Anze Kopitar defends against Milan Hejduk during the Kings' 4-1 victory over the Avalanche at Staples Center on March 26th, 2011. (Photo by Noah Graham/NHLI via Getty Images)

Anze Kopitar defends against Milan Hejduk during the Kings' 4-1 victory over the Avalanche at Staples Center on March 26th, 2011. (Photo by Noah Graham/NHLI via Getty Images)

It was one heck of a New Year’s Eve party for the Los Angeles Kings against the Vancouver Canucks on Saturday, but fortunately for the Kings, they didn’t play on the first day of the new year, so hopefully there will be no signs of a hangover from that New Year’s Eve party when the Kings continue their homestand tonight by hosting the Colorado Avalanche.

These two Western Conference teams, who will also be conference-rivals next season after the NHL’s realignment, will meet for the second of four times this season, and for the first of two meetings at Staples Center. Their only previous meeting this season was at the Pepsi Center in Denver, back on October 30th, and was a 3-2 Avalanche victory. Unfortunately for the Avs, the man who scored the game-winning goal in that game, star young forward Matt Duchene, injured his knee on December 29th against the Phoenix Coyotes, and is expected to miss about a month. So far, Colorado hasn’t had a problem without Duchene, although it’s a very small sample size. They were able to win that game against the Coyotes by a score of 3-2, and then they beat Anaheim on New Year’s Eve, by a score of 4-2. Beating the Ducks isn’t anything to brag about, however, and the Kings will look to provide a stiff test for the Duchene-less Avalanche tonight.

For the Kings, this is an important game for them. Now with a 19-14-6 record (44 points), they just overtook the lead in the weak Pacific Division, but they’ll need to build on that slim lead, especially since a couple of teams that are hot on their tail have some games in hand on the Kings. After a very impressive 4-1 win over the Canucks to start this crucial homestand, it’s going to be important for the Kings to come out and put on another strong effort tonight in order to show that the last game was a turning point, not another aberration. It will also be important for the Kings to put forth another strong offensive effort tonight, as they look to record back-to-back games with three or more goals for the first time all season.

What kind of challenge will the Avalanche pose for the Kings? Well, over the last 10 games, there hasn’t been a team hotter than Colorado, as they’ve gone 8-2-0 over that stretch, a run that has gotten them back in the Western Conference playoff picture with 43 points, as their 21-18-1 record has them tied with the Dallas Stars for the eighth and final playoff spot. One tip for the Kings tonight would be to avoid a shootout at all costs, as the Avs have won all six of the ones they’ve been in this season.

Colorado’s offense hasn’t been lighting the world on fire this season by any stretch of the imagination, as their 2.55 goals per game average ranks them 22nd in the league. The Kings’ fifth-ranked defense, giving up just 2.23 goals against per game, will look to keep the Avalanche offense in check. Meanwhile, the Kings haven’t been any better than the Avs offensively. In fact, they’ve been quite a bit worse, averaging just 2.13 goals per game, ranking the Kings offense last in the league. However, as I mentioned earlier, the Kings are coming off of a big game against the Canucks, but it will be very important that they keep the offense going tonight if they’re going to keep this ship moving in the right direction. The Avalanche defense is only ranked 20th in the league, giving up an average of 2.88 goals against per game, so perhaps the Kings will have an opportunity to score a few more goals tonight.

On special teams, the struggling Kings power-play, now ranked just 25th in the league at a 14.4% success rate, finally scored a goal last game, but to me, it still looks like it could use a lot of work. Getting the power-play going is going to go a long way towards improving the offense, and tonight, they’ll look to take advantage of a 21st-ranked Avalanche penalty kill, a unit that is killing off 81.4% of their penalties. The Avalanche penalty kill may not be great, but the Avalanche power-play has been this year, as the seventh-ranked power-play in the league is converting on 19.4% of their opportunities. The Kings penalty kill has been nothing short of sensational over the last while, now ranked third in the league at an 88.3% success rate, and will look to continue its success tonight if they’re forced to deal with Colorado’s power-play.

Up front for the Avs, as I mentioned, they’re without Matt Duchene, leaving them with Paul Stastny, Ryan O’Reilly, Milan Hejduk, Gabriel Landeskog, David Jones, Daniel Winnik, T.J. Galiardi, Chuck Kobasew, Brad Malone, Jay McClement, Cody McLeod, Kevin Porter, David Van der Gulik and Brandon Yip. Two of them will be healthy scratches. In addition to Duchene, Peter Mueller and Mark Oliver are on the injured reserve.

Meanwhile, the Colorado defense is a group that features former King Kyle Quincey, as well as Erik Johnson, Jan Hejda, Matt Hunwick, Shane O’Brien, Ryan O’Byrne and Stefan Elliot. One of them will be a healthy scratch. Ryan Wilson is on the injured reserve.

In goal, much to the displeasure of my fantasy team, Semyon Varlamov has not had the greatest of seasons so far, posting a 12-13-1 record with one shutout to go along with a 3.05 GAA and an .897 Sv%. He is expected to get the start, however, it could also be veteran backup Jean-Sebastien Giguere, who has been very impressive this season, posting a 9-5-0 record on the season with one shutout to go along with a 1.96 GAA and a .927 Sv%, and is coming off of a 4-2 win against his old team in Anaheim on New Year’s Eve, although he did only face 20 shots, and it was against the Ducks.

For the Kings, the forwards are expected to remain the same. That means lines of Anze Kopitar between Mike Richards and Dustin Brown, Jarret Stoll between Dustin Penner and Justin Williams,  Andrei Loktionov between Brad Richardson and Trevor Lewis, and Colin Fraser between Kyle Clifford and Trent Hunter. Kevin Westgarth is expected to be a healthy scratch.

On defense, it’s expected to be Rob Scuderi with Drew Doughty, Willie Mitchell with Jack Johnson, and Alec Martinez with Matt Greene. I say that because those are the usual defense pairings when Martinez is in. However, if Sutter doesn’t want to break up the Johnson/Greene pairing, he could just slide Martinez into Voynov’s spot with Mitchell, so then could be Mitchell with Martinez, and Johnson with Greene, but the Scuderi/Doughty pairing is expected to stay together tonight no matter what happens with the other defensemen. Slava Voynov is banged up apparently after taking a couple of big hits recently, so Sutter’s going to take this chance to give him a rest and get Martinez back in the lineup. Davis Drewiske will be scratched along with Voynov.

In goal, it’s expected to be Jonathan Quick making his second straight start and 33rd start in 40 games this season.

This is a big game for the Kings, as most games will be from here on out as we now get into the second half of the season. Did the first half of the season just fly by or what? I feel like it was just yesterday that it was training camp and we were still waiting for Drew Doughty to sign. On the bright side, my favourite time of year is getting closer. What time of year is that, you ask? Playoffs, of course! Especially if the Kings are in the playoffs. However, we’ve still got a ways to go before it’s playoff time. Right now, the Kings’ focus is on the Colorado Avalanche. The Kings ended 2011 with a win, will they be able to start 2012 the same way, or will the Avalanche spoil the party?

NOTE: Tonight is the second of three Legends Nights this season for the Kings, which means they’ll be wearing the vintage purple and gold uniforms. Tonight, the Kings will be honoring radio colour commentator, Kings Vision reporter and former Kings player Daryl Evans. It’s a very well-deserved honour for Evans, who also participates in many Kings charity events and teaches the LA Kings sponsored adult hockey Clinics at Toyota Sports Center, the Kings practice facility.

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