It’s been a very interesting 2011 for the Los Angeles Kings, but it wasn’t as successful as they’d hoped.
As the Kings head into the new year, they’ll hope that 2012 is filled with much more success, wins, goals, and consistency than 2011 was, but before the Kings head into 2012, they’ll look to end 2011 on a high-note and have something to build off of as they head into the new year, as well as kick off this pivotal six-game homestand with two points when they host the Vancouver Canucks on New Year’s Eve.
The Canucks may be the only team that the Kings will face during this homestand who are currently in a playoff spot, but they’re much more than just a playoff team. After their traditional slow start, the Canucks are now looking much more like the team that won the President’s Trophy and went all the way to Game Seven of the Stanley Cup Finals last season, and right now they’re on a three-game winning streak and a 15-3-1 tear, and now with 50 points, they’ve worked their way up into a tie with the New York Rangers for second in the NHL, only behind the Chicago Blackhawks. The Kings just beat the Blackhawks, will they be able to beat the Canucks as well? Obviously, a win over the Canucks to kick off this homestand would be huge for the Kings, and now that the Kings have finally gotten themselves back into the top-eight in the Western Conference, this homestand gives them an opportunity to get some more points and start to climb up the standings.
Getting a win against Vancouver, however, should be anything but easy. The Canucks and Kings have a similar goals against average, but why are the Canucks so much higher than the Kings in the standings? They are a much more well-rounded team who can also score, not just play defense. The Canucks have scored 128 goals this season, the most in the league (the Kings have just 82, the second-fewest in the league), and the Canucks are averaging 3.34 goals per game, ranking their offense third in the league. The Kings’ stingy sixth-ranked defense, surrendering just 2.26 goals against per game and coming off of a road trip where they gave up just one goal in two games (and zero regulation goals) will look to keep the Vancouver offense in check. Meanwhile, the Kings’ 30th-ranked offense, averaging just 2.08 goals per game, will be in tough against the Canucks’ seventh-ranked defense, allowing an average of just 2.37 goals against per game.
On special teams, well, there’s the Kings power-play. The Kings power-play that has converted on two of its last 42 chances, and has tumbled all the way to 25th in the NHL, now just scoring on 14.2% of their opportunities. Early in the season, the Kings had a strong power-play, which was kind of making up for the non-existent even-strength scoring, but now the power-play has gone down the tubes as well and the even-strength scoring hasn’t picked up nearly enough to make up for it, which is why the Kings find themselves with the worst goals per game average in the league. Darryl Sutter hasn’t had a lot of practice time with his new team since he took over. Most days, the Kings have either had a game, it’s been a travel day, or it was the Christmas break. Sutter got in a practice with his team on Friday ahead of Saturday’s game with the Canucks, and a good part of the practice was him on one end of the ice with the first power-play unit, while the assistant coaches were at the other end of the ice with the rest of the players. Apparently, most of that time was spent talking with the players though, rather than actual drills. Either way, it’s good that Sutter finally got another real practice day with his new team. Sutter also said that he is going to keep this coaching staff in place (at least for the rest of the season). Sutter also said that he was looking for more of a collaborative effort from the coaching staff, rather than coaches specializing in one area. Based on Sutter getting involved with the power-play today (as everyone is probably aware of, it was apparently only Jamie Kompon’s job before), he’s already begun to do that, and apparently he’s had something to do with the power-play ever since he got here, but this is the most involved he’s been. Let’s hope his work pays dividends, but they’ll get a stiff test tomorrow against Vancouver’s seventh-ranked penalty kill, killing off 85.9% of their penalties.
Meanwhile, the Canucks power-play has been absolutely deadly this season, converting on 24.8% of their opportunities, and not only is that the best power-play in the league, but the next best power-play (Nashville) is only converting on 20.8% of their opportunities. That’s a 4% difference between the first-ranked and second-ranked power-play. There’s only a 3.9% difference between the Predators’ second-ranked power-play and Anaheim’s 19th-ranked power-play (16.9%). So, yeah, despite how good the Kings penalty kill has been, now ranked fourth in the league at an 88% success rate and having killed off 69 of their last 71 penalties (yes, you read that right), they’d be wise to stay out of the penalty box in this one. The Kings learned just how dangerous the Vancouver power-play is back on November 10th at Staples Center. The Kings ran into major penalty trouble early, and the Canucks capitalized with a pair of power-play goals. The Canucks tacked on another goal before the period ended, and the Kings were left with a 3-0 hole to climb themselves out of in the final 40 minutes. To the surprise of approximately zero people, the Kings scored only two goals. You can bet that’s a situation that the Kings will be looking to avoid this time around.
With Henrik and Daniel Sedin, Ryan Kesler and Alex Burrows leading the way up front in Vancouver, it’s no surprise that the Canucks have such a dynamic offense. Behind them are the likes of Chris Higgins, Jannik Hansen, Cody Hodgson, Maxim Lapierre, Manny Malhotra, Andrew Ebbett, Mason Raymond, Dale Weise and Mark Mancari. One of them will be a healthy scratch. David Booth, Byron Bitz, Steven Pinizzotto and Aaron Volpatti are on the injured reserve.
On defense, the Canucks are led by an excellent duo of Alexander Edler and Kevin Bieksa. Behind them are Dan Hamhuis, Keith Ballard, Andrew Alberts, Sami Salo and Alexander Sulzer. One of them will be a healthy scratch. Aaron Rome is on the injured reserve.
In goal, it’s expected to be Roberto Luongo, who’s 16-7-2 with a shutout on the season to go along with a 2.44 GAA and a .914 Sv%. However, it could also be Cory Schneider, who’s been very impressive this season, posting an 8-5-0 record with a pair of shutouts to go along with a 2.15 GAA and a .931 Sv%.
For the Kings, Sutter is apparently the exact opposite of Terry Murray, in that he likes to leave lines together for a while even when they’re struggling to try and let them build some chemistry. He’s pretty much had the same lines since he got here (other than swapping Hunter and Westgarth on the fourth line and putting Loktionov in for Gagne on the second line because of Gagne’s injury), and those lines weren’t changed at practice on Thursday. Those lines, of course, are Anze Kopitar between Brad Richardson and Dustin Brown, Mike Richards between Andrei Loktionov and Trevor Lewis, Jarret Stoll between Dustin Penner and Justin Williams, and Colin Fraser between Kyle Clifford and Trent Hunter. Kevin Westgarth is expected to be a healthy scratch. One thing I’ve noticed about Sutter is that he likes to get everybody involved. He’s even somewhat rolling four lines on special teams. Hey, it’s working on the penalty kill, apparently. And it can’t make the power-play any worse. I like how he does this, it gives the star players more rest and keeps everyone fresh. Sutter says he’s liked what he’s seen from Loktionov and Lewis on the wing, so hopefully they can start producing on that line with Richards. Also, Sutter said Simon Gagne, who missed the father’s trip, is progressing, but there’s still no timetable on when he may return from his concussion.
On defense, it’s expected to remain Rob Scuderi with Drew Doughty, Willie Mitchell with Slava Voynov, and Jack Johnson with Matt Greene. Alec Martinez and Davis Drewiske are expected to be healthy scratches.
In goal, it’s expected to be Jonathan Quick.
It may only be about halfway through the season, but, as I’ve already stressed, this is a crucial homestand for the Kings. Will they be able to pull out a surprising victory over Vancouver to end 2011 and to start this homestand, or will the red-hot Canucks keep rolling?