In the six-ish months since last season’s Western Conference Finalists last met, not a lot has changed. Both teams are in the thick of things in a ridiculously competitive and re-aligned western conference, with the Kings performing their usual puttering act through the first half of the season despite excellent underlying possession metrics. However, the men manning the cages tonight are a far cry from what anyone would have envisioned early last June.
When Jonathan Quick went down with some manner of crotch detatchment for the Kings last month, the hope was that they’d be able to at least tread water with Toronto cast-off Ben Scrivens and whatever a Martin Jones is until he got healthy. Few thought they’d thrive as they have, with Scrivens and Jones combining for an 11-1-3 record since Quick fell. Both have save percentages north of .940 (Scrivens .943, Jones .967), with Jones making the last 5 starts, including yesterday afternoon in Ottawa. It’s a toss up who gets the start tonight, but from the looks of things it doesn’t really matter, as it’s been since November 2nd that the Kings allowed more than 2 actual hockey goals.
These goalies have been able to thrive because the Kings possess the puck at even strength as well as the Hawks do, and they actually kill penalties, which is something that hasn’t been seen around here in quite a while. The Kings put up a league best 13.7 more Corsi attempts per 60 than their opposition in arguably the toughest division in hockey, which is better than even the Hawks. The attack is led by the top line centered by Anze Kopitar, with Justin Williams and Dustin Brown on the wings. Kopitar leads the Kings with 29 points and 11 goals, which ties him with linemate Williams for the top spot on the team. Even if that line can be neutralized, Mike Richards and Jeff Carter form a formidable threat on the 2nd line now that Carter is healthy, and Tyler Toffoli is having a bit of a breakout year with 15 points in 19 games.
And then there’s the problematic Kings’ blue line, which features the puffy faced Kevin Corrigan look-alike Drew Doughty, who makes the entire Kings attack go. Doughnuts plays nearly 5 minutes more for the Kings than any other skater, a task which he’s been more than able to complete to this part in the season. Willie Mitchell finally being healthy for two games in a row certainly helps mitigate the loss of Rob Scuderi back to The Burgh as well as Robyn Regehr’s slowness of foot, and wolverine-on-angel-dust Matt Greene could very well see a return to action after being out since early November.
From top to bottom, this team is still every bit as terrifying as it’s been the last couple seasons, especially when it’s getting stand-on-head netminding, albeit from a couple of unlikely sources.
As for our Men of Four Feathers, there’ll be no time to lick their wounds after getting their asses stomped in Toronto last night. For the most part, the game shook out like everyone figured it would, with the Hawks controlling 56% percent of the possession, but the Leafs got more through to the net, where the Hawk goalies were less than up for the task.
That will all need to be tightened up tonight if the Hawks hope to not get absolutely embarrassed by a Kings team that for once is firing on all cylinders in the first half of the regular season. Front and center will be the penalty kill, as the Kings aren’t all that fantastic on the advantage, but if the Hawk PK’ers yield chances and goals to a team that can already grind just about anyone to powder at even strength, things could get out of hand quickly. Perhaps having two actual NHL caliber players on the PK such as Patrick Sharp or Kris Versteeg instead of allowing Brandon Bollig to not learn or improve while on the job might help things. Or maybe shift to a scheme that doesn’t concede point shots from the likes of Doughty, Richards, and Slava Voynov with a body parked in front might be a novel idea as well. But Joel Quenneville and Mike Kitchen are the ones with the rings, so I’m sure they know best.
Antti Raanta figures to get an opportunity to redeem himself with another start tonight, but with the Kings’ notorious lack of an offensive scheme other than throw everything and everybody at the net, it could be yet another bloodbath for the limber Finn.
This isn’t to say the Hawks lack the firepower to throw all of this Kings praise by the wayside and pepper either Scrivens or Jones relentlessly for 60 minutes, especially while at home. But they’ll absolutely need to to shelter whatever goalie happens to be in the crease for the Hawks tonight, as the Kings do a lot of things well that pose real problems for the indianhead. It’s a steep climb, but not impossible. Let’s go Hawks.