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Game Preview #49: New Jersey Devils vs. Los Angeles Kings

The New Jersey Devils return home to play the Los Angeles Kings, who have been struggling as of late. This game preview goes into what’s been wrong with the Kings this season and touches upon what’s new with the Devils.

NHL: New Jersey Devils at Los Angeles Kings
Dwight King! Ben Lovejoy! Tonight! Get excited!
Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Three points from a wild card spot and two points from last place. That is the situation.

The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (20-19-9) vs. the Los Angeles Kings (22-21-4; SBN Blog: Jewels from the Crown)

The Time: 7:00 PM ET

The Broadcast: TV – MSG; Digital Audio – The One Jersey Network

The Last Devils Game: The Devils visited Philadelphia this past Saturday. It was a game filled with a lot of shooting attempts and penalties. The Devils went up first when Jacob Josefson one-touched a pass to Pavel Zacha entering the slot. Zacha beat Michal Neuvirth with a backhander to make it 1-0. Later in the first, a dubious interference call on Miles Wood set up Travis Konecny jamming in a puck through Keith Kinkaid just after the penalty ended. That made it 1-1. The Flyers took control of the run of play in the second period, but Kinkaid was able to stop everything. Late in the period, Radko Gudas went for a hip check on Wood and was assessed a clipping penalty. Maybe that was weak, but Wayne Simmonds doubled down on the issue and received an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for whatever he said to the ref. Seventeen seconds into the 5-on-3 situation, Kyle Palmieri burned Neuvirth with a shot to make it 2-1. In the final minute of the second period, Steve Santini stood up a Flyer as Mark Streit went for a line change. The puck was free and Michael Cammalleri laid it off for Miles Wood, who sped ahead and beat Neuvirth to make it 3-1. Steve Mason entered the game in the third period. Early in the third, the Devils received a power play that they would actually utilize like most teams would on a power play. It was also a successful effort when Taylor Hall made an excellent pass to Wood, who easily put in the puck on Mason’s flank. The Flyers tried to get back into the game but they just did not. The Devils won 4-1; my recap of the win is here.

The Last Kings Game: Last night, the Kings played Our Hated Rivals. The Kings came out firing with 14 shots on Henrik Lundqvist in the first period. They scored no goals. New York’s Brandon Pirri scored off a turnover for the team’s second shot of the game (the second of five shots). Oof. In the second period, the shot count dropped. And the Rangers scored again: Matt Puempel finished a feed from Derek Stepan on a 2-on-1 to make it 0-2 against the Kings. The Kings would get one past Lundqvist before the end of the second period; Jordan Nolan would beat Lundqvist clean with a slapshot to the top right corner. The Kings are back in the game and would bring back the shooting. But Mats Zuccarello finished a play from J.T. Miller to put the Rangers up two goals again. Despite sixteen shots in the third period, the Kings would only get one more goal. At 19:58. Kyle Clifford scored a consolation goal in a 2-3 loss to the Rangers, a game where they out-shot the Rangers 38-17. So it goes for L.A. this season. It’s their fourth loss in a row. Eric K has this short rank-the-players post-game post at Jewels from the Crown.

The Last Devils-Kings Game: Way back on November 19, the Devils went to Los Angeles to play the Kings. The start of the game was good enough as John Moore scored on a wrister from the center point. But the Kings started to take control as the game went on, especially in the second period. Then the goals came against Cory Schneider. Alec Martinez finished an excellent shift by the Kings with a wrist shot past a screen from the high slot to make it 1-1. Before the period ended, Tanner Pearson made Damon Severson pay for mishandling a pass by Andy Greene. Pearson ripped the loose puck past Schneider to make it 2-1. Then 45 seconds into the third period, Jeff Carter led a 2-on-1 counter-attack, took the shot himself, and then slid in the rebound to make it 3-1. It looked grim for New Jersey. Nick Lappin provided a late hope when he battled at the side of the crease to lift a loose puck past Budaj and make it 3-2. But the Kings would guarantee the win with an empty net goal by Jake Muzzin. The Devils lost 2-4 to the Kings. Devin had the recap for this loss, noting how the Kings out-muscled the Devils. For the other side, Robyn P wrote this recap at Jewels from the Crown.

The Goal: Contain the points and Jeff Carter. For the former, a big reason why the Flyers heavily out-attempted the Devils on Saturday (85-48!) is that they had free reign to fire away from the left point. The 5-on-5 and all-situation heatmap at Natural Stat Trick shows that Philly had more attempts from that location than any other. While a long shot is better one to allow than, say, the slot; the Devils need to be careful about screening the goalie or deflection and rebound opportunities from those attempts. The Kings have three defensemen who can and will fire a lot of shots from distance and two of them have been quite productive. In order to prevent another heavily-tilted game, the Devils will need to do a better job pressuring the point men to do something other than just launch shots to keep attacking shifts alive.

As for Jeff Carter, he’s one of two Kings forwards with a shooting percentage over 10%. That points to one of Los Angeles’ woes in this season, but Carter has been the exception. Oh, he has been very much the exception. Carter is second in the NHL in goalscoring with 24 goals. The 32-year old center (sometimes winger) has made a career with his excellent shot and he’s pretty fast at taking it and getting into positions to take it. I know it seems obvious that a goal for the game would be to contain the team’s top scorer. But the Kings’ counting numbers make it clear: there’s Carter, then in the distance Tanner Pearson (the other 10+% shooter), and then there’s talented players who just haven’t produced a whole lot in this season. Carter needs to be priority for the Devils to not just cover him, but make sure he doesn’t get too many chances to breakaway or lead odd man rushes.

If the Devils can do both of those things, then they’ll have easier path to a good result over a sliding Kings team.

Man Cannot Live on Bread Alone, Teams Cannot Win on Possession Alone: I put a line like that together in a past Hockey Prospectus annual describing a New Jersey Devils season under Peter DeBoer. The Kings faithful are feeling that right now.

The Kings have been one of the best possession teams in hockey under Darryl Sutter. They are one of the best so far in this season. Corsica has their CF% at 54.27%, which is the second best in the NHL and more than percentage point ahead of third place Montreal. The Kings fire shots at a rate of around 30 shots per sixty minutes while having the lowest SA/60 rate in the NHL at 25.74. In other words, they’re very good at going forward and they’re excellent at keeping opposing teams from attacking in 5-on-5 play. As 5-on-5 hockey is the most common game situation, the Kings are doing things right.

So why aren’t they doing better than their 22-20-4 record?

The Kings aren’t so bad on special teams. Their power play success rate is a bit below the league median. But with a 16.8% success rate (23 for 136), it’s not nearly as bad as, say, New Jersey’s. Their penalty kill is at right around the league median with a success rate of around 81.5% (119 kills out of 146). It’s not exceptional and it isn’t ideal that they’ve killed more situations than they have had man advantages. But neither has been so poor that they’ve been holding the team back or anything like that.

Is it injuries? They never help. As of right now, CBS Sports lists Nic Dowd, Jonathan Quick, and Tyler Toffoli as being currently out. Toffoli, I think, missed time earlier in the season and Marian Gaborik has missed a lot of games as well. Quick has been the big one as his groin injury first put him on injured reserve back in mid-October. Peter Budaj has actually pretty good as the team’s starter in place of Quick. His 92.9% even strength save percentage speaks to that. So does his GSAA of 7.39 per Corsica. His PK save percentage is a bit low, but he’s been more than acceptable in net. I don’t think Quick would have been so much better to put this team solidly in a playoff spot. Expect to see him tonight as Jeff Zatkoff started for the Kings in New York last night.

So if it’s not the goaltending and it’s not necessarily injuries, then what is it? I think it’s the shooting. It’s been unfortunate. Their 5-on-5 shooting percentage is so low, it’s lower than the Devils; Corsica has it at 6.73% prior to the Rangers game. Corsica has their expected goals per sixty minute at 2.45. That’s a model that takes into shooting location into account along with how many shots they generate. Their actual goals per sixty minute rate is 2.05. In other words, the Kings have been doing plenty of good things on the ice, but it’s just not resulting in enough goals. That has been holding them back.

As noted in The Goal, only two forwards on the Kings have been shooting more than 10%: Carter and Pearson. The delectably skilled and two-way machine, Anze Kopitar, is shooting at a career low around 5%. That’s why he only has four goals. Dustin Brown and his dirty ways have yielded only six goals so far. Tyler Toffoli, who’s been out recently, has had only eight. Trevor Lewis only has six goals. Dwight King, who was recently playing with Kopitar and Gaborik, only has five goals in this season. Marian Gaborik, who’s missed a lot of time this season, has just four goals, five assists, and 55 shots in 24 games. Devin Setoguchi has only four goals too. This is a forward group that has talented players but only two of them have really been all that productive in both goals and driving the play. Defensemen Drew Doughty, Alec Martinez, and Jake Muzzin all shoot the puck a lot (each has at least 87 shots in this season) and have put up plenty of points for a defender. But, again, their contributions haven’t been enough to generate the goals their way of playing suggests they should. It’s frustrating as a fan to watch.

It’s frustrating for an opponent too. The Kings will be a difficult opponent if only because their systems have been successful. Think back to recent games against Boston, Montreal, Carolina, St. Louis, and Washington. With the exception of the last Boston game, the Devils have struggled against well-structured teams that have played well in 5-on-5 situations. They do a lot of things right and even with Toffoli on the shelf, there’s plenty of talent to contend with in addition to their top scorer, Jeff Carter. Match ups will be difficult, even though Carter and Pearson have been together and that the Devils are at home for this one. If only because of what Kopitar, Gaborik, etc. could do just based on their skillsets and past seasons. What New Jersey does have going for them tonight is the fact that the Devils have had the goaltending in the past few weeks to ward off loads of shots to keep games close and perhaps winnable for the Devils. They may have to do it again and with the way things have been going recently for Los Angeles, they just might.

The Possible Return of Schneider: Cory Schneider missed the last two games due to illness. Keith Kinkaid performed admirably in a back-to-back situation wherein he got a lot of work. Schneider is feeling better now; in this post by Andrew Gross at Fire & Ice, he’s likely to play tonight. Schneider has been mostly excellent in this month so I’m perfectly fine with having him back tonight. Better to have that first game back against an under-scoring Kings team than the high-scoring Capitals team on Thursday. If that doesn’t happen for whatever reason, though, I’m fine with Kinkaid playing again due to the aforementioned excellent performances from the last two games.

The Not Ready Yet Devils: From Gross’ post, John Moore, Andy Greene, and Beau Bennett will all be out tonight. Moore has been ruled out until after the All Star weekend. He’s been skating recently, so I’m hopeful that he can return by that time. Bennett did not skate at all on Monday, so he’s definitely out and I would guess would need some more time to recover. Andy Greene has also been declared to be out until after the All Star weekend. Greene has also been skating but Gross’ post noted from John Hynes that his recovery has “stalled.” Those things can happen so the Devils are right to take a patient approach with Greene. I would like to see him return soon. While the team has not bled a lot of goals, they certainly have bled a lot of shots in his absence.

There’s one name that is worth noting: Yohann Auvitu. Auvitu may be the closest to returning if only because he did practice with the team on Monday. He’s on injured reserve so someone - one of Seth Helgeson, Karl Stollery, and Steve Santini - would have to go down to Albany to make space for him. I don’t think it’ll happen for tonight. We’ll see if there are any roster transactions made after this game.

A Streak Update: Taylor Hall remains hot with a six-game point streak. Hall also remains as the team’s leading scorer with eleven goals, twenty assists, and 123 shots. Gross noted in his post that the forward lines in Monday’s practice remained the same from the Philadelphia game. This means Hall will be skating with Travis Zajac and Kyle Palmieri. Palmieri has been recently productive with five points (3 G, 2 A) in his last five games and is now tied with Zajac in points for second on the team. I’m hopeful the trio can work together to generate even more. If they can succeed, then that opens up space for others.

Speaking of space, Miles Wood was very much involved in the Devils’ last game in both bad and very good ways. When he can be more judicious in his actions, he can draw calls and make plays with his speed that other Devils don’t have. I want to see him build on what he did on Saturday. I want to see how the Kings deal with him. He’ll get that chance with Adam Henrique and Michael Cammalleri, who I want to see more from since he has this tendency to make decisions and look for plays that are not really there.

One Last Thought: The Devils could stand to be better at home. While they started the season with a long run without a regulation loss, their 10-7-3 record at home is one of the worst in the East.

Your Take: The Devils will host the Kings tonight in the hopes of getting some revenge over their last meeting. A home win would also be a nice change of pace too. What do you think will happen in tonight’s game? Can the Devils better protect the points? Can the Devils contain Jeff Carter? Will Hall keep putting up points? What will Wood do? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about this game in the comments. Thank you for reading.