Lighting the Lamp, with Rick Ackerman
Perhaps you have heard of The Curse of Capistrano, a 1919 historical novella that first featured the famous Californio character, Zorro, the fox, later immortalized in films by actors Douglas Fairbanks, Tyrone Power, Guy Williams and Antonio Banderas. Unless you are a student of history, it is unlikely you are aware of an industrial "war" on the west coast in 1882, made famous by a lithograph entitled "The Curse of California", depicting a huge octopus, labeled "Rail Road Monopoly", strangling the financial life out of businesses and farmers, fruit-growers, and wineries in the Golden State.
Of more interest to St. Louis hockey fans, however, is a more recent "Curse of California" that has been placed by the hockey gods on the St. Louis Blues, a hex that started on May 4, 2013. After defeating Los Angeles 2-1 in the second game of the opening round of the 2013 playoffs on May 2, the Blues have now lost nine games in a row to California teams, out-scored 17-34. Tonight's visitors, the Kings, won five of those games, all by one goal, and the first round playoff series last May. Los Angeles also ousted the Blues in the second round of the 2012 playoffs, winning four straight games, out-scoring the Blues 6-15 in the sweep. And the Kings won the only meeting of this season on December 2 in California, 3-2. St. Louis had another terrible first period, out-scored 0-2 and out-shot 9-13. The Blues fought back and scored twice in the third period thanks to Kevin Shattenkirk's goal and assist, out-shooting the Kings, 11-4, yet could not put one more past goaltender Ben Scrivens, who saved the game for L.A. in a frenetic third period. Rookie Tyler Toffoli scored twice for the Kings.
It wasn't always like this for the Blues and Kings in the playoffs, though. In two previous meetings in 1969 and 1998, the Blues swept both series. In 1969, the Blues won all four games, out-scoring the Kings 16-5, and in 1998, the Blues again won all four, this time out-scoring the Kings 16-8.
The two-year old St. Louis Blues were the class of the Western Conference at the end of the 1968-69 season. Led by coach Scotty Bowman, the Blues finished first, 19 points ahead of the Oakland Seals. Led by center Red Berenson with 35 goals and 82 points, the Blues also featured snipers Gary Sabourin (25 goals) and Ab McDonald (21).
Supplemental scoring was provided by Camille "The Eel" Henry, Ron Schock, Frank St. Marseille and Tim Ecclestone. A formidable defense was led by the Plager brothers, Barclay, Bob and Billy, Al Arbour, Noel Picard, Jean-Guy Talbot and Doug Harvey.
Aging all-stars Glenn Hall and Jacques Plante shared the Vezina Trophy as the league's top goaltending tandem. St. Louis eliminated both the Philadelphia Flyers in the opening round and Los Angeles in the second round with sweeps, only to be swept themselves by the eventual Stanley Cup champion Montreal Canadiens. Berenson led the Blues with seven goals, followed by Sabourin with six, and winger Larry Keenan with four. Sabourin was the points leader with 11, one more than Berenson. Plante sparkled in the playoffs with a 1.43 goals against average, winning eight of ten games with three shutouts.
The 1998 Blues finished third in the Central Division with 98 points, 11 behind the Dallas Stars and five behind the Detroit Red Wings. The powerhouse Note, led by first-year coach Joel Quenneville, led the league in scoring that season, led by Brett Hull (27 goals and 72 points in 66 games), center Pierre Turgeon (68 points), Geoff Courtnall (31 goals), defenseman Steve Duchesne (56 points), Pavol Demitra (52 points in 61 games), Al MacInnis (19 goals, 49 points) and winger Jimmy Campbell (22 goals). Other key players included defensemen Chris Pronger, Jamie Rivers and Marc Bergevin, centers Craig Conroy and Terry Yake, and enforcers Kelly Chase and Tony Twist. Grant Fuhr and Jamie McLennan were the goaltenders. Led by Campbell's seven goals in ten games and Pronger's ten points in ten games, the Blues easily defeated Los Angeles in the opening round, only to lose to the eventual Stanley Cup champion Red Wings in the second round, two games to four.
The most memorable incident in the series against the Kings was in game three. Los Angeles had a 3-0 lead midway through the third period when Courtnall ran into goaltender Jamie Storr, knocking him into the crossbar and onto the ice. Kings' defenseman Sean O'Donnell jumped on Courtnall behind the net and continued to punch him as Courtnall covered up while on his knees. O'Donnell was assessed a five-minute penalty for fighting by referee Don Koharski, and the Blues took full advantage, scoring four straight power play goals against the stunned Storr to win 4-3 and take a commanding 3-0 series lead. Incidentally, that was Brett Hull's last year playing for the Blues. The unrestricted free agent signed a three-year, $17M contract with the Dallas Stars in July, 1998.
Expect another tough, tight battle royal tonight as these two Western Conference rivals butt heads in a primal demonstration of athletic dominance. The Blues feel they have something to prove by ending the "Curse of California" and the Kings want to show they can continue their winning ways over the Note. Fans tonight will see the proverbial immovable object meet an unstoppable force NHL style.