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Game Day Preview #16, Tampa Bay Lightning @ Los Angeles Kings

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Welcome back, Peter Budaj!

NHL: Los Angeles Kings at Tampa Bay Lightning Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Preview: Tampa Bay Lightning (12-2-2) @ Los Angeles Kings (11-2-2)

How to Watch and What to Watch

The almost-best in the west meet the actual best in the east tonight, in a matchup that, had anyone known these two teams were going to be this good, probably should have gotten an air date on national TV.

The Lightning have two regulation losses so far this season -- a loss to the Florida Panthers in the opening days of the season, and a lackluster performance against the Anaheim Ducks at the end of October. The Lightning routinely put up absurd numbers of goals. The league average right now is 3.02; the Lightning have three or more goals in twelve of their sixteen games.

In nearly every category, the Lightning are at or near the top of the league:

  • goals per game (3.94);
  • Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov are tops in points (28 and 26 respectively);
  • Kucherov has the lead in goals (15);
  • new starting goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy leads the league in wins (12), and among goalies playing ten or more games, he’s fifth in save percentage (0.928) and tenth in goals against average (2.41); and
  • the power play is second in the league, converting 28.6% of the time, with 18 goals for.

If there’s a thing the Lightning are doing poorly, no one can quite figure out what it is. They’ve had off games -- those two regulation losses aside, they also had an uncharacteristically sloppy game against the sometimes-struggling New York Rangers which resulted in an overtime loss. The top line of Stamkos, Kucherov, and Vlad Namestnikov is not only clicking, but clicking in an historical way. Stamkos and Kucherov are just the fifth pair of players in the last 25 years to earn at least 20 points in the first month of the season. In a decisive win last night in San Jose, each member of that top line earned three points (Kucherov 1G 2A; Stamkos 3A; Namestnikov 2G 1A).

And it’s not just that top line, either. Second year NHLer Brayden Point has been impressive on the second line, racking up 17 points already. Yanni Gourde took the long way back to the NHL after spending time in the Sharks’ ECHL system a few years ago, and is excelling on the Lightning’s shut-down line, with Point and Ondrej Palat. Viktor Hedman is not only very large but a terrific defenseman, and a well-deserved finalist for the Norris Trophy last year. Rookie defenseman Mikhail Sergachev, acquired in the offseason in the Jonathan Drouin trade, has proven to be a capable player on both defense and offense (12 points in 16 games).

The fact that the Lightning may very well go with 11 forwards and seven defenseman tonight is just another John Cooper Thing; he’s never been afraid to do strange things with his lineups, and they’ve played with this balance of players in several other games this season and have been just fine. There’s a possibility some players may be swapped out solely due to the back-to-back scenario, and I wouldn’t put it past Cooper to make the lineup a true game-time decision.

And in net? Our old friend Peter Budaj.

Budaj’s career renaissance in Los Angeles has transported him to the Lightning, where he signed a two-year contract to serve as Vasilevskiy’s backup. Budaj’s only played two games this season for the Lightning, with one regulation loss and one overtime loss. With Budaj struggling, particularly with limited ice time, and the Lightning playing their second game in two days, it will be important for the Kings to try to set the pace and tone of the game early.

Which could be easier said than done, pending the walking dead status of the Kings players after that Anaheim game. There have been a few days off since then, yes, and so we can only hope that Alec Martinez and Anze Kopitar, both of whom left the game for a period of time in Anaheim, are truly at 100%, and that Drew Doughty is rested up enough after playing like 45 minutes of hockey.

The only anticipated lineup change for the Kings tonight is Nic Dowd getting back in over Mike Amadio, which may be more about getting Dowd playing than it is about Amadio’s actual performance. The fourth line as a whole played heavily limited minutes in the Anaheim game. Amadio only got four minutes; his linemates got slightly more mostly because of special teams work. Against a tough team like the Lightning, giving Amadio the night off for the slightly more experienced Dowd may be a smart choice.

Projected Line Combinations

Los Angeles Kings

Iafallo - Kopitar - Brown
Pearson - Kempe - Toffoli
Andreoff - Shore - Lewis
Cammalleri - Laich - Dowd

Forbort - Doughty
Muzzin - Martinez
MacDermid - Fantenberg

Quick
(Kuemper)

Tampa Bay Lightning

Namestnikov - Stamkos - Kucherov
Palat - Point - Gourde
Kunitz - Johnson - Callahan
Killorn - Dumont

Hedman - Dotchin
Sergachev - Stralman
Coburn - Girardi
Koekkoek

Budaj
(Vasilevskiy)

Opposing Preview: Raw Charge