Without a pair of key players in Mike Richards and Willie Mitchell, the Kings will hope that upon his return to the lineup on Saturday, Dustin Penner can finally get things going, and that Davis Drewiske will be a serviceable temporary replacement for Mitchell, as the Kings were forced to switch the lineup up a bit as they seek a third consecutive win, as well as their first win in a long time against the Montreal Canadiens.
You see, to say that the Kings have struggled against the Habs recently would be an understatement. The last time that the Kings beat the Habs? March 8th, 2003. A 2-1 regulation victory at Staples Center. Since then, the Kings have dropped all six games to Montreal that they’ve played against them. No player, coach, or management member in the Kings organization was with the Kings for the last time that they beat the Canadiens. This just really isn’t a good match up for the Kings, as the speedy Habs have skated circles around the slow Kings in recent years,
What kind of threat do the Habs pose for the Kings this time around? Well, it’s hard to get a read on Montreal this season. Coming into this season, I thought the Habs were going to be a pretty good team. In fact, I predicted them to win the Northeast Division. However, Andrei Markov still isn’t healthy, they’ve had their fair share of injuries to deal with, even when he’s been healthy Scott Gomez may even be worse than he was last year, and the Habs have been plagued with inconsistency all season so far. Some nights they look like they can beat anybody, other nights they lose 4-1 to the Ducks. After a brutal 1-5-2 start to the season that resulted in assistant coach Perry Pearn being fired, the Habs turned things around to the tone of an 8-3-1 stretch. Since then, the Habs have fallen into another rut, as they are currently stuck in a 1-3-2 slump, as well as going 0-2-2 in their last four games.
The Habs flew out West for a California road trip, but it hasn’t gone their way so far. They started things off with a 4-1 loss to Anaheim of all teams. Although Peter Budaj was in goal, and while I don’t blame him or think he’s been performing particularly poorly, the Habs play much worse in front of him than they do in front of Carey Price, they even lost to the Islanders with Budaj in goal. After that disappointing loss on Wednesday, the Habs flew up to San Jose to take on the Sharks on Thursday, but blew three leads, including one with 1:26 remaining in the game, on their way to a 4-3 shootout loss. With just one out of a possible four points so far in California, the Habs will want to get things turned around and end their slump as well as head home with at least one win out of this road trip, and you can bet that they’ll be plenty motivated after the disappointment in San Jose on Thursday, so the Kings should have their hands full on Saturday.
The Kings power-play is ranked 11th in the NHL at an 18% success rate, but is struggling lately and will get a stiff test against a Montreal penalty kill that ranks fourth in the NHL, killing off 89.4% of their penalties. Meanwhile, the struggling Montreal power-play, ranking 27th in the NHL converting on just 11.8% of their opportunities, has to deal with a red-hot Kings penalty kill that has killed off 24 consecutive penalties and ranks seventh in the NHL at an 85.3% success rate. The struggling power-plays against strong penalty kills for both teams means that this game could be decided by all even strength goals, which doesn’t bode well for the Kings. Montreal’s offense ranks just 21st in the NHL, averaging just 2.46 goals per game, while LA’s defense ranks tied for fourth in the NHL, allowing just 2.16 goals against per game. The Kings offense is tied for 24th in the NHL, averaging just 2.32 goals per game, and will have to deal with Carey Price and a Montreal defense that’s ranked 12th in the NHL, allowing 2.5 goals per game.
What weapons do the Habs have? Up front, they’ve been led by skilled, underrated two-way centre Tomas Plekanec and promising young forward Max Pacioretty this season. Plekanec has a team-high 16 assists and 21 points in 26 games this season, while Pacioretty, a former first-round pick of the Habs back in 2007, has a team-high 10 goals to go along with his nine assists in 24 games. Pacioretty, however, has missed the last two games due to a suspension resulting from his hit on Kris Letang of the Pittsburgh Penguins in a 4-3 overtime loss for the Habs in Montreal last Saturday, and will serve the last of his three-game suspension in Los Angeles on Saturday, so fortunately for the Kings, Montreal will be without one of their most lethal weapons. Pacioretty, of course, was the man who suffered that awful injury after having his head smashed into a stanchion by Zdeno Chara last season, so it’s been great to see him return and be healthy and productive. Captain Brian Gionta hasn’t had a great season so far by his standards, with seven goals and seven assists in 26 games, while former King Mike Cammalleri has missed time with injury, but has six goals and seven assists in the 21 games that he’s played in this season. Skilled young centre David Desharnais has four goals and 12 assists on the season as his 16 points rank him fourth on the Habs in scoring, and he has slid into the role of the second centre behind Plekanec as Scott Gomez this season has been injured as well as seriously under-performing when healthy. Erik Cole was signed as a free agent in the summer and hasn’t disappointed so far with eight goals and eight assists on the season, while injuries have limited Andrei Kostitsyn to 16 games so far this season, but when healthy he has six goals and four assists so far. Behind them, Travis Moen’s role is to be a checker, but he’s been on fire to start the year with eight goals and two assists already. His career-high is 11 goals in one season, but he’s certainly on pace to break that this year. Mathieu Darche, Lars Eller, Petteri Nokelainen, Aaron Pulushaj, and Louis LeBlanc, the 20-year old first-round pick of the Canadiens in 2009 who was called up to replace the suspended Pacioretty and will play his third NHL game on Saturday, make up the rest of Montreal’s forwards. Gomez, Ryan White and Andreas Engqvist are on the injured reserve.
On defense, the Habs for the most part are very young, and are led by P.K. Subban, but the supremely-skilled defenseman has had a bit of a sophomore slump so far this season. Joining him is young blue-liner Yannick Weber and promising rookies Alexei Emelin and Raphael Diaz. The steady Josh Gorges and veteran Hal Gill will make up the remainder of the Montreal defense corps, while Frederic St-Denis is expected to be a healthy scratch. Andrei Markov has not played this season as he is on the injured reserve, where he’s spent most of the last two seasons, which is a huge loss for the Habs and they could use him back as soon as possible as they’ve had to deal without one of the game’s best defensemen for quite some time. Jaroslav Spacek and Chris Campoli are also on injured reserve.
In goal, excellent young goaltender Carey Price is expected to start. Price is coming off of a monster season, but had a rough start to this season. However, he has since started to turn it around and overall is 9-8-5 including a back-to-back shutout performance to go along with a 2.29 GAA and a .917 Sv%. Backup Peter Budaj is 1-3-0, thanks to very little help from his teammates, and has a 2.50 GAA and a .914 Sv%.
For the Kings, the Mike Richards injury and Dustin Penner return has forced Terry Murray to shake things up a bit. It will now be Anze Kopitar between Simon Gagne and Dustin Brown (Brown moves back to the right, which is unfortunate because he was actually looking good on the left in the last couple of games), Jarret Stoll is back up in that second line centre spot that he had for the last few years (until Richards is back, that is), and will be between Dustin Penner and Justin Williams, while Andrei Loktionov is between Kyle Clifford and Kevin Westgarth (yes, Westgarth on the third line… That, combined with the Habs’ speed, probably won’t mean good things for the Kings), and Colin Fraser is between Ethan Moreau and Brad Richardson, as Richardson checks back into the lineup for Trent Hunter, who goes from the first line to the press box. Trevor Lewis, however, will not be back in the lineup just yet, and he and Hunter will be the healthy scratches up front.
On defense, the pairings are a little bit different, too. Rob Scuderi is with Drew Doughty, Jack Johnson is with Slava Voynov, and Davis Drewiske is with Matt Greene. Yes, since there are now only six healthy defensemen on the roster, Drewiske actually gets to play. Hopefully he won’t be too rusty…
In goal, despite Jonathan Quick’s recent brilliance, it will be Jonathan Bernier getting back in, as the young French-Canadian will make just his fifth start in 26 games this season after spending the last four games on the bench, and he gets to take on the team that he grew up cheering for. He’ll hope for better results than he had in his homecoming to Montreal last year in front of family and friends where he got the start but lost 4-1. Hopefully sitting Quick while he’s on a roll doesn’t take him out of his groove like it did the last time.
To be honest, I have a bit of a soft spot for the Habs. They’re my second-favourite team. But, Saturday will likely be the one time this year (unless they meet in the Stanley Cup Finals) that I’ll be cheering for them to lose. Bernier’s been put in a bit of a tough spot here, as the Kings usually struggle in afternoon games and against the Habs. They’ll also need to be better than they usually are in front of him, like they were when he played very well in St. Louis, so he should have his team’s confidence now. If they lose, assuming he plays well, hopefully Murray doesn’t throw him under the bus and lose his confidence in him and sit him for a long time afterwards. Can the Kings kill two birds with one stone and finally get a win in an afternoon home game, as well as finally get a win against the Habs, or will Montreal continue their dominance over the Kings?
NOTE: Jake Muzzin did not practice this morning with the Monarchs and did not play tonight in their game in Binghamton, but apparently it’s due to injury or illness, as he has not been called up or traded.