It’s fitting that the Hawks should close out the calendar year of 2013 against whom they began it on January 19th, when they made a defiant statement shortly after the Kings’ overdue banner ceremony. Since then, the Hawks ripped through the Kings in the Western Conference Final on their way to a banner ceremony of their own. And though the teams tend to take considerably different routes during the regular season, it seems as though they’re once again on a collision course to meet in the spring. But they’ll need to resolve matters on a frigid Chicago night first.
The Kings come into tonight having lost two straight, both in regulation, to the Stars and Predators in that order. Only a bit of the luster has come off of both Ben Scrivens and Martin Jones since the Hawks last saw the Kings on UC ice, as Jonathan Quick nears his return, with Jones tying the record for consecutive wins to start a career before bowing out to the Stars on Staples ice. Both still boast save percentages of .930 (.938 for Scrivens, .954 for Jones). And for a team that controls the puck as well as the Kings do with a league-best 56.4% Corsi share, they’re not having to stop much.
But the problem with the Kings, as it has consistently been under Darryl Sutter is that those possession numbers have not necessarily been directly correlative to pucks in the back of the net, which is why the GAME ISN’T PLAYED ON SPREADSHEETS EGGHEAD. The Kings are currently only 16th in the league in scoring at 2.6 goals per, which speaks to their offensive structure or lack thereof. There certainly isn’t a lack of finish among the forward corps, with the likes of Carter, Richards, Kopitar, and Williams all possessing hellacious releases. It’s that Sutter has them throw anything and everything at the net in an effort to bowl the opposition over, catering more to the Dustin Browns and Dwight Kings of the roster, and when they doesn’t work, there’s no guidance or creativity to get to a Plan B. But because the goaltending has made it stand up more than it hasn’t, the Kings haven’t been forced to change things up much.
Backing up that theory is the report that the Kings appear they’re going with seven defensemen tonight, because apparently they weren’t satisfied with their depth on the blue line previously. The way the pairings are constituted, particularly with Jake Muzzin paired with Drew Doughty, runs counter to what Sutter has trotted out in the past, with one thumper paired with one shotgunner, and Muzzin as sheltered as he could possibly manage, especially on the road. Because Doughnuts plays anywhere and everywhere, that could expose Muzzin, but Sutter will have the option to flip flop one of the two steakheads on the third pair in Willie Mitchell and ill-tempered seabass Matt Greene.
As for our Men of Four Feathers, they’ll be looking to rinse out the bad taste in their mouths left from Saturday night’s collapse in West East St. Louis. A lot of the warts in the Hawks’ game were exposed in the third period of that tilt, but with the Kings in town tonight, the Hawks have the opportunity to take 5 of 6 points from some of the (alleged) Western Conference contenders.
They’ll do it with essentially the same lineup as Saturday, albeit with Michal Rozsival predictably platooning in for Sheldon Brookbank tonight. Antti Raanta gets his third start in four nights and twelfth straight overall as Corey Crawford nears return. As was the case the last time the Kings were in town, because Raanta is smaller and plays a more athletic style, the Kings’ net-crashing tendencies could lead to a whole shit load of trouble if the rebound control both from Raanta and his helping defensemen isn’t in top form.
Even though the Kings have jumbled their lines a bit, shaking up possession demons Kopitar, Williams, and Brown, look for Joel Quenneville to stop pretending that any line with Brandon Bollig on it is any kind of legitimate checking unit, especially with the Kings likely dressing 7 defensemen. Look for power-against-power matchups with Toews staring down Kopitar, as Patrick Sharp is setting the world ablaze by himself these days, and making the Kings’ top offensive threat defend goes a long way toward two points.
Other than that, the story remains the same for these two teams who should now be intimately familiar with one another. The Hawk defensemen will need to be patient with the puck as the King fowards look to splatter them against the end boards, but there will be space behind them. And at least half of the King defensive corps isn’t exactly fleet of foot, so there will be space to take them wide. It’s time to close the book on 2013. Let’s go Hawks.