Despite playing their first two regular season games in Europe, the Kings will play their first “road” game of the year tonight as they head to New Jersey to take on the Devils. The Kings will be debuting their new road jerseys (although they did wear them during preseason road games).
The Kings had tough tests in their first two games against the Rangers and Sabres, but do they also face one in the Devils? It’s hard to tell what this team is. The first half of last season seemed like a sudden, incredible end, to one of the legendary dynasties in the history of the sport. New Jersey slalomed to the basement of the Eastern Conference in the first half of last season, and, almost as remarkably as they collapsed, rose from the ashes in the second half and went on an incredible run that almost saw them make the playoffs despite the massive hole they had dug themselves. It would have been the greatest comeback from how many points out of the playoffs they were to come back and make the playoffs in NHL history, but their playoff bid fell short in the end, and they finished 11th in the East. It was the the first time since the 1995-1996 season that the Devils had missed the playoffs, which came one year after winning the franchise’s first Stanley Cup, and in between that 1995-1996 season and last year, the Devils won two more Cups.
However, it’s hard to know what to make of these 2011-2012 New Jersey Devils. Personally, I think they’re much closer to the team in the second half than in the first half. The Devils were the lowest-scoring team in the NHL last year, but with a healthy Zach Parise and a rejuvenated Ilya Kovalchuk, what should be one of the most lethal scoring duos in the league this season, scoring shouldn’t be nearly as much of a problem for New Jersey. They also have veteran forward Patrik Elias who keeps plugging along and putting up big numbers even as he ages, and even had the most points of all Devils last year, but they are missing top centre Travis Zajac to injury. The Devils would benefit greatly if some forwards could step up behind Kovalchuk, Parise, Zajac (when he’s healthy), and Elias and provide some scoring depth for them behind their stars. The Devils’ blue line isn’t fantastic, but there isn’t really a major weak point either, just no star. Adam Larsson has a chance to be that stud on the blue line that the Devils have missed since Scott Niedermayer, but the question is whether he’ll be able to step in and be that in his rookie season. If Martin Brodeur can rebound and have a strong year, then the Devils should once again be scary.
The Devils boast the same record as the Kings coming into this game, 1-1-0, playing both games at home (just like the Kings did… Right?) New Jersey was shutout in their opener 3-0 against the Philadelphia Flyers, but rebounded with a strong game against the Carolina Hurricanes on Monday, taking down the ‘Canes 4-2. The deadly duo of Kovalchuk and Parise showed what they’re capable of doing by combining for five points (a goal and two assists for Kovalchuk, two goals for Parise).
I certainly think the Devils are going to have a much stronger year from start to finish, but I do think the Kings are the better team. If the Kings can play the strong defensive game that’s become their bread and butter and Jonathan Quick is on his game, then they should be able to keep the Devils’ stars in check. No word on whether it will be Brodeur or Johan Hedberg in net for the Devils, but whoever the Kings will be trying to score on, they’ll be getting a boost up front as Dustin Penner will make his season debut.
Penner will be making his season debut alongside Mike Richards and Dustin Brown on the second line, as Terry Murray has liked what he’s seen from the first line of Simon Gagne, Anze Kopitar, and Justin Williams and doesn’t want to break it up, despite the fact that the original plan was to have Penner on the top line and Gagne on the second and the Gagne-Kopitar-Williams line only got put together because of Penner’s injury. But, although the plan was to have Gagne move down and Penner play on the top line once Penner came back, why mess with a good thing? The second line of Penner-Richards-Brown also has a chance to be very effective, as it features three big dudes who aren’t afraid to use their bodies and can also put the puck in the back of the net. Brad Richardson slides down to the third line with Jarret Stoll and Trent Hunter, who checks back into the lineup for Kevin Westgarth who he was scratched for against Buffalo after Murray wasn’t impressed with Hunter’s game against New York, and Kyle Clifford, Trevor Lewis, and Ethan Moreau make up the fourth line. Westgarth and Scott Parse will be the healthy scratches, and with Colin Fraser recently being cleared to play and appearing to be on the verge of being activated off of the injured reserve, Parse’s time in Los Angeles may just about be done, as he continues to blow the several opportunities he’s been given to succeed with the Kings. No changes to the defense pairings and Davis Drewiske remains the healthy scratch.
The Kings played the Devils once last season, it was early in the season when New Jersey stunk, it was at Staples Center, and it was a 3-1 Kings victory. Jonathan Quick was in goal for that game, and will once again get the call for this one. The Kings and Devils meet again at Staples Center later this month, and one of these teams will be looking for revenge. Who will it be?