The Kings and Panthers play at Staples Center on December 2nd, 2010. The Kings would end up winning 3-2 in regulation: Thanks to LAKings.com

The Kings and Panthers play at Staples Center on December 2nd, 2010. The Kings would end up winning 3-2 in regulation: Thanks to LAKings.com

Another month begins, and the Kings will be looking to make this month more successful than the first two have been this season, as they will hope to put together a good stretch of hockey to improve on their 12-8-4 record.

A great way for the Kings do that, of course, would be to start scoring some goals, particularly at even strength. Well, as well as on the power play, as it has been awful lately. The success that the Kings have had this season has been thanks to a defense that ranks fifth in the NHL, allowing an average of just 2.21 goals against per game. The Kings offense, however, ranks just 24th in the NHL, averaging 2.33 goals per game, and that’s despite having a power play that ranks 14th in the NHL at a 17.4% success rate, albeit one that’s struggling mightily as of late. The Kings’ new-look lines actually looked pretty good last game. Whether it was a wake up call or good chemistry, the lines looked lively and effective. Will it work for more than one game? The Kings will hope so, and they’ll look to get into an offensive groove when the Florida Panthers pay them a visit tonight.

The Southeast Division-leading Florida Panthers, that is. Yes, no one else in that division has been very good this year and it’s still relatively early, and I’ll be shocked if the Panthers are in this position at the end of the season, but they’re playing great hockey right now and the Kings are going to have their hands full. Florida is 13-7-4 on the year, and their 30 points have them just three points back of Minnesota for the most in the entire NHL. The Panthers aren’t setting the world on fire in any particular category, but they don’t really have a weak point right now, either. The Panthers are averaging 2.75 goals per game, which ranks their offense 14th in the NHL. They’re allowing an average of only 2.38 goals against per game, ranking their defense eight in the NHL. Their power play is converting on 18.6% of their opportunities, good for the ninth best power play in the league, while their penalty kill ranks 13th in the NHL, killing off 84.1% of their penalties. They’ve also gone a very strong 8-5-0 on the road so far this season, so the Kings will be in tough tonight.

Needless to say, no one really expected this from the Panthers this year. They haven’t made the playoffs since the 1999-2000 season, the longest current playoff drought in the NHL, and are the only team other than the Leafs to have not made the playoffs since the lockout. They’re also coming off of a season where they finished last in the Eastern Conference. The Panthers made a lot of moves in the summer, but even with all of the added talent and the young players expected to improve on this team, and although it’s been a long time since the Panthers were good, they were expected to still be rebuilding this season, so would all of the moves made in the summer really be enough to already get them back to the playoffs in the tough Eastern Conference? Especially when they were losing Tomas Vokoun in net, and replacing him with Jose Theodore? It’s still very early and they’ve got a lot to prove, but the early results show that this team may have what it takes to end their lengthy playoff drought.

Yes, Dale Tallon was one of the busiest general managers in the league this past summer. Tallon brought in the likes of Sean Bergenheim, Matt Bradley, Tomas Fleischmann, Marcel Goc, Tomas Kopecky, Scottie Upshall, Kris Versteeg, Brian Campbell, Ed Jovanovski, and Jose Theodore. Then, of course, there was the early-season trade that saw David Booth, Stephen Reinprecht and their third-round pick in the 2013 NHL Entry Draft go to the Vancouver Canucks in exchange for a pair of veteran forwards, Mikael Samuelsson, who nobody in LA likes after he pretty much single-handedly knocked the Kings out of the playoffs in 2010, and former King Marco Sturm, who, although I don’t blame you if you’ve forgotten, did spend a brief time with the Kings last season, before being claimed off waivers in February by Washington. Then after signing with Vancouver in the summer to only be traded to Florida shortly after, it’s safe to say that he’s been around a bit over the last little while; this is his fourth team of this calendar year, and fifth since last season started, and he’s an unrestricted free agent at the end of the year, so he could be on the move again. For a player who, before coming to the Kings during last season had spent parts of the last six seasons with Boston and parts of the previous eight with San Jose, and that’s it, this must be quite different for him. All of these moves by Tallon were largely seen as moves that were just to fill out the roster of a bad team and to hit the salary cap floor, but bringing in these players also meant bringing quite a bit of talent to Florida, and so far, Tallon’s moves have paid dividends.

Leading the way for the Panthers up front this season has been their top line of Tomas Fleischmann, Stephen Weiss and Kris Versteeg. In 24 games so far, that line has already combined for 73 points. However, it’s a bit of a drop after their top line. Weiss is third on the team in scoring with 23 points, but then their fourth-highest scoring forward, Tomas Kopecky, has only 11 points. The rest of the Panthers forwards consist of Shawn Matthias (who has three goals in his last two games, including a two-goal performance in Carolina on Tuesday that also saw him score the game-winner), Sean Bergenheim, Evgeni Dadonov, Tim Kennedy, Mike Santorelli, Jack Skille, and Marco Sturm. The Panthers are a bit banged up up front, as Mikael Samuelsson, Matt Bradley, Marcell Goc, and Scottie Upshall are all on the injured reserve, leaving them with just 11 healthy forwards listed on their roster. The Panthers have seven healthy defensemen listed on their roster, so it appears that one of them will play forward.

On defense, Brian Campbell, Dimitry Kulikov and James Garrison have been leading the way so far this season. In 24 games, Campbell has 20 points, including 18 assists, and is a plus-6. He appears to finally be earning that big contract that he signed in Chicago, but never earned in Chicago. In 23 games, Kulikov has a goal and 15 assists and has an even rating, while Garrison has eight goals to go along with four assists and a plus-9 rating in 24 games this season. Filling out the Panthers blue line will be Ed Jovanovski, Erik Gudbranson, Mike Weaver, and Keaton Ellerby, but one of them is expected to play forward.

In goal, veteran Jose Theodore has been surprisingly good this season, posting a 10-4-3 record to go along with a shutout and a 2.29 GAA and a .924 Sv%. Scott Clemmensen has played just one game this season due to injury, but is healthy now and is expected to serve as Theodore’s backup tonight. Jacob Markstrom was called up and started five games for the Panthers in Clemmensen’s absence, but was sent back to the AHL when Clemmensen returned.

For the Kings, there will be no changes tonight. It remains Anze Kopitar between Dustin Brown and Trent Hunter, Mike Richards between Simon Gagne and Jarret Stoll, Andrei Loktionov between Kyle Clifford and Justin Williams, and Colin Fraser between Ethan Moreau and Kevin Westgarth. Brad Richardson and Trevor Lewis will once again be the healthy scratches. Dustin Penner was expected to be able to play tonight, but is not quite ready yet, meaning Andrei Loktionov gets at least one more chance to leave an impression of Voynov-esque proportions.

On defense, it will remain Rob Scuderi with Drew Doughty, Willie Mitchell with Slava Voynov, and Jack Johnson with Matt Greene. Guess who will be the healthy scratch? Why, Davis Drewiske of course!

In goal, Terry Murray said he actually had planned to start Jonathan Bernier in this game, but after seeing how well Jonathan Quick played against the Sharks on Monday, he is finally going to do what he said he was going to do at the start of the year, as he will “ride the hot hand” tonight. Murray says he may get Bernier in against the Habs on Saturday, however.

So, the Kings should get all they can handle from the rejuvenated Panthers tonight. Will they be able to hold them off, or will the Panthers continue to shock the hockey world?

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