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Game Day Preview #45, Pittsburgh Penguins @ Los Angeles Kings

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The reigning champs come to town with a goalie making his first NHL start. Great.

NHL: Los Angeles Kings at Pittsburgh Penguins Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Preview: Pittsburgh Penguins (24-20-3) @ Los Angeles Kings (24-15-5)

Game Day Watch: How to Watch and What to Watch For

More than halfway through the season and it’s still hard to figure out exactly who the Kings are. We knew going into the season that they were going to probably give up some of their sky-high possession numbers in favor of trying to be more dangerous offensively. After all, hanging onto the puck isn’t really useful when you don’t put it in the net.

And for a little while, that’s what the Kings did. Their possession numbers dipped, and so did their shots on net, but they were winning games, and all was right with the world.

It’s a different story now, though, as the mid-season slump and all that entails — the Ontario/Los Angeles shuffle, a sometimes unsteady Jonathan Quick, breathless coverage of Jeff Carter skating in a track suit — mean that the Kings are right back to fighting to stay in a playoff spot, and maybe all those pre-season predictions of “good enough to squeak into the playoffs” were actually right.

But this was always supposed to be a bit of a bounce back season for the Kings. “Middle of the pack”, even despite the Kings’ hot start, is right about where most analytics put them.

One team that didn’t have such low expectations was the back-to-back Stanley Cup winners, who stumbled out of the gate, particularly on back-to-back nights (10-1 loss to Chicago, 5-4 and 7-1 losses to Tampa Bay, 7-1 loss to Winnipeg — all in the first month of the season). Some people had Pittsburgh as a contender for a third straight Cup.

Instead, Matt Murray struggled, and veteran netminder Antti Niemi struggled even more. The loss of some depth/role players like Matt Cullen and Trevor Daley left some holes in the Penguins’ linuep that they’re still trying to solidify. And while things are looking up for the Penguins — they’ve won six of their last ten, and made a strong push last night in the third against Anaheim, though they still came up short — they’re still struggling to maintain a playoff spot. They currently hold the last wild card spot in the East, tied in points with the Rangers, with the Islanders only one point behind them.

Working in Pittsburgh’s favor is that they’ve been getting the puck to the net more often. Both their expected goals per game and their shot rate per game have gone up. Pittsburgh’s drastically terrible goal differential, thanks to those early season struggles, has corrected itself. Meanwhile, the Kings have seen their numbers trail off as their offense has dried up. (Remember those games at the beginning of the season where we all felt confident that, even if the Kings were behind, they’d still be able to catch up? That feels a little sketchy now.)

@ChartingHockey
@ChartingHockey

The Kings could get a boost from a revitalized lineup. Mike Amadio will most likely center the fourth line, and while that line isn’t always put into a position to score goals, the hope is that he’ll take some of that confidence from his outstanding recent run in the AHL and translate that to success in the NHL. Paul LaDue looks to be the extra defenseman tonight, but Kevin Gravel’s earned the right to stay in, with some quietly steady performances this time around. And Jake Muzzin! Jake’s back! The Kings have missed him more than perhaps they — or their fanbase — realized, when he missed the past several games because of a nagging injury.

In net for the Penguins is Casey DeSmith, making his first career NHL start. DeSmith has gotten into two NHL games in relief, both losses for the Penguins, and has a rather unfortunate stat line of 3 goals against average/.833 Sv%. Since they were relief performances for DeSmith, it’s hard to hold those numbers against him too much. He’s also essentially the third string goalie for the Pens, as Matt Murray is on a leave from the team following the death of his father, and Tristan Jarry played last night in Anaheim. (DeSmith probably would have been the fourth string goalie, had the Penguins not quickly waived Niemi and brought up Jarry, who was supposed to spend most of the year in the AHL.)

In net for the Kings… Jonathan Quick? Maybe? Quick didn’t look very good against Anaheim, so it wouldn’t be an awful idea to let him take the Penguins, and Kuemper take Anaheim on Friday. But they may be counting on the always intense Quick to help lead the way against the Ducks. It’ll be a surprise! Who doesn’t like surprises?

Projected Line Combinations

Los Angeles Kings

Kempe - Kopitar - Brown
Pearson - Lewis - Toffoli
Iafallo - Shore - Gaborik
Clifford - Amadio - Brodzinski

Gravel - Doughty
Muzzin - Martinez
Forbort - Folin

Quick
(Kuemper)

Pittsburgh Penguins

Simon - Crosby - Sprong
Hagelin - Malkin - Hornqvist
Sheary - Guentzel - Kessel
Kuhnhackl - Sheahan - Reaves

Dumoulin - Letang
Maatta - Schultz
Hunwick - Oleksiak

DeSmith
(Jarry)

Opposing Preview: Pensburgh