Kings' Colin Fraser (24) battles St. Louis Blues' Kevin Shattenkirk… (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles…)
ST. LOUIS — Can a playoff matchup be familiar but strikingly different at the same time?
The Kings will start their defense of the Stanley Cup on Tuesday against the Blues, the team they swept out of the second round of the playoffs last spring. Like last season, the Blues have the better seeding and home-ice advantage at the Scottrade Center. The core of both teams is essentially the same too.
The differences, though, are significant.
This time, the Kings will begin with a championship to their credit and the knowledge of what it takes to win probably the most grueling postseason tournament in professional sports. The Blues will begin with a deeper defense and a burning desire to learn from the Kings' success — and use those lessons to beat them after failing in eight straight games.
"I think we're really hungry for this series. I think it's a matchup that, quite frankly, if we're going to go far, the confidence if we could ever win this series would be astronomical," Blues Coach Ken Hitchcock said Monday after his team's practice in suburban Hazelwood, Mo.
"We're stronger. We're better. Whether we're good enough to beat them, first of all in a game, to start with, let alone a series, is still up for grabs. We have a lot to prove, not only to L.A. but to ourselves and the rest of the hockey community, and I think our guys are up to the challenge."
The Kings are accustomed to opponents' being emotionally charged to beat the champs, and they have handled it well. And they are wise to operate on the belief their past victories over the Blues are irrelevant. "It's a new animal. It's playoffs," winger Justin Williams said.
Which means they're willing to sweat and bleed and lose teeth for two months to again feel the exhilaration they felt last June 11.
"I think we're in a good spot mentally as a group," Dustin Brown said after the Kings practiced at Scottrade Center. "This is a fun time of the year to play hockey.
"To get back here after what we did last year, that was our first step. It's important for us to have the right mind-set. We went through it just last year, but sometimes you have to focus on just how hard it is and how much work you have to put in to be successful this time of year."
They've been building to that for a while, first to crash the top eight in the West and then to vie for home-ice advantage, which they lost in the final days of the season.
"I think the guys have been playing hard all year. It's been a playoff atmosphere for the whole season with the games played every other day pretty much, through all 48," said defenseman Matt Greene, who missed the regular-season finale because of an undisclosed injury but practiced Monday. He said he wasn't sure whether he will play Tuesday, and Coach Darryl Sutter wouldn't confirm Greene's status.
"Everybody's done a good job of playing to it," Greene added, "and I think everybody's ready for this year."
But so are the Blues. Their acquisitions of defensemen Jay Bouwmeester and Jordan Leopold gave them more versatility. Their forwards are brawny. Goaltender Brian Elliott has straightened out his game after a horrible start.
Hitchcock wouldn't say whether he will play winger T.J. Oshie, who missed 15 games because of an ankle injury and went through his first full practice Monday. However, Oshie said he and his teammates are determined to be on the winners' side of the end-of-series handshake line this time around.
Asked what must change for that to happen, he responded swiftly.
"Not let them push us around and intimidate us," he said. "I think last year not everyone, but we had some guys that just didn't really want to go into the hard areas. We can push them and we've showed it this year, in L.A.
"They're going to come hard and we're going to do the same. It's just whoever goes the longest."
Sutter didn't have the luxury of setting his lines and defense pairs in the final week of the season because of Greene's injury and Brown's two-game suspension for elbowing Minnesota's Jason Pominville. The lines Sutter deployed in practice Monday were, like this series, familiar but different: Brown with Mike Richards and Williams; Kyle Clifford with Anze Kopitar and Jeff Carter; Dwight King with Jarret Stoll and Trevor Lewis, and Dustin Penner with Brad Richardson and Jordan Nolan.
The Kings have prepared tactically. That's the easy part.
"They played well coming into postseason and so that's what you want as a coaching staff. You want the detail in their game and we've had that," Sutter said. "So now it's the emotional response, and that's basically the individual's responsibility."
Said Williams: "We need to prove that we're here to make another run at it. Game 1 will be no better time to do that."