Lighting the Lamp, With Rick Ackerman
The visiting Los Angeles Kings were here in St. Louis exactly two weeks ago, and the Blues put a hurtin' on L.A. with T.J. Oshie lighting the lamp twice and goaltender Brian Elliott pitching a shutout with 30 saves, immeasurably aided by 24 blocked shots by his teammates. It was a penalty-filled contest from the get-go as Kings' defenseman Matt Greene was assessed a double minor for high sticking Derek Roy. The Blues were able to take advantage as Brendan Morrow scored on the power play, as did Oshie in the second period after a tripping infraction by Dwight King. The Kings were 0-6 on the power play.
Hence, the season series will be decided by tonight's game as Los Angeles slipped past Jaro Halak and the Blues last December by a narrow 3-2 margin.
What makes it so difficult for both teams to play each other is the great similarity between these Western Conference rivals, both in strong contention to win a Stanley Cup this season. The similarities go back to the birth of both franchises in 1967 as the NHL doubled in size from six teams to 12. While the St. Louis franchise was temporarily conditional due to financial issues, the Los Angeles entry into the league was automatic, due to the financial resources and political connections of owner Jack Kent Cooke, the eccentric Canadian entrepreneur who made a fortune in Canada owning newspapers and radio stations, and then later in the United States when he founded American Cablevision. In 1980 Cooke bought the Chrysler Building in New York City and in 1985 purchased the Los Angeles Daily News. Cooke's sports ventures included ownership of the NFL's Washington Redskins , the NBA's Los Angeles Lakers and, of course, the Kings. He would rule the roost until 1979, when the team was sold to Dr. Jerry Buss.
So, Cooke was not around in 1988 when the Kings' franchise was transformed by the acquisition of Wayne Gretzky from the Edmonton Oilers, although he most certainly would have approved of the transaction. In 1987, former coin collector and arts antiquities dealer Bruce McNall purchased majority control of the club from Dr. Buss.
A year later, Gretzky was a King, along with hulking winger/defenseman Marty McSorley and center Mike Krushelnyski. Edmonton received center Jimmy Carson, rookie winger Martin Gelinas, three first round draft choices and $15M. The trade was actually prompted by Oilers' owner Peter Pocklington's financial difficulties that required an immediate cash inflow of around $15M. McNall tripled Gretzky's $1M per year contract and Gretzky turned the Kings into instant contenders, although The Great One would not capture a Stanley Cup with the Kings. Gretzky made McNall a boat-load of money, yet, ironically, it would end badly as McNall was forced to sell controlling interests in the Kings in 1993 due to his default on a $90M loan from Bank of America. Later that year, he pleaded guilty to five counts of conspiracy and fraud, admitting he bilked six banks out of $236M. McNall was sentenced to 70 months in prison and was released in 2001 after his sentence was reduced by 13 months for good behavior.
By December, 1995, the Kings had been in decline for several years, and with time running out for an aging Gretzky, he requested a trade to a team he could win with. Two clubs competed for his services, the New York Rangers and the Blues. The Blues offered more money and in February, 1996, number 99 joined the team in exchange for forwards Craig Johnson, Roman Vopat and Patrice Tardif, as well as two amateur draft choices. Gretzky scored 37 points in 31 games for the Note, yet will best be remembered for losing the puck to Detroit's Steve Yzerman, who immediately scored the series winning goal in game seven of the conference semi-finals. Gretzky quickly learned that money isn't everything, especially after being coached by Mike Keenan, and the following year the free agent center signed a two year $8M (with incentives) contract with the Rangers, rejecting a three year deal with the Blues for $15M. It is rather curious to note that both the Blues and Kings ended up with little or nothing to show for it after Gretzky left town.
On the ice, the Blues and Kings are almost mirror images of each other. Four solid lines can both offer balanced scoring and the ability to both forecheck and backcheck. Both clubs have a rough, tough defense that can transition the puck and defend the net, and goaltending is superb, with the Kings having the best defense in the league with 1.98 goals against per game, while the Blues rank third (just behind Boston) at 2.2 goals against per game. The Blues' big advantage, though, is on offense. The Note leads the league with 3.57 goals per game, while the Kings are ranked 23rd with 2.43 goals per game. Make no mistake about it, though, the Kings can score, as illustrated by Jeff Carter's 16 goals, Justin Williams with 14 and Anze Kopitar with 13.
The biggest and most important difference between these clubs, of course, is that the Kings have hoisted a Stanley Cup banner at the Staples Center (in 2012) and the Blues have not yet raised a Cup banner anywhere. And that is what the Blues are truly working towards, as well as winning the season series from the Kings tonight.