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Game 54 Preview: New Jersey Devils vs. Los Angeles Kings

The Time: 5 PM EST

The Broadcast: TV: MSG (HD); Radio: 660 AM WFAN

The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (35-14-2) vs. the Los Angeles Kings (32-19-3)

The Last Devils Game: The Devils won 5-4 in overtime against the Toronto Maple Leafs on Friday night. Dainius Zubrus, Zach Parise, and Travis Zajac all had huge, multi-point games; the offense scored 5 goals; and even won with - get this - a power play goal.   The only thing that was really bad were the defensive breakdowns that led to the four goals against and pretty much the third period in general by New Jersey, wherein they blew a 2 goal lead. Conflicted on how I felt, I recapped the game with both an optimistic and pessimistic take.

The Last Kings Game: Last night, the Kings took their four game winning streak into Boston and had one heck of a game. Penalties were all over the place, where Wayne Simmonds took 19 penalty minutes in response to something happening on Anze Kopitar.  Penalties lead to power plays and all four goals scored in regulation were on the power play, two for each team.  Jarret Stoll ended a lengthy shootout session to extend the Kings' winning streak to 5 games.  Connie Kim of Jewels from the Crown recapped the game summarizing what went on.

The Goal: Efficient puck movement will be the key, in my opinion.  The New Jersey Devils did a good job for the first 40 minutes against Toronto moving the puck, be it in their own zone to get a clearance, in the neutral zone to find players in space or to dump it in, or on the attack to find players in good places to shoot.  In the third period, while the team sat back and broke down defensively, the passing contributed to the painful nature of that period.  Passes suffered against Toronto's forecheck; clearances were stopped at the point or went right to a defender in the neutral zone; and from what little attack they had, the Leafs were able to make an easy clearance if the first move was a dump-in.     Los Angeles is a far more balanced and efficient team, playing confident hockey.  Unless the Devils want to give the Kings chances of their own to make something happen, then puck movement - not just passes, but clearances and dumps, too - has to be more consistent.

Oh, and not sitting on a lead and turning the puck over in the defensive zone would help, too.

Read on further for my guesses and thoughts on tonight's game. For the Kings' point of view, please visit the relatively new Jewels From The Crown to read up on Los Angeles' recent streak of wins.  If you want a second opinion and don't mind some rough language and some vivid imagery, Rudy Kelly at Battle of California is your man to read.

The big news on Saturday, as reported by Tom Gulitti, was that A) the full team was practicing because they won't tomorrow and B) Nick Palmieri was sent down to Lowell.  This means he'll be available for Lowell when they play the Hartford Wolfpack on February 3 at the Rock; tickets still on sale through the Devils at $15.   Sorry for the shill. Palmieri looked decent in his 6 games up with the Devils, he set up some nice screens on some goals, picked up an assist, and even got some ice time on the top two lines.  He was never going to win a spot, but I think the experience will do him some good.  It is, after all, only his first season of pro hockey and now that he has a taste of the NHL, he'll have a better idea of what to work on in Lowell so he can make a stronger case in training camp in the fall.

Also, I think this speaks well to Patrick Davis' play that he's still up with the team.  Granted, once Patrik Elias returns, he'll probably be sent down; but Davis has looked good on the third line so far in his call up.

Gulitti has some other must-read posts from Saturday. The first is about Martin Brodeur's workload.  Read it and understand that him playing so much isn't common - the Kings' Jonathan Quick is in the same mold as him - and it's not to his detriment.  Put it this way, if the head coach, the trainers, the GM, and, of course, the player himself all think he's OK to play through practices, workouts, and games, then he's OK to play - period.  You and I who only see him when he's playing in a game aren't in any position to argue otherwise, really.  

The second is about Paul Martin and Patrik Elias, which is important because they are important players who the Devils could really use on the ice.  Gulitti has reported that Martin has begun skating recently and he hopes to have his cast off on Monday; whereas Elias may be medically cleared to start skating in the next few days.   It may be slow, but it is good news on their progress.  And no, there's no update on David Clarkson.

Anyway, with Palmieri down, I would think this means Niclas Bergfors can get back into the lineup.  Well, not necessarily, according to Jacques Lemaire, as reported by Gulitti yesterday.  I get the impression that Lemaire's not really happy with Bergfors' performances and he's sending a message in the hopes he works harder on the ice.  It's one thing to not get any goals or points, but it's another to not contribute defensively, make good passes going up ice, and maintaining or fighting for puck control.  Early in the season, when Bergfors wasn't scoring, Lemaire was patient and noted then that Bergfors will get goals with a continued effort (report by Gulitti).  I can't say he's been doing that in January, though.  I hope Bergfors does play today against LA and makes his mark on the game so he can regain his regular spot in the lineup.

What will be the lineup? Well, here's what Gulitti reported from Saturday's practice as the lines.  It wouldn't surprise me if Lemaire started those lines on Sunday, which does include Bergfors.

Zach Parise - Travis Zajac - Jamie Langenbrunner
Brian Rolston - Dean McAmmond - Vladimir Zharkov
  Jay Pandolfo - Rob Niedermayer - Patrick Davis
Rod Pelley - Dainius Zubrus - Niclas Bergfors

Andy Greene - Bryce Salvador
Colin White - Mike Mottau
  Johnny Oduya - Mark Fraser

Martin Brodeur
Yann Danis

Why not ZZZ?  Well, ZZ Pops has been very good all season and if they struggle, Lemaire can always switch the wingers around to move Zubrus back up to the first line.  Los Angeles boasts a deeper attack than just one line, so it makes sense to me to spread the forwards rather than stacking all the recently hot scorers into one unit right from the get-go.   Then again, ZZ Pops is doing that as all three are the top scorers on the team.  Hmm.  Again, Lemaire can and probably will switch forwards up if he notices a possibly favorable matchup.

Los Angeles is hot right now.  They won their last 5 games, they've been very good on the road, and they're balanced with 8 players with 10 goals or more for the season.  Sitting in fifth place in the West over their shootout win over Boston, the Kings are making a serious statement for a postseason run.  Devils fans may take making the playoffs for granted, but Los Angeles playing in mid-April would be massive since the Kings haven't been in the  playoffs since 2002. Rumors have been swirling over whether they'll make a big trade to make a splash in the postseason; another reason to keep an eye out for them in the West.

The main forward that the defense can hope to contain because I question if he can be stopped is Anze Kopitar.  Kopitar isn't just a point machine, but he's such a dynamic player in general that he's a threat wherever he goes.   That may sound like someone you know and I'm not being cute about my subtle comparison.

2009 - Anze Kopitar 53 22 31 53 7 10 8 0 2 0 164 13.4

In net, expect to see Jonathan Quick, the young and talented #1 netminder for Los Angeles.  Per Rich Hammond of LA Kings Insider, Kings head coach has stated that Quick will get the start tonight (and that overrated defenseman Jack Johnson is still a gameday decision).  I'm not sure how well he handles the second game of back-to-backs on the road and his statline isn't exactly one that will make you go "wow," but he's been the man on the Kings' winning streak.  A confident goaltender could prove tricky, but I think the Devils would do well to approach him with the "attack early and often" approach early to see how alert he is. Force him to be great. Then again, I find myself wanting to see that often and followed by mixed results.  Take my opinion with a grain of salt in that case.

2009 - Jonathan Quick 48 2879 29 16 123 2.56 1318 1195 .907 1

To get some insight for the opponent that the Devils will only face once in this season, I asked two people.  I asked Rudy Kelly of Battle of California for his no-holds-barred-except-for-the-language-which-is-a-hold-that-is-barred a few general questions about the team's success this season. I also asked Connie Kim of Jewels From The Crown for her take on the Kings. These questions were issued before the Kings' win over Boston, so I do apologize if they sound a little out of date.

Question 1. This will be the first and only time the New Jersey Devils will play the Los Angeles Kings in the regular season.  Could you briefly describe how the Kings play, as in their style, tendencies, etc.?

RK: The Kings are coached by Terry Murray and he's your prototypical Canadian.  He demands backchecking, good play along the boards, and crashing the net.  Ideally, this means they grind the game out and score off tip-ins, rebounds and the odd good play by Kopitar; in reality, this usually means they throw the puck around the boards and get a terrible shot from the point.  Oh, and the Kings do a pretty good job preventing shots.

[JF Note: The Kings are third in the NHL in average shots against per game with 27.8, just .1 behind New Jersey.]

CK: This is a more difficult question to answer because the Kings seem to constantly be trying to improve on all aspect of their game. (e.g. the second period of last night's game against the Boston Bruins.) That being said, some things to look for are too many cycles on the PP, leaving goalie Jonathan Quick out in the open, and hopefully some wagging sticks in the passing lanes. Anze Kopitar likes to go north-south while Dustin Brown and Ryan Smyth like the east-west game.

Question 2. The Kings will end a 5 game road trip in New Jersey and even if they lose in Boston on Saturday, the Kings have been pretty good on the road with a 17-10-4 record going into the Boston game and a 4 game winning streak prior.  Is there any particular reason why they have been playing so well as of late, especially on the road with a significantly long traveling schedule?

RK:  I'm not quite sure, to be honest.  I'd say that it's half luck and half the fact that the Kings have 3 defensively responsible centers and they're pretty deep so one line can't be exploited.  Michal Handzus centers the Kings' shutdown line and he'd done a fantastic job all season, while Anze Kopitar has improved his fitness and his defensive play since last season.  The wild card is the newly formed line of Ryan Smyth-Jarret Stoll-Dustin Brown, who usually draw the opposing team's 2nd line and has been winning that match-up pretty consistently.  But yeah, it's probably just luck.

2009 - Michal Handzus 53 11 14 25 2 34 2 1 5 0 75 14.7

CK: I attribute the Kings being on the winning end to the trust that is present throughout the roster from the top scorer to the netminder. The players are performing like they should be and are standing up to the opposition when the situation calls for it. The captains are leaders, the vets are respected, and the goalie has been lights out.

Question 3. Drew Doughty, from all statistical accounts, is a fantastic defenseman.  He leads the Kings in average ice time (24:31) and he's the team's second leading scorer with 10 goals and 31 assists prior to Saturday's game.  All this from a sophmore who apparently hasn't heard he's supposed to be slumping.  Since the Devils may see him quite a bit, is there any way he can be beaten? Or should the Devils just try and beat his partner instead?

2009 - Drew Doughty 53 10 31 41 16 34 5 0 3 24:34 96 10.4

RK: Drew Doughty is the greatest man who ever lived.  Him or Jesus, I'm not sure, but to be fair Jesus didn't have a great slap shot.  Like you said, Doughty is leading the Kings in ice time and unlike most young defensemen he's not being sheltered at all.  Doughty is on the shutdown pairing along with Rob Scuderi and he's done a great job of it this season.  All the things you could have criticized him for last season (he doesn't have a great shot, he's not strong on the puck, he's not physical) have been corrected this season and it's been awesome.  When you're watching the game just remember: he's 20.  20!

CK: Who's said he's supposed to be slumping?? I haven't read that anywhere; please fill me in if you have. [JF Note: I was referring to the traditional "sophmore slump" that players tend to go through after a good rookie season (e.g. Travis Zajac)]

How do you beat Drew Doughty? Don't let him touch the puck, plain and simple. He's such a naturally gifted player that you may just be spending all your time trying to figure out a way to beat him. The first game of this season was his worst yet in the NHL, but that's been the only blip in his career so far. This kid is the real deal.=

Question 4. When I look at the Kings roster, I know Anze Kopitar will be a handful on the ice; but I noticed the Kings have 6 other forwards with 10 goals or more.  Who else among these other forwards should Devils fans watch out/be worried about when they're on the ice (e.g. Dustin Brown, Wayne Simmonds, etc.)?

RK: The Kings have a pretty deep offense that is pretty interchangeable because everyone is committed to the system.  My personal favorites are Alexander Frolov and Wayne "Meat Train" Simmonds.  Frolov is a puck-possession master; he plays with Handzus on the shutdown line because he can take the puck into the corner and waste a top line's shift because they're in their defensive zone the whole time.  He's a UFA this off-season so if you like what you see... stay the hell away from him, he's mine.  Meat Train Simmonds is one of our young whippersnappers and he's probably the most popular player in LA, outside of Doughty.  He is fast and hits and he's not afraid to drop the gloves.  He plays like it's a pick-up game and I love him for it.

CK: Wayne Simmonds is one you should definitely keep your eyes on. He's a dynamic player who is gritty and solid on his feet. His current (unofficial) job is to open up breathing room for Kopitar and he's doing a damn fine job of it so far. Yes, Dustin Brown. Captain for a reason who'll knock the wind out of you if you keep your head down. These guys are the type of heart-and-soul players every team hopes to have in their own lineup.

2009 - Alexander Frolov 52 12 20 32 -9 22 2 0 0 0 121 9.9
2009 - Wayne Simmonds 49 12 19 31 18 66 0 0 1 0 87 13.8
2009 - Dustin Brown 53 12 25 37 -2 24 3 0 1 0 167 7.2

Question 5. Lastly, based on what you've seen so far this season, do you think the Kings will be able to make the playoffs in a crowded Western Conference?

RK: Uh... yes?  I'm not sure, I haven't been in the playoffs since 2001 [JF Note: 2001-02] so I can't even remember what a playoff team looks like.  I think they can though; they have 3 good centers, 5 good wingers and a great defense.  I'm pretty sure they'll be OK, assuming Dustin Brown doesn't accidentally knock Jack Johnson into Jonathan Quick during the Olympics.  But even if they don't, it's not a big deal.  I mean, our best forward is 22, our best defenseman is 20 and our goaltender is 23.  We have a top 5 prospect pool and a great GM in Dean Lombardi who's committed to building a great team.  We hope to be like the Devils someday.

CK: At the beginning of the season, I would have said this team was at least another year away from the playoffs, but so far the consistency they've shown has been more solid and steadfast than any output from the previous few seasons. As a diehard fan, I've been able to put my own trust back into this team and can confidently say that this roster could definitely make the playoffs this season and have a strong presence against any team they face. The Western Conference has been separating slightly in the past few weeks, so my confidence is only growing.

Big thanks to Rudy for his responses.  The team's strong in the middle, they get offensive production from multiple players, and they have an absolute young stud running the defense.  Given that they just keep finding ways to win games, expect this to be a very difficult game for the Devils.  It's great that the Devils were able to score 5 goals, the offense really needs that confidence going up a team .   Of course, if the defense is going to be as horrid as it was or if the team takes a whole period, then Kings will almost-absolutely make them pay dearly for it. 

It will certainly be an interesting game.  I'll be at my usual seat in Section 1, Row 16, Seat 5.  In any case, in advance of the GameThread, please leave your thoughts, concerns, questions, and news updates about today's game in the comments.   Expect the Weekly Snapshot to come up later in the day - probably in the morning as there's an Atlantic division game happening at 12:30.  Either way, go Devils!