FACEOFF: 7:30pm Central
TV/RADIO: CSN, NBCSN elsewhere, Sportsnet Up there, WGN 720
IF YOU KNOW THE NAME OF THE KING OR QUEEN BEING MURDERED: The Royal Half
Guess we’ll find out pretty quickly if last night was some sort of watershed point late in the season or a blip in an otherwise uninterrupted downward trajectory, Rents. The L.A. Kings saunter on in to the UC tonight, for their first and only visit this season and first since things went a tad pear-shaped last June 1st.
There was a moment there, maybe two, where you probably allowed yourself to ponder that the Kings might actually miss the playoffs. Maybe you’re still there. After all, they currently sit outside the picture, one point behind the Flames in the Pacific and two behind the Jets for the last wild card spot. Yeah… you should give up on that though. The Kings have a game in hand on both of them. And they’re better than both of them, being the other small matter. Don’t be shocked if the Kings make up the three point gap on Vancouver and end up with home-ice in the first round to buckwheat either Vancouver or Calgary or whoever before they dangle a carrot in front of the Ducks just long enough to get them to run off a cliff.
The Kings have gone 8-4-2 in March, which isn’t quite the startling run you’d think they’d be embarking on by now, but the underlying numbers are of course there because they always fucking are. In the 14 games since March 1st, the Kings have been below 54% in Corsi score-adjusted just twice. Jonathan Quick has given up more than two goals just once in his last 11 starts, though he was pulled in his last start Saturday in Minnesota after giving up two in the first. They’ve had a little trouble scoring, as they always seem to until it really matters. But they still give up the least amount of shots per game and take near the most. At even-strength, there just isn’t a better team.
Clicking the Kings into gear is basically Anze Kopitar, who has 15 points in his last 14 games. Kopitar had a tough first half to the season, bitten by some bad luck and also just looking a little leggy at times. That’s obviously the case now. That gives the Kings the equal threat to match Carter and Toffoli on the 2nd line, as they’ve been the Kings’ most consistent forwards all season (when Toffoli’s been healthy).
They have a couple injury issues, with Tanner Pearson slowly working back from a busted ankle and Jarret Stoll dealing with concussion problems. That has weakened their bottom six as Dwight King is on the 2nd line, and Mike Richards has returned to center the 4th. Trevor Lews is effective in his own way, but Dustin Brown is just another word for Shane Doan these days and Kyle Clifford and Jordan Nolan have their brains replaced by whatever the goo is that you find in a lava lamp.
The improvement for the Kings in recent months is due to the bolstering of the blue line. For a lot of the season, Drew Doughty was their only puck-mover from the back, which is why he’s leading the league in ice-time. They acquired Andrej Sekera, who’s rocking a 62% Corsi-percentage since donning the black and silver. Alec Martinez came back from injury last week to give them a third. The three of them can mask the factory building mobility of Robyn Regehr and Matt Greene, something the Hawks just couldn’t expose enough last spring.
As for the Hawks, one would have to imagine they’ll ice the same lineup as last night as Q generally doesn’t change a winning lineup. There was some buzz that Kyle Baun (you got to take the elevator the mezzanine chump, change, and it’s on KYLE BAUN BAUN KYLE BAUN BAUN!) might replace Teuvo in the lineup tonight. But that would be… I can’t even.
The problem lies with Vermette currently a wing, Q is going to match Kopitar with Toews, and that’s not a matchup the Hawks have gotten the best of since Game 3. Toews hasn’t registered a point in the two games this year, and there isn’t Patrick Kane below to take advantage of not having his center dealing with the Kings’ best two-way player. Kruger playing with Desjardins and Teuvo/Baun is in no position to take on the Kings’ top line. And the Hawks need Toews’s line to score. He’s just going to have to get the better of Kopitar tonight. On the second of a back to back. After wrestling with the Jets all night last night. Yeesh.
While the Kings are imposing it’s not like they’re unpredictable. Until they have to change it, their attack remains on the very north-south, blunt side. Get the puck deep, win the battles along the wall, create havoc in the slot and get the puck there. The Hawks have to be clean and quick in their own zone and use the middle of the ice to get out. But considering how sloppy they’ve been lately, failures at doing so are coming and that could get ugly in a hurry. At the other end, the Kings are experts at standing at their line and making you try and play their game along the wall at which which you can’t bear them. Getting pucks into Greene’s and Regehr’s corner is paramount because they can’t get away nearly as easily as Muzzin, Doughty, Sekera, and Martinez. Some of those chips out of the defensive zone to the red line we saw last night could come in handy here.
The Kings need this one. The Hawks do too, as it’s their game in hand on the Wild and they don’t want to be yo-yoing with that outfit the rest of the way (I assume. Maybe they do want to finish 4th, but I doubt it).
Lose this one and both the Kings and Jets will be within five points. The Flames will be within six and that’s the first spot out of the dance, and while that seems a big gap it’s not impossible that things could get real icky if the Hawks continue to slide.
Hopefully, last night signals a change in the figurative weather. We’ve waited long enough for the figurative and the literal.
If you’re going to tonight’s game, make sure you pick up a copy of our gameday program sold outside the UC. If you’re not going, you can pick up the digital copy right here.