The Devils continue to cross California. Tonight, they are in their biggest city.
The Time: 10:30 PM EST
The Broadcast: TV - MSG+; Radio - 660 AM & 101.9 FM WFAN
The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (32-29-7) vs. the Los Angeles Kings (40-22-4; SBN Blog: Jewels from the Crown)
The Last Devils Game: On Thursday night, the Devils were in San Jose. The first period went decently enough. Then in the second period, business picked up. Devante Smith-Pelly scored from above the left (his left) circle on the team's third shot of the period at 3:14. That would be the last shot on net the Devils would have in the period. San Jose opened things up and dropped hammers on Keith Kinkaid. The Devils conceded sixteen shots and thirty-two attempts in the second period. Amazingly, Kinkaid got them all. In the third period, the ice wasn't as tilted. It helped that Brent Burns accidentally did a solid for Travis Zajac early in the period. Zajac curled around the net, turned, and fired a high shot on Martin Jones. Jones stopped the shot but the puck trickled past him. As the puck was heading towards the line, Burns dove to try to clear it away. Instead, he knocked the puck off the post and just over the line to make it 2-0. The Sharks still looked to get back into the game, but they didn't thoroughly thrash the Devils like they did in the second period. It was a better period - and a bit lucky with the goal and Burns missing a gimmie on a power play - and it ended well with Zajac tacking on an ENG. Yes, the Devils beat San Jose 3-0. My light recap is here.
The Last Kings Game: On Wednesday, the Kings hosted Washington, who is on the same sort of trip as New Jersey. It looked like Los Angeles would teach the rulers and masters of the Eastern Conference a thing or two about how to reign. The Kings made it rain goals in the first period. Vincent Lecavalier converted a power play early on. Jake Muzzin and Milan Lucic scored within two minutes of each other to make it 3-0. The Caps were frustrated and it showed. They would not fight back immediately, though. The second period was mostly even with the score staying at 3-0 for the home team. In the third period, the Caps proceeded to show the Kings a thing or two about the old adage about three goal leads. T.J. Oshie converted an early power play to kick off the comeback. Past the halfway mark in the third, Nicklas Backstrom cleaned up a loose puck off two Alex Ovechkin shots that drew a lot of attention and Jonathan Quick away from his net. With less than five minutes to go, Dmitry Orlov walked in with the puck from the center point into the slot and beat Quick with a backhander. The three goal lead was erased in 16:38 of the third period. Overtime would be necessary. Fortunately for the home fans, the Kings made sure the comeback wouldn't yield a win for Washington. Drew Doughty found Lucic and Jeff Carter in position to go 2-on-1 on Orlov. Doughty passed it to his left to Lucic, Lucic made a great feed to a solitary Carter. Carter went in and beat Braden Holtby on his second touch of the puck to make it a 4-3 final. It was scary, but they got the points and a temporary first place spot in the Pacific Division. Chris J got this recap up at Jewels from the Crown.
The Last Devils-Kings Game: It was a day traditionally meant for romance. It was also a day to go to the Rock for an matinee game between the Devils and Kings. If you love goal scoring, than this wasn't your game. There was one, just one, goal in this game. It came on a first period power play for New Jersey. Travis Zajac won a faceoff and knocked the puck back to David Schlemko. Schlemko moved to his left, fired a long shot, and it went in. Joseph Blandisi apparently deflected it in. Either way, it was a PPG - and the lone goal. The Kings struggled for offense at times. Whatever they did get was denied by Kinkaid. The Devils didn't much going on offense either (as usual, 18 shots on net to Los Angeles' 28), except when they were on a power play. The Devils prevailed 1-0 for the first NHL shutout of Kinkaid's career. Given the date, he certainly won't forget that one. Alex wrote up a recap of the win here. Chris J had a more negative take on the game at Jewels from the Crown.
The Goal: Do what you must, but the Devils need to attack more than they have been. While the Devils pulled off an surprising, stunning, and somewhat sweet 3-0 shutout over San Jose, they did it with sixteen shots on net. One of which was an empty net goal. The Sharks put up sixteen shots on net in one period of that game. I know score effects were at hand and the Sharks have much more talent on offense than New Jersey. But to go from scoring a goal and then not having a shot on net until the next goal - which was put into the net by a defender - is rather bad. What's even sadder is that it tied the season-low for SOG by the Devils and it's the fourth time they did it in 2015-16. Somehow, they went 3-1 in those games. It worked on those three nights, but it's not going to work on most nights as teams are likely to score more and put the Devils in a tough spot. The Devils do need to push forward more. If they can't get out of a completely tilted rink, then they must when it's not if only to keep the opposition honest.
Help for the Goal: Fortunately, there's an idea to help the New Jersey Devils do that tonight. From Jewels from the Crown, Sheng Peng made this awesome post highlighting Rob Scuderi's defensively play in the third period. Scuderi was recently paired with Los Angeles' top defenseman, Drew Doughty. Peng notes how Washington absolutely picked on him between the two. That led to more offensive zone entries and subsequently more offense. Are the Devils as good as the Caps? Absolutely not. Did it lead to the Caps' comeback to tie? Not really. Is Scuderi vulnerable? Quite possibly, given his 42% CF% and negative relative Corsi with his even strength usage at War on Ice. Could Scuderi have a good night? Sure. But if Hynes wants a little more offense to at least keep the Kings away a bit, then having his forwards go after #7 in the 7-8 defensive pairing is a good idea.
Possibly No Changes for N.J.: The Devils did not have a full practice on Friday. Only the scratches and Yann Danis skated according to this post by Tom Gulitti at Fire & Ice. Jon Merrill and Tuomo Ruutu were held out of the San Jose game. However, given that the team won 3-0 in San Jose, I can see John Hynes deciding to go with the same squad again. He's already going with Keith Kinkaid again, although that shouldn't be much of a surprise. I don't think Ruutu provides much of an upgrade on the fourth line. I don't think Merrill is really that much of an upgrade on the other defensemen given how he's played in the past few weeks.
In general, I'd like to see a better effort out of everyone. On paper, it seemed the Zajac line was the only one not getting into trouble. Then again, San Jose and their second period deluge of firing pucks put a lot of Devils in the red whether they had much to do with it or not. Still, I'd like the Devils to avoid that fate while still keeping up with the Kings. They did it on Valentine's Day. We'll see if they can do it again.
Since V-Day...: The Kings have been receiving plenty of contributions from their top players since February 14. Per NHL.com, Drew Doughty has provided the most points. Tanner Pearson has provided the most goals with five and he's been tied with key offensive contributors, Jeff Carter and Anze Kopitar, in points. Several other Kings have chipped in one or two goals, but those four names stood out since these last two met.
The Main Kings: Let's get familiar with who the significant players are on Los Angeles. A look at Left Wing Lock's line combinations from the last game shows that the big line the Devils will have to worry about the most will be Kopitar's unit. Not just because they're all listed at being at least 6'3" in height, but Milan Lucic, Kopitar, and Carter provide a delectable mix of speed, soft hands, strong shooting, and hard hits. While Lucic hasn't had the most productive season, he's been quite good from a possession standpoint per War on Ice. Kopitar and Carter have led the team in points, with Carter leading in shots as well. This will be a dangerous unit.
So will be one centered by Vincent Lecavalier. No, it's not the mid-2000s. He's been centering Pearson and Tyler Toffoli. If the Kopitar line is the "now" line for the Kings, then Toffoli and Pearson are the "immediate future" forwards to lead the offense. Both are twenty-three and both have been quite productive. Pearson hasn't just been productive as of late, but his twelve goals and eighteen assists surpass his totals from his second NHL season. Toffoli has been more impressive as his twenty-four goals lead the team, his nine power play goals are tied with Doughty for the team lead in that category, and his SOG total is second only to Carter. Lecavalier sticks out like a sore thumb; this post by nickc79 at Jewels from the Crown from a few days ago goes into more detail as to why. Yet, the two younger wingers make the line one for Devils fans to look for - and probably concerned about.
On defense, the Devils will get to see a lot of Doughty. That Doughty-Scuderi pairing must be recent because I don't have an explanation as to why a big-minute defender like Doughty is so high in CF% and Scuderi is in the relative basement according to War on Ice. Either way, Doughty's production alone makes him a threat. He's the team leader in power play points, he's tied with Toffoli for the most PPGs, and he's one of L.A.'s leading scorers with thirteen goals and thirty one shots. Again, the Devils should pick on Scuderi. They may not be able to pick so much on Jake Muzzin and Alec Martinez. Muzzin has been an advanced stats wonder for a while and this season is no different. He gives you points, positive play, and plenty of ice of time. Martinez, not as much, but he's no drag on either side of the numbers like Scuderi. It's a solid pairing as far as I can tell and not an easy match-up for New Jersey either.
In net, expect Jonathan Quick and expect him to be quite good. OK, he was lit up for three goals in less than twenty minutes by Washington in his last start. Remember that it's Washington and they're a great team. These are the Devils. It's likely going to be a little different. Quick has been very good this season with a 93.2% save percentage at even strength according to NHL.com. The PK save percentage isn't bad at 86.4% but it's not nearly as impressive as his EvSv%. Fortunately, even strength is the most common situation in hockey games. If it's not Quick, then it'll likely be Jhonas Enroth, who's been very good in spot duty for Quick. All the same, short of a bad night for the crease protectors in Los Angeles, I wouldn't expect too many to get past Quick.
Be Careful with the Fouls, Devils: Relative to the league, Los Angeles has been very productive on the power play this season. They don't go on the power play all that often, their power play opportunities total is in the bottom five of the NHL. When they do go on the man advantage, they have scored 44 goals for a conversion rate of 22.4%. That's a top-five conversion rate. Interestingly, there are four players who have excelled for the Kings in terms of drawing calls. From War on Ice, in order from the most to the fourth-most: Kopitar (+11), Carter (+9), Pearson (+8), and Dustin Brown (+7). Oh, can Dustin Brown be dirty and floppy. Just watch him in Los Angeles' bottom six. He's been unlucky as only eight of his 177 shots on net actually went in this season; but he's still getting the better of opponents in terms of penalties. On the flipside, the Devils may want to get Nick Shore into bad spots. Since he's got a -11 penalty differential at evens, he could help the Devils get on a power play or two. All the same, handing the Kings power plays is just an invitation for Doughty, Toffoli, Kopitar, etc. to fire away and make the night harder for Kinkaid and the team.
Does the Opposition Want This Game?: The Kings are in a three-way dance with their in-state rivals for first in the division. You bet they want this game to keep ahead of Anaheim. I'm sure they're appreciative that the Devils spoiled the Sharks on Thursday; but not to a point where they would be fine with not getting two points tonight.
One Last Thought: You know how the Devils are near the bottom in possession (29th with 46.6% CF%)? The Kings are in first with a CF% of 56.1% according to War on Ice. The Kings have been very strong in that regard for years and this season's team is no different. That's a big reason why this game will be difficult and why the Kings have just been difficult to a play against this season.
Your Take: The Devils continue their difficult road trip into Los Angeles tonight. What do you think will happen? Can Kinkaid stay hot and the rest of the team find a way to get enough goals to prevail? Would you even want that to occur? Or do you think the Kings will do what the Sharks were unable to do: score some goals and control the game? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about tonight's game in the comments. Thank you for reading.