Murray said that he intended for both goalies to get a start on this mini two-game road trip, today in St. Louis and tomorrow in Dallas, and Murray has decided to give this start to Bernier. Although his plan is currently for Quick to start against the Stars tomorrow, could Murray “ride the hot hand” and play Bernier again if he does well enough tonight? Maybe. I would not hesitate at all to see Bernier back in there tomorrow night, nor am I worried about him playing on back-to-back nights with how light his workload has been this season. He’ll have to earn that chance though, and it’s still not a guarantee that Murray would go back to Bernier tomorrow night even if he has a career night tonight.

Bernier will be opposing a St. Louis offense that is ranked 19th in the NHL, averaging 2.53 goals per game, and will be hungry for revenge after being shutout 5-0 in Los Angeles last month. The Blues don’t have a real “go-to guy” right now for offense, as two of their better forwards in David Perron and Andy McDonald are on the injured reserve, and their leading scorers are Alex Steen and T.J. Oshie, each with only 13 points. Behind them are veterans Jason Arnott and Jamie Langenbrunner, as well as captain David Backes, Matt D’Agostini, Vladimir Sobotka, Patrik Berglund, Evgeny Grachev, Scott Nichol, Chris Porter, Ryan Reaves, and Brett Sterling, who was recently recalled from the AHL. One of them will be healthy scratches. B.J. Crombeen is also on the injured reserve, while power forward Chris Stewart, who is seriously underperforming so far this season, is serving the last game of a three-game suspension tonight. Oshie suffered a wrist injury during Saturday’s 3-2 shootout loss to the Minnesota Wild, but he is expected to play tonight.

On the blue line for St. Louis, they are led by star young defensemen Alex Pietrangelo and Kevin Shattenkirk, while they also have reliable veteran shutdown man, Barret Jackman. Ian Cole, Romak Polak, and Kris Russell, who was recently acquired from the Columbus Blue Jackets, make up the remainder of the Blues defense corps. Carlo Colaiacovo and Kent Huskins are on the injured reserve.

In goal, it is expected to be Jaroslav Halak, who has not been very good this season and got pulled in LA last month during the Kings’ rout of the Blues. The Kings may be happy about that, as the red-hot Brian Elliot is 7-1-0 with two shutouts this season with an NHL-leading 1.43 GAA to go along with his NHL-leading .947 Sv%. Halak, on the other hand, is 3-6-2 with one shutout and a 2.52 GAA to go along with his .895 Sv%. However, Halak is starting to play better recently.

For the Kings, they’ve made a few changes to their bottom-six forwards. Kevin Westgarth and Trent Hunter are back in, while Trevor Lewis and Brad Richardson will become healthy scratches for tonight. The first two lines of Anze Kopitar between Simon Gagne and Justin Williams, and Mike Richards between Andrei Loktionov and Dustin Brown will remain intact, while the bottom two lines become Jarret Stoll between Kyle Clifford and Trent Hunter, and Colin Fraser between Ethan Moreau and Kevin Westgarth.

On defense, it remains Jack Johnson with Drew Doughty, Willie Mitchell with Slava Voynov, and Rob Scuderi with Matt Greene. Davis Drewiske will once again be a healthy scratch.

As mentioned earlier, it is Jonathan Bernier in goal tonight.

The Blues are an impressive 7-1-1 at home this year, so that’s going to make it even harder for the Kings tonight. Will the Kings be able to put Saturday’s loss in the rear-view mirror and get back in the win column tonight, or will the Blues continue their success under Hitchcock?

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