One team's season is lost. One team's season has faint hopes. Methinks the visitors have an incentive.
The Time: 7:00 PM EDT
The Broadcast: TV - MSG+; Radio - 660 AM & 101.9 FM WFAN
The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (31-30-11) vs. the Los Angeles Kings (34-23-14; SBN Blog: Jewels From The Crown)
The Last Devils Game: The Devils hosted the Islanders on Saturday night. You wouldn't have figured that the Devils played the night before as they played an up-tempo, physical game with the Isles. The performance itself was even, though the Devils could've made more of their attempts than they did. Alas, the Islanders got the goals and the Devils did not. In the first period, Cory Schneider played a puck sailed back into his zone and put it into the corner for Eric Gelinas to retrieve it. Nikolay Kulemin easily knocked Gelinas off the puck, passed it to Ryan Strome in the left circle, and the resulting one-timer blasted past Schneider. In the third period, the Islanders did not convert on a power play but just as it ended, Strome recovered a loose puck off a shot and backhanded it to Travis Hamonic. Hamonic slammed the one-timer past a sliding Schneider to make it 0-2. Jaroslav Halak was excellent in net as the Devils struggled to find ways to beat him. They would not beat him. Kyle Okposo fired in an empty netter to make it a 0-3 loss. The Devils' winning streak was over. At least the game was competently played. My recap of it is here.
The Last Kings Game: The Kings had a huge game against Vancouver as the two teams are fighting for playoff contention. The Kings were on the outside looking in, but a win over the Canucks would pull them closer in points in the Pacific Division. The Kings got on the board first when Marian Gaborik scored a power play goal early in the second period, seconds after Dan Hamhuis was called for roughing. However, that second period featured the Canucks taking over the game from a possession and shot standpoint. Nick Bonino would score on one of Vancouver's 13 shots to make it 1-1 within the period. A beef involving Henrik Sedin and Jonathan Quick led to a melee and Eddie Lack just hanging out in the middle of the ice expecting a challenge. None was had except for matching minors. A major boarding penalty by Tyler Toffoli in the third period, during a penalty kill, really turned the tide. Alexandre Burrows converted that 5-on-3 to make it 2-1 for the visitors. Despite being down a goal, the Canucks out-shot the Kings 16-8 in the third period. Daniel Sedin sailed in an empty netter to make it 3-1. After a Jannik Hansen high-sticking call, the Kings pulled Quick for an extra skater. Bo Horvat sailed in another empty netter to make it 4-1. The Kings lost an important one, 1-4. Eric K has this recap at Jewels from the Crown.
The Last Devils-Kings Game: On January 14, the Devils kicked off their California road trip in Los Angeles. What transpired was surprising and entertaining for those in New Jersey who stayed up to watch it all. The first period featured very little in the way of shots - ten shots total - but the first ended Steve Bernier putting home a power play goal past Martin Jones. Dustin Brown quickly answered back in the second period to make it 1-1. Then, something glorious happened. Bernier put home another loose puck in front of the net to convert a power play. About a minute later, a turnover turned into Martin Havlat dropping a hammer past Jones. Jonathan Quick came in relief for Jones. He then gave up a goal to Mike Cammalleri. Late in the second period, Michael Ryder put home a rebound to make it 5-1. The Kings were just stunned. The Kings did more in the third, but there was no way they were coming back from that deficit. Marian Gaborik and Justin Williams provided consolation goals. The Devils won 5-3, an excellent start to their trip. Brian did the recap here at ILWT. For an opposition opinion, here's Eric K at Jewels from the Crown breaking down all five goals in his recap.
The Goal: Be methodical. For all of their warts, the Kings are the very best in terms of Corsi For% in 5-on-5 play. Per War on Ice, they're at 54.8%, which is well ahead of second place Chicago (53.7%). Even on the road, where the Kings have a less than stellar record, they're the best in possession with a CF% of 54.5%. They have exactly three skaters this season who have less than 50% CF according to War on Ice and only Jordan Nolan is a regular among them. The Kings are a team that's been very good at maintaining possession of the puck and turning it into offense. The Devils, in contrast, are the opposite. They're one of the worst CF% teams in the league and they have been very poor at moving and controlling the puck. The only way I can see the Devils prevent this from being a massive issue tonight is to be as methodical as possible. Slow it down and look to make the simpler plays as opposed to and more risky/rewarding plays. Should the Devils be able to do that and build up good attacks, then they'll be on their way to not getting pounded by the league's best in this regard and to try to get a result.
The Incentive: The Kings start a five-game road trip. They currently have 82 points. While they're well behind the wild card spots, they're two points back of Calgary for that guaranteed third playoff spot in the Pacific Division. The Kings have been excellent at home with a 22-9-7 record. They have been not at all excellent on the road with a 12-14-7 record. Their five-game road trip starts tonight in New Jersey and then follows with the Rangers tomorrow, the Islanders on Thursday, the Wild on Saturday, and Chicago next Monday. Their best chance on paper for winning any of these games is tonight and they need a win to keep their playoff hopes alive as the season winds down. I cannot stress enough that the Kings have every incentive to win tonight. The Devils are truly playing as spoilers tonight.
Los Angeles Call Up: The Kings aren't short of offensive weapons on paper. Just look at their leading scorers at NHL.com. Anze Kopitar is one of the league's best centers, and he leads the Kings in terms of taking on tough competition, driving the play, and making plays that count on the scoresheet. Justin Williams has been doing well in a contract year; he could stand to get paid real well this summer. Jeff Carter and Marian Gaborik are very dangerous shooters, both blending speed and power to be a real handful for any defender. Tyler Toffoli - who faced no supplemental discipline for his boarding major in the Vancouver game - has been very productive with limited minutes. On defense, Drew Doughty (who's a stud on that blueline), Jake Muzzin, and Braden McNabb have been featured on the scoresheet quite a bit. Talk about match-up problems for New Jersey.
On the ice, these offensive weapons haven't produced so much. In fact, they've scored a whopping five goals in their last four games. If we learned anything from the 2013 and 2013-14 Devils, it's that possession without much goal scoring doesn't yield a lot of good results. The 2014-15 Kings aren't so low in terms of shooting percentage over the season. But they need results now and they're not getting them in part because they're not scoring. So the team decided to bring someone up from Manchester. You might have heard of him, too. It's Mike Richards.
Yes, Mike Richards is back from contract-burying exile in the AHL. Richards had a whopping five goals, ten assists, and 58 shots in 47 games. His ice time was cut and ultimately cleared waivers and moved down to the minors. Richards was poor then. Now Richards is back. I regard Richards as the prototypical Philadelphia Flyer. He's talented enough to be a legitimate threat with the puck. He's passionate enough to never say die. He's nasty enough to throw that extra shot along the boards after the whistle or make that dirty play just to show he's tough - even in a preseason game. He may not be exactly what he once was, but like the Kings have an incentive to win, Richards has an incentive to play his heart out to show he belongs. According to Jon Rosen at LA Kings Insider, Richards was centering a line with Kyle Clifford and Williams. That may mean he's back in a 13-15 minute role, but that could be just the start should he prove his worth once again.
A spark like him doesn't necessarily mean he has to score. If he can command enough attention to warrant a different match-up or help pin back the Devils regularly, then that can open up more opportunities for the other lines for Los Angeles. Per Rosen's report from practice, a unit of Kopitar, Gaborik, and Dustin "Mr. Draw The Call" Brown can benefit from even more opportunities. Ditto for a line that includes Toffoli, Carter, and Dwight King. That's a benefit in of itself and can lead to those elusive goals the Kings need.
Not As: Whereas the Kings of recent seasons have benefitted from great goaltending, that hasn't been entirely the case this season. Per NHL.com, Jonathan Quick has a 92.4% save percentage at evens and Martin Jones has a 91.8% save percentage at evens. That's not so bad, but it's not like previous seasons where Quick and Jones have been exceptionally good. Their penalty kill save percentages haven't been good either. The team's success rate of 81.5% on the PK is around the league median, but it's not because the goalies have been exceptional.
Curiously, their road woes may be due in part due to goaltending. For whatever reason, according to War on Ice, the Kings' even strength save percentage at home is a very good 93.4%. It's the seventh best in the league. On the road, though, the Kings' even strength save percentage is only 91.7%. It's the seventh worst in the league. I'm not sure why that's the case. With five straight road games, it'll be on Quick and Jones to make it better and fast. As for tonight's game, it's unclear who will start at this juncture. The Kings will play the Rangers on Tuesday, so it's possible the Devils will get Jones to start.
By the Way: The best home even strength save percentage in the league? Why it's New Jersey with an amazing 94.9% according to War on Ice. With the Devils not playing in a back-to-back situation, I would guess Cory Schneider will start this one. We'll see if he actually does.
Trading Emergency Call Ups for Normal Call Ups: The Devils did not practice on Sunday. At the end of this post by Tom Gulitti at Fire & Ice, there was a transaction. Reid Boucher and Stefan Matteau were returned to Albany and then called them both back up. As Gulitti noted, this leaves the Devils with only two more emergency call-ups for this season. I doubt the Devils would've brought both players back up to not play them. I wonder who could sit for either, though. Both Boucher and Matteau are wingers. Given how Michael Ryder and Martin Havlat have spent long spells in the press box as healthy scratches, maybe it'll be them? I suppose we'll learn more tomorrow prior to the game.
Lastly: Robyn Regher is a slow, physical-minded defenseman. He should remind you of a player. He has been playing next to Drew Doughty, one of the best defendemen in the league. The Devils should try their best to keep the action to his side. Likewise, I'd like to see the Devils try make Matt Greene and McNabb work real hard in their own end. Might as well counter the opposite of the better defenders on the Kings per War on Ice.
Your Take: The Devils will try to play spoiler for a Kings team that needs this victory. Will the Devils get to play spoilers? Can the Devils not get wrecked in terms of match-ups? How come the Kings aren't so good on the road despite being so good in terms of possession? Would Mike Richards make a difference? Will Boucher and/or Matteau play tonight? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about this game in the comments. Thank you for reading.