February 05 2011 10:20AM
The Flames return home to meet a team that has been one of the hardest clubs to figure over the first two-thirds of the season. Los Angeles has the outward appearance of a club that should be home and cooled out, simply waiting for the post-season, and yet they're scuffling around with the rest of the pack in the ridiculous West. Strange year, isn't it?
When you examine the underlying numbers, what's revealed is a team that is very low-event at both ends of the ice. The Kings rank 24th in 5v5 shots on goal/60 for with 28.5, while only permitting 27.6 SOG/60 against, 5th best in the league. That was their pattern last season as well, so it seems sensible to presume that a slower pace isn't just happenstance, but a plan that matches with their personnel, and those numbers certainly fit what I've witnessed when I've watched L.A. Their primary way to generate EV offence is to grind the other club down on the cycle with a collection of plus-sized forwards, so they don't play many pretty games.
Terry Murray has spent the last couple of seasons using Michal Handzus as his tough minutes center, and that's still the pattern this year, with Handzus sporting a 44.6% ZoneStart. Should these lines from the Herald's preview hold, he'll work with Alexei Ponikarovsky and Brad Richardson against the Iginla line.
I suspect that the Kings feel a fair bit of disappointment in Poni's numbers, and he's certainly struggled to generate many shots on goal, but part of that might be his utilization. This is likely the first time in his career that he's faced the toughs night after night, and he always struck me as a player that was a better fit playing well against second liners. Still, 8 points isn't enough no matter how he's been deployed, and if Los Angeles has any hope for a long run, they'll need more from him at the good end of the ice.
Winning a grind it out game every night is a hard way to go, though, so you do need a talent to break the monotony on occasion, and Anze Kopitar is that man for L.A. He's now solidly established himself as the Kings' primary scoring forward, and his underlying numbers are right in line with what one would expect from him. He's torching the second line comp that he's faced thus far, and with Jarret Stoll and Ryan Smyth providing a solid backing line in support, the Kings have built a nice 5v5 goal differential for themselves through the first 52 games.
The Kings have stabilized on the back end after a series of injuries early on, with Willie Mitchell and Drew Doughty now the primary pair. Doughty's offensive numbers are slightly off the pace he managed last year on the way to his Norris nomination, but he appears to be rounding into form after missing some time early on with a concussion, and as the Oilers could have advised you the other evening, he's still a definite threat on the PP. Having his partner back by his side will do nothing but aid the cause, because Willie Mitchell is still a quality shut down option, and his presence should allow Doughty to take a chance or two for offence down the stretch.
L.A.'s just a middling team in terms of goals for, so they've largely built their goal differential on good work in net. Jonathan Quick was expected to be supplanted by Bernier at some point this year, but he's won the number one job on the back of a very fine .927 EVSV% so far. Quick is the old guy of the duo at 25, which might lead one to think that the Kings might be OK in net for a few years.
As for tonight, for all of Los Angeles' seeming quality they've never really been able to split themselves off from the pack, and the Flames can overtake them with a win this evening. I've always felt like the Flames matchup fairly well with the Kings, largely since neither team seems to be all that interested in a trackmeet. Given the style that both teams prefer, getting a early lead is likely the best route to a Flames' victory, and I'd guess that both teams would be content with a low event slugfest.