The annual trip through California begins in L.A. - and without one crucial Devil.
The Time: 10:30 PM EST
The Broadcast: TV - MSG+; Radio - 660 AM & 101.9 FM WFAN
The Last Devils Game: On Friday night, the Devils hosted the Best Team in New York, the Islanders. The first period was a repeat of the entire game the Devils played on Thursday against Boston: a hard-to-watch performance where poor is the most generous adjective I could give for it. The Isles weren't nearly as sharp as Boston, so it was 0-0 after the first. The Devils would play better in the second period and actually put some pucks on Jaroslav Halak. New Jersey would break the deadlock when Travis Zajac finished a lovely passing play with Patrik Elias. However, the Isles pressed to get one back later in the period. Keith Kinkaid did what he could to hold on and got through the period unbeaten. Early in the third, the Isles essentially won a faceoff, Calvin de Haan fired, and Josh Bailey got a piece of it to re-direct it past Kinkaid. The Devils would re-take the lead thanks to gift. Jaroslav Halak came out of his net to play a dump-in that came very slowly to the trapezoid. Adam Henrique got to the puck first, flung it right to Scott Gomez, and Gomez scored one of the easier goals of his career to make it 2-1. Alas, this small lead would not last. Shortly after a power play ended, Kyle Okposo had a wide-open shot near the slot. He missed, John Tavares recovered the puck, and put it on off the back of Kinkaid's leg to make it 2-2. Both teams tried to find the winner, but that would wait until overtime. The Devils had the better of play early on, but then the star made another statement. He picked Adam Larsson's pocket in the corner, curled towards Kinkaid, saw that the goalie was down, and so put one home to win the game. The Devils lost 2-3 in OT in a game that I liked if only because it featured some competent play - something I didn't see at all for four periods prior to the second period of this game.
The Last Kings Game: The Kings hosted Toronto on Monday night. It wasn't long before the Kings got on the board. Anze Kopitar scored 37 seconds into the game, off a one-timer from a great cross-slot pass by Drew Doughty. (Aside to Marek Zidlicky: Consider this when you go in deep and behind the net.) From that point on, that would be the last goal until the very end of the game. The Kings and Leafs played a very tight checking game, which helped lead to both teams combining for 39 shots for the evening. Goaltender Martin Jones stopped them all from the Maple Leafs. Marian Gaborik added an empty netter to help seal a 2-0 win, the Kings' first in four straight games - all at home. Eric K at Jewels from the Crown was very pleased with the defensive performance per his recap.
The Goal: Do not get caught puck watching. I suggest you watch the only goal Los Angeles scored on Toronto's goaltender from Monday's game. You'll see plenty of white jerseys around the middle of the ice. But few were concerned with where the black jerseys were. As a result, Doughty had a clear lane to pass it to Kopitar coming down the left of the slot, which became a goal. When I saw it, I immediately thought about how the Devils have seemingly collapsed into the slot more often. Many times, before and after the coaching change, the team appeared to react more to trying to get the rebound and get the puck out the middle instead trying to deny the shot. As a result of that, there are players in a position to deny space but they're not actively defending as much. Teams can - and have - exploited this to a degree. If they want to avoid having a similar fate be handed to them by Kopitar, Gaborik, Jeff Carter, etc. and try to get a result tonight, then they need to be more active in their own end. By getting stops before there are shots, they may find more opportunities to counter-attack.
Do Not Expect a Repeat of Last Season: Last season, the Devils got rolled by the Kings. They got a fortunate goal out of nowhere by Ryan Carter. The Kings responded. Jaromir Jagr won a game in OT after a set of coincidental penalties ended. All the while, Cory Schneider put the team on his back. That's not going to happen again. For starters, Carter's on another team. More importantly, Jagr will not play tonight.
As Tom Gulitti reported at Fire & Ice on Tuesday, Jagr and Tuomo Ruutu are out sick with the flu. It's similar to what Eric Gelinas just had, which caused him to miss a number of games and is still unavailable to play. (The team needs to make a roster move to re-activate him.) Neither will play tonight. I am personally not confident they'll go to California for the other two games they have this trip. Ruutu hasn't been all that important. The bigger loss is clearly Jagr, the team's leading scorer, shooter, and possession player.
For those who want to see Jagr traded, you'll get a taste of what this team can look like without him. On paper, it's not pretty. I don't think the rink will make it look better. The team's remaining right wingers are Steve Bernier, Martin Havlat, Michael Ryder, and Jordin Tootoo. You may not like seeing Gulitti's report where Bernier practiced in Jagr's spot next to Scott Gomez and Adam Henrique.I'm not a fan of it either. But there is no good option here. Bernier absolutely belongs on a team's bottom six; Ryder and Havlat cannot defend well or drive the play; and Tootoo that high up among the lines would be tantamount to saying "Welp." If it were me, I'd have Mike Cammalleri up at that spot regardless of position if only because he can defend and attack. Jacob Josefson can return to action by centering that line, Dainius Zubrus can stay at left wing there, and Bernier can play in Tootoo's spot instead. That isn't all that good either, but at least Cammalleri can be a winger, Josefson has a spot, and the team is limited to only two NHL-limited players playing tonight (Tim Sestito and Joe Whitney, who was called up.)
In either case, don't be surprised if the Kings' head coach, Darryl Sutter, exploits that. I would think any coach would pick on this side of the Devils all night long regardless of how the proverbial chairs are shuffled on the proverbial deck. It was weak even with Jagr playing. It's even weaker now.
Also Shorthanded, the Kings: The Kings are missing two forwards as well. Tanner Pearson has a broken fibula and Tyler Toffoli has mono. Rich Hammond at the OC Register has confirmed both will be out for quite some time (and the Kings almost lost Kopitar to injury too). While both forwards have been lower in the Kings' depth chart, they have been significant contributors to the team this season. Pearson has twelve goals and four assists this season. Toffoli is tied for third on the team in scoring with twelve goals and fifteen assists to go with 104 shots on net. For two players who don't even average over fourteen minutes per game, that's some impressive production.
Their losses are testing the Kings' depth. They still have plenty of dangerous forwards that will cause the Devils plenty of issues. According to this post by Eric K at Jewels from the Crown, it appears Sutter is putting three of the team's best offensive players on one line: Kopitar centering Gaborik and Carter. That's a killer unit featuring one of the best players in the league and Los Angeles' leading scorer (Kopitar: ten goals, 24 assists), the Kings' top goal scorer (Gaborik with fourteen), and the Kings' second leading scorer (Carter: twelve goals, twenty assists). The issue, as noted by Eric K, is that the players deeper in the lineup now have to move up. Possession darling Justin Williams will apparently roll with Penalty Drawing Master Dustin Brown and Jarret Stoll as a second line. Dwight King, Mike Richards (now there's a player who's disappointed), and Trevor Lewis will now have to act as a third line. The fourth line features only one regular in Kyle Clifford to go with Jordan Nolan and the recently called up Nick Shore. This is the effect of losing two forwards, even if they weren't big minute players. And while they've received decent-to-good production from other players, losing two 12-goal scorers in the middle of a season still hurts.
If the Devils' weren't so beaten up themselves, then this could be something they could try to take some advantage during the game. Also, if the Kings weren't such a strong possession team and this game wasn't in L.A., they could do so. Alas, I'm not so confident in the Devils' chances. So this may not hurt the Kings tonight. The concern for them is in the medium-term. In the Pacific Division, the second place team (Kings) are only three points ahead of the fifth place team (Calgary). While there's plenty of hockey left, it's important that the Kings keep getting results to stay ahead of the pack when crunch-time comes and two playoff spots are up for grabs. The injuries to Pearson and Toffoli aren't minor ones. The Kings are deep enough, I think, to absorb those losses for now given they have Kopitar, Carter, Gaborik, and Williams. But if those top players aren't doing so well, then it can get a bit dicey.
Like Last Season: One of the big reasons why the Kings can handle the losses of Pearson and Toffoli and still be successful is because the Kings are a very strong possession team. Prior to Monday's games, War on Ice has them at 54.7% Corsi, the second best in the league. Their PDO is a flat 100, so they're not particularly hot at shooting the puck or stopping it. They're just that good at maintaining possession and getting the puck back when they don't have it. Considering how bad the Devils have been at making passes and getting zone exits with the puck, we could see a repeat of that piece of last year's performance in Los Angeles.
As you'd expect, the Kings are loaded with very good possession players. Per War on Ice, Kopitar, Gaborik, and Carter take on the toughest competition and still are above 55% in Corsi. Williams has always been a possession darling. Trevor Lewis has been exceptional as a depth player. The only surprise that I saw was seeing a bunch of players closer to 50% like Brown, Richards, and Stoll. And those players are playing a decent level of competition, but they're not taking on the toughs either. Perhaps that also speaks to Richards and Brown having "down" years of sorts.
The possession flows down to the defense. Drew Doughty is very much the definition of a stud defenseman. He's a lot like P.K. Subban. He's the leader of the blueline, he takes on tough competition, and he has done very well with a 56.8% Corsi. His support is very good. Alec Martinez, Jeff Schultz, Jake Muzzin, and Brayden McNabb have all been solid. As a result, the Kings are strong in the back. Just ask Toronto, who were held to less than twenty shots on Monday. And if we've learned anything from the Devils (because they don't have this), a strong defense can lead to more puck possession and more offense. All of which helps L.A. control the game more often than not.
Lastly, Sutter must know how to use that last change rather well. The Kings are only 5-8-6 on the road, and 15-5-4 at home, and that's including a 1-1-2 record in their last four home games. Even so, that's the second best home record in the Pacific and one of the better ones in the league. In short, this is going to be a difficult game for a depleted and not-at-all good Devils team. Like last season.
Is There Something the Kings Aren't All That Good At?: The penalty kill hasn't been all that successful. Their 79.6% success rate is in the bottom third in the league. That said, I wouldn't count on special teams to be an out for the Devils. The Kings' power play has been potent with a success rate of 20% and they're in the top ten in the league in terms of the number of power plays drawn.
Expect A Rematch in the Nets: Gulitti did confirm at Fire & Ice on Tuesday that Cory Schneider will start for the Devils. Good luck, Cory! As for the Kings, I would expect Jonathan Quick to start. He's been the starter, the Kings don't have a back-to-back set, and he didn't start the Toronto game so he's rested. Quick has been OK; his even strength save percentage isn't too far below 93% (it's 92.6%), though his penalty kill save percentage isn't so hot. The Kings were leaking a lot of goals prior to the Toronto game, but it appears that may not be a big deal for tonight given that they shut down the Leafs.
No Seth: Seth Helgeson has been sent back to Albany. There isn't much of a difference between him and Mark Fraser at this juncture. (Neither are that good, neither are fast, and neither contributes much on offense. Sutter is going to love matching against them.) There isn't a need to keep both in the lineup. His demotion opens up a potential spot for a return of Jacob Josefson or Joe Whitney to the lineup, provided I don't have that wrong. So I'm fine with this move. Defensively, I don't anticipate too many changes from the Isles game. If Gelinas is able to play, then someone else (I want to say it could be Fraser, but I think he'd have to clear waivers? I'm not sure) would have to go down.
In A Word: Eep.
Your Take: The Devils start off a difficult California trip against a difficult team. It'll be something. What do you expect out of this one? Another repeat of the Boston game? Would you be pleased with something like the Isles game where they at least displayed that they could hang with the opponent? What about a win - can the Devils get one and how will that play out? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about tonight's game in the comments. Thank you for reading.