For the first time this season, Our Favorite Team takes on Los Angeles. This is one of the few games where they will play a team beneath them in the league standings. This is one of the few games where Sherman Abrams would want both teams to lose somehow.
The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (19-24-10) vs. the Los Angeles Kings (19-31-5, SBN Blog: Jewels from the Crown)
The Time: 7:00 PM ET
The Broadcasts: TV - MSG+, FS-W; Digital Audio - The Devils Hockey Network (Radio.com)
The Last Devils Game: The Devils visited Philadelphia on Thursday night. This was a rivalry game and Philly smashed the Devils in their first two meetings this season. This would go very different. Blake Coleman scored his 20th of the season on the first shot of the game, thirteen seconds in. The Devils never looked back. They tried to go up in the first but they could not. Early in the second period, the Devils would get that second goal when Damon Severson went coast-to-coast on a power play and blazed a shot past Brian Elliott to make it 2-0. The Flyers turned up the pressure and the Devils failed to generate much of anything. However, MacKenzie Blackwood stopped everything to further frustrate the Flyers, whose own miscues on the puck made the fans more and more upset. The fans would get more upset early in the third period. During a penalty kill, Kevin Hayes whiffed on a puck and Pavel Zacha sent a puck up with Kevin Rooney to start a 2-on-1. Zacha got the puck back and rifled a shot through Elliott’s legs to make it 3-0 - on New Jersey’s first shot of the period. After the kill, a turnover by Shayne Gostisbehere led to a clear-cut breakaway for Miles Wood. Wood scored - the Devils’ second shot of the third period - and sent Elliott to be replaced by Alex Lyon. It would be about six minutes before the Devils would get another shot on net. Mirco Mueller forced a turnover and sent a pass to Wood. Wood proceeded to beat Philippe Myers with a move, power past Travis Sanheim, and put a backhander past Alex Lyon. That was the Devils’ third shot of the period and they were up 5-0. The Devils withstood a lot of shots - not a lot of chances - and Blackwood ended up making 46 stops. None went in. The Devils beat their rivals in Philly, 5-0. It was not an ideal performance but it was very enjoyable to see the Devils put a five-spot on a playoff bubble team. My recap of the win is here.
The Last Kings Game: While the Devils were in Philly, the Kings were in Brooklyn and playing the Islanders. Los Angeles went up early in the game. Ben Hutton would finish a pass from Adrian Kempe to make it 1-0 just past the halfway mark of the first. Late in the same period, Alex Iafallo took advantage of an Isles turnover in their own end and sent a shot through Thomas Greiss’ legs to make it 2-0. The Islanders would get on the board early in the second period with a strike by Michael Dal Colle. But Los Angeles would restore the two-goal lead when Trevor Lewis re-directed a great pass by Michael Amadio to the top fo the crease to make it 3-1. Then things would go from good to not good to really bad for Los Angeles. Keifer Bellows put the Isles back withjn one with his first ever NHL goal a few minutes after Lewis’ goal. He finished a feed from Anthony Beauvillier that Jonathan Quick had no chance on. Within the first minute of the third period, Matt Martin tied up the game at 3-3. About twelve minutes later, Bellows scored his second ever NHL goal from just above the goal line in the right corner (seriously) to put the Isles up 3-4. The Kings had no answer. Los Angeles pulled Quick late for an extra attacker but any hope for a late equalizer ended with Anders Lee putting in an empty net goal. The Kings ended up losing 3-5.
The Goal: Step it up in 5-on-5; actually turn defensive stops into offensive movements. As enjoyable as it was in Philadelphia on Thursday night, the Devils are not going to win a lot of games by the way they played in 5-on-5 situations that night. In fact, they have not won a lot of games this season in part because they just give up a lot in the game’s most common situation. The tricky thing about Los Angeles is that they are actually quite good in the run of play despite their really low record. According to Natural Stat Trick after Thursday’s game, the Kings have a team CF% of just under 54%, the league’s best SF% just under 54%, an expected goals for percentage of just over 53%, a scoring chance for percentage of around 51%, and a high danger scoring chance for percentage around 52.5%. The Kings are a top-ten team in the league in all but scoring chance for percentage, and they are 11th in that stat. A big reason why the Kings have such a poor record is that their sticks are collectively cold and their goaltending has not been good. Granted, part of that tandem is now in Toronto and the Devils will face a called-up goaltender who has not been so hot in the AHL. Regardless of that, the point remains. If the Devils think they are going to go onto the ice at the Rock and play like they did on Thursday and expect to win at all, then the Kings could give them a very rude awakening. Instead of expecting a lot of goals on few shot, the Devils should strive to be much sharper in 5-on-5. That begins with turning their multitude of stopping the opposition on offense into offensive opportunities of their own in place of long-shot passes or clearing/dumping pucks away. If the Devils can do that, then they will be able to take advantage of the aforementioned bad goaltending more often and be in a better position to take on the Kings if they try to tilt the ice their way. That can lead to a victory.
Few Goals, More Against - The 2019-20 Kings: The Kings may be a very solid team in the run of play but as with past Carolina teams earlier in this decade, they are a long way from the postseason picture because of the lack of results. After their loss to the Isles, the Kings now own the lowest team shooting percentage in 5-on-5 play at 6.03% per Natural Stat Trick. It is a big reason why the Kings have the league’s second lowest goals per 60 minutes rate in 5-on-5 hockey at 1.89. Only Detroit has a lower rate and it is expected that they stink. The Kings’ xGF/60 is quite high at 2.46 - fifth highest in the NHL - but the finish has not been there for them this season. It is hard to win games when you do not score many goals over a season in the most common situation in hockey.
It is rare to win them when the goalies do not do their jobs so well. The tandem of Quick and Jack Campbell (who is now a Leaf) has not been good at all this season. Their 5-on-5 save percentages combined for 90.93%, as per Natural Stat Trick, which is barely ahead of the bottom five percentages in the NHL. (Aside: Blackwood’s amazing performance on Thursday bumped the Devils to 29th at 90.68%.) While the Kings can boast the league’s best shots against rate in the NHL, it does not mean a lot since a bunch of those shots against them go in the net. The Kings’ GA/60 of 2.54 is around league median. Combined with one of the lowest goal scoring rates in 5-on-5 and that is how the Kings have a GF% in the same percentile as the woeful Devils and San Jose teams.
Adding to the struggle are the special teams performances. The Kings’ power play has a success rate of 17.3%, which is 23rd in the NHL after Thursday’s games per NHL.com. As per the NHL’s power play stats, the Kings are also in the bottom third in the league with just 156 power play opportunities and 27 power play goals. They have only allowed one shorthanded goal, so there is that going for them. Although if there is a team that will threaten that, then it will be New Jersey. Still, the man advantage has not been much of one for a goal-starved Kings team. As for the penalty kill, well, the man disadvantage has been much of one for the Kings. Their success rate of 74.7% is amid the bottom five in the NHL; which may be good news for a Devils’ power play that could always help to get going despite some recent successes. While they have been in just 150 shorthanded situations (which is good), they have allowed 38 goals. That is sixth most in the NHL and quite bad. In total, the two major special teams have been a net negative. That exacerbates their lack of goals and saves in 5-on-5 hockey and further explains why their record is way worse than a team with their on-ice rates and expected goals would suggest.
The only special team that is actually a plus for them is post-regulation play, where the Kings have scored 6 OT winners and allowed just 3. They rarely go to a shootout, although in the two times they did this season they lost both. The Devils should be careful if the game does require a 3-on-3 period. The best way to avoid it would be to take the game in regulation - which is entirely possible. After all, like the Devils, the Kings can be prone to blowing sizeable leads. Just look at what happened in Brooklyn on Thursday for example.
An Awkward Transition: The thing about this Kings team is that you will recognize several of their top players back from their glory days from the first half of last decade. Anze Kopitar, Drew Doughty, Johnathan Quick, Jeff Carter, and the dirty play of Dustin Brown are still on the roster and playing significant roles. There are even a couple of the “lesser” names still around like defenseman Alec Martinez, winger Trevor Lewis, and winger Tyler Toffoli. But this is clearly a team in some kind of rebuild and trying to establish who will lead the Kings onward in this decade. Quick is not what he used to be; not with an ugly overall save percentage of 89.4%. The pairing of Doughty and Martinez takes on a lot of ice time but it is notable that they are both hovering around the breakeven mark in CF%, SF%, and xGF% per Natural Stat Trick. In past seasons, Doughty was statistically and visibly dominant while Martinez was an underrated darling by these metrics. That was the past, though. Carter and Brown are certainly players to watch for this evening. Carter has 16 goals and 169 shots; Brown has 10 goals and 124 shots; and both are more than fine in 5-on-5. But they are not the dominant scorers they once were at their peaks. In that list of names, only Kopitar remains close to his former self/reputation as a two-way machine as well as the team’s leading scorer (17 goals, 47 points, 108 shots, plays in all situations) and Toffoli has been excellent in the run of play and on the scoresheet (14 goals, 30 points, 146 shots). But the pending UFA Toffoli could be moved before we know it, which would hurt the team as he is quite good but it may be necessary to get the picks and/or prospects for their answer as to how to make the Kings get back to contending for playoff spots. Some of those answers may be with their AHL affiliate in Ontario, California.
There are two younger and less familiar names to be concerned with. Alex Iafello is second on the team in scoring with 15 goals, 32 points, and 112 shots; he has recently been skating alongside Kopitar, and the only mark on his 5-on-5 line his a not-so-high xGF%. While the 26-year old winger may not be a long term answer for Los Angeles, he has earned his top-six minutes this season. He is on the cusp of breaking season highs in goals, assists, and points in his third season - similar to a certain Texan we all know and likely love. He also recently hot with five goals in his last five games. While Iafello may not be piece for the distant future, Adrian Kempe might be. The 23-year old is in his third season and he has displayed some fine control and movement of the puck. It remains to be seen if he can break out but if he does, then that would be a big help for the near future of this organization.
Still, their roster is filled with a lot of names who are doing quite well in 5-on-5 but have not really been productive. A quick scan of the roster at CapFriendly shows that most of these other names are not that young either. It could be that a lot of them are in that “what you see is what you get” part of their career. It remains to be seen how many of them will stick around for this season, next season, and beyond. The Kings have already begun to sell for this season. Earlier this week, they traded backup goaltender Jack Campbell and forward Kyle Clifford to Toronto for forward Trevor Moore and two third-round picks (one for 2020 and a conditional for 2021), as reported in this Los Angeles Times article by Jack Harris. This led to a call-up for goaltender Cal Petersen; and Moore may slot into Clifford’s role. But the moves may come and it may make for a very different roster when the Devils go to Los Angeles in the last week of this month. All the same, it is an awkward transition period for the Kings as they try to sort out who is part of the team’s long term future and what kind of player they will need to get. At least they appear to have a functional system of playing the game in 5-on-5 from head coach Todd McLellan. That is something, but they clearly need more and preferably soon.
So What Does This Mean for the Devils?: The LA Kings Insider, Jon Rosen, reported on Twitter yesterday that McLellan stated that Petersen will make his season debut tonight and Moore will dress for his first game as a King. Petersen has a 90.4% overall save percentage over 37 games with Ontario this season, which is the 24th best save percentage among all qualified goalies. While it is tempting to worry about some nobody or some AHLer playing like a brick wall, Petersen has not been that kind of goalie in the ‘A’ this season so I am not as worried about that. As for Moore, he has not been all that notable with Toronto this season as per his 5-on-5 on-ice rates and his three goals and two assists in 27 games. He is a depth forward. I am not so concerned about him as well.
The Devils’ top priority from a match-up perspective will be Kopitar’s line and the Martinez-Doughty pairing. The defensive pairing will be on the ice a lot so it is imperative that the Devils can mix up their top two offensive lines so it is not a hard match and they have to adjust. Kopitar is a different challenge. He is still very good at what he does, which is playing very well in all three zones on the ice. A part of me wants to see Travis Zajac, Coleman, and Nikita Gusev matched-up against them to have the other line - Jesper Bratt, Kyle Palmieri, and Nico Hischier/Jack Hughes - have a more favorable match-up against the Carter line or, better, the other two lines behind them.
All the same, if there is a unit that the Devils really need to pay attention to on defense - this means that all five skaters should not be watching only the puck-carrier - then it should be when the line centered by Kopitar is on the ice. If they have Doughty and Martinez supporting them, then they need to be extra careful about giving them a lot of pucks to keep in and play with. Doughty alone may relish a team like the Devils that gives up a lot of space to men at the point. I have long given up on expecting the Devils to change their system but they can at least try to not just give up pucks easily to those two either by clearing attempts or poor passing attempts.
Speculation for the Devils : The Devils were seemingly off on Friday so this will be a bunch of speculation.
The Devils played in Philly without Nico Hischier and Sami Vatanen. It remains to be seen if they are they are good to go tonight. That would be a big help given that Los Angeles is not a typical doormat squad. I like Jack Hughes getting the opportunity to play with wingers that would mesh better with his skill set. But if Hischier returns, then Hughes will likely go back to deal with 5-on-5 Zacha and Wayne Simmonds. I would like Vatanen to return as the blueline needs his presence and pro scouts may want to see what he can do these days.
What about the Devils goaltender? It is an easy decision in my opinion. MacKenzie Blackwood is coming off a 46-save shutout. Louis Domingue is Louis Domingue. There are no games until Tuesday and the can (and should) split the starts in next week’s back-to-back set. Blackwood should be the starter. We shall see if I am right about that.
A Message to Miles: Dear Miles Wood, re-watch your two goals against Philadelphia. The people want more of that instead of an easy-to-stop shot from outside the dots. You have hands. Use them and you will enjoy the results - as will your teammates, the coaches, and the fans.
One Last Thought: Plenty of players go through a fun streak of production that is out of the ordinary for them. Kevin Rooney is on one of them now with two goals and two assists in his last four games. This does not mean Rooney is this player that should get a ton of extra minutes and responsibilities. This also does not mean that Rooney should necessarily be re-signed. Like Bobby Farnham, Sean Brown, and Ray Giroux among others in the past, it should be appreciated for what it is.
Your Take: The Devils will take the Kings in a game where lottery balls may be the only thing at stake. And given this is Game #54 for the Devils, even that is not be a lot to worry about. (Sherman Abrams feels otherwise. Too bad for him.) In any case, what is your take for tonight’s game? Who or what about the Kings concerns you the most? Who or what about the Kings are you not worried about? Do you think the Devils can put in a better overall performance tonight than they did on Thursday? Will you be at the Rock for this one? (I will in my usual seat.) Please leave your answers and other thoughts about tonight’s game in the comments. Thank you for reading.