Before I get started, a bit of a coaching update. Now, I’m taking somewhat of a risk here. I wrote my preview for yesterday’s game between the Kings and Bruins on Monday, and I wrote it with the assumption that Terry Murray would still be behind the Kings bench for that game. Well, just minutes after I posted it, the news came out that Murray would not be behind the Kings bench for that game. Now, I’m writing this preview for tomorrow’s game between the Kings and Blue Jackets, also a day before the game, with the assumption that John Stevens will be the head coach this game. So expect there to be an announcement that the Kings have hired Darryl Sutter shortly after I post this.
However, Dean Lombardi did apparently meet with the team after practice today. Perhaps he told them something about their next coach, perhaps not, but as of right now, no one has been hired and it’s expected that John Stevens will be the head coach for the Kings for this game. Beyond that, it’s anyone’s guess, but I wouldn’t be surprised if this is Stevens’ last game serving as interim head coach for the Kings. Also of note, apparently the Kings went through a very spirited, up-tempo practice today. Hopefully this is them waking up from the down mood that’s been around the team for the last couple of days since Murray was fired, and hopefully they can translate that energy onto the ice tomorrow.
One last thing of note before I get started on previewing the game, I’m a little late on this, but Ethan Moreau cleared waivers, but the next step is not yet decided. The Kings are apparently giving Moreau a short time to think things over. As a veteran player who has family in the Southern California area, the Kings would understand if he’s not interested in heading up to Manchester to play minor-league hockey. If he chooses not to accept the assignment to Manchester, the Kings will then put him on the suspended list, where he will not count against their salary cap. I’m not certain if that means his contract will still expire at the end of the season if he is placed on the suspended list. Evgeni Nabokov’s didn’t with the Islanders last season, but that was under different circumstances. I’d guess that it still will expire, because if his contract wasn’t going to expire and they were just going to have to buy him out in the summer anyways if they place him on the suspended list, then they might as well just buy him out now. Anyways, now for the game…
I don’t think I need to throw out all of the stats again about how much this year’s Kings are underachieving, not winning and not scoring, especially as of late, but the Kings certainly are underchieving, not winning and not scoring, especially as of late. The league’s lowest-scoring team will be looking to break a five-game losing streak where they have scored just six goals, and perhaps even break a nine-game stretch where they haven’t scored three or more goals in a single game, as their league-worst goals per game average continues to fall every game. You’d figure there wouldn’t be a much better team to bust out of a slump against than the Jackets, but in the NHL, you can’t take anyone lightly, especially if you’re playing as poorly as the Kings are right now. Also, after their nightmare start, Columbus is quietly playing respectable hockey lately, going 4-4-2 in their last 10 games, and may have some confidence coming off of a surprising 2-1 shootout victory over the Canucks on Tuesday.
On the other hand, this is still a team with a 9-17-4 record, for just 22 points in 30 games this season. Their 22 points rank them 29th in the NHL, and their six regulation/overtime wins rank them last in the league. The Kings dwarf the Blue Jackets in talent, and this is going to be really depressing if they can’t end their losing streak in this one. This is as good of an opportunity as they’re going to get to end their losing streak, as games in Detroit and Toronto loom on Saturday and Monday. The Kings stand a chance against the inconsistent Maple Leafs who love to give up goals, albeit a small one the way the Kings are playing right now, and if they can’t beat the Jackets, do they really stand a chance against the Red Wings on Saturday? Perhaps the Kings just need one win to get back on track and get some confidence, and if they could get one on Thursday in Columbus, it could go a long way to maybe getting a few more desperately-needed points in Detroit and Toronto to finish off this road trip. However, for right now, the Kings’ focus needs to just be on the two crucial points that are up for grabs in Columbus, who are coming off a shocking home victory over the Canucks and play better, although still not great, at home (6-8-2 at home, 3-9-2 on the road).
How do these teams match up? Well, if there was any team for the Kings to break out of their offensive funk against, it doesn’t get much better than the Blue Jackets. The Kings have the 30th-ranked offense, averaging a pathetic 2.13 goals per game and has been even more awful than usual lately, but they’ll be facing the league’s 26th-ranked defense, as Columbus is giving up 3.23 goals against per game. Meanwhile, the Blue Jackets don’t score a boatload of goals either, as their offense ranks 27th in the NHL, scoring just 2.33 goals per game. They should be in tough against the Kings’ sixth-ranked defense, giving up just 2.27 goals against per game.
On special teams, there’s no hiding the disaster that’s been the Kings power-play lately. One of the best power-plays in the NHL not too long ago, in fact, ranked in the top five at one point, has free-fallen all the way to 21st in the NHL, now converting on just 16.1% of their opportunities. The Kings power-play has certainly missed Mike Richards in the last five games, but their struggles started before he got hurt. The Kings are just 2-for-28 on the power-play in their last nine games and haven’t scored one in each of their last four games. Perhaps the Jackets’ 28th-ranked penalty kill, killing off only 74.8% of their penalties, will help awaken the Kings power-play from its slumber. On the other hand, not too long ago, LA’s power-play wasn’t able to generate anything against awful penalty killing teams such as San Jose and Chicago. The Blue Jackets’ toothless power-play, ranking 26th in the NHL converting on just 13.1% of their opportunities, will have to deal with a stellar Kings penalty kill that is ranked eighth in the NHL, killing off 86.2% of their penalties and having killed off 35 of 37 penalties in their last nine games. The Kings may need their penalty kill to once again come up big with the penalty trouble they’ve ran into lately, but they were able to stay out of the box in the final two periods of Tuesday’s game in Boston.
Up front for the Jackets, they do have some talent leading the way, such as Rick Nash, Jeff Carter, Vinny Prospal, Ryan Johansen, R.J. Umberger and Antoine Vermette. Filling out their forward group will be Kristian Huselius, Derick Brassard, Mark Letestu, Derek Dorsett, Jared Boll, Samuel Pahlson and Derek MacKenzie. One of them will be a healthy scratch.
On defense, James Wisniewski, Fedor Tyutin, Nikita Nikitin, Marc Methot, John Moore, Grant Clitsome and Aaron Johnson make up the blue line in Columbus. One of them will be a healthy scratch, while Radek Martinez is on the injured reserve.
In goal, Steve Mason may be coming off of a strong performance against the Canucks on Tuesday, but he has struggled this season, as he has ever since his sensational rookie campaign in 2008-2009, when he led the Jackets to their only playoff appearance so far. Mason, who recently returned from injury, is 4-12-1 with a 3.46 GAA and an 8.81 Sv% on the season. Meanwhile, Curtis Sanford impressed in Mason’s absence, not only with his light blue gear, but with his stats, going 5-4-3 with a 2.44 GAA and a .910 Sv% on the season. However, after his last performance, I’d guess it will be Mason in goal on Thursday.
For the Kings, John Stevens has made the lines Anze Kopitar between Simon Gagne and Dustin Brown, Jarret Stoll between Dustin Penner and Justin Williams, Andrei Loktionov between Brad Richardson and either Trent Hunter or Trevor Lewis, and Colin Fraser between Kyle Clifford and Kevin Westgarth.
On defense, Willie Mitchell didn’t practice, making it unlikely that he will play in this one. I’m not sure what the pairings were in Boston or what they’ll be in Columbus, and it’s not yet been determined if Davis Drewiske will stay in the lineup in Mitchell’s place or if Alec Martinez will take his spot. My guess? It will be Rob Scuderi with Drew Doughty, Jack Johnson with Slava Voynov, and Alec Martinez with Matt Greene, but perhaps it will be Drewiske with Greene.
In goal, it’s not yet been confirmed who it will be, but it will probably be Jonathan Quick, considering he just got back in goal on Tuesday after Bernier got the start on Saturday in what was at the time Bernier’s second start in four games. As of now, Quick’s consecutive game streak is at one, and he’s played in just three of the last five games, so he’ll likely be back in goal looking to turn things around after not looking at his best lately.
So, this is as good of an opportunity as the Kings are going to get to break out of this slump. Will they be able to, as well as get a win under John Stevens, or will their misery continue?