Preview: Los Angeles Kings (0-1) @ Vegas Golden Knights (1-0)
Is everyone ready for Alec Martinez to be your number one defenseman? Excited about 25 minutes of Dion Phaneuf? Did you really miss Kevin Gravel? Tonight’s your chance to probably see all of these things.
Thanks to Drew Doughty’s one-game suspension, Jake Muzzin’s lingering upper body injury (he’s been skating, but in a no-contact jersey), and Derek Forbort’s lower body injury (not expected back in this round), the Kings are down, well, half of their defense.
Alec Martinez has taken on heavy minutes before, but this season, he remains underwater in possession stats, sitting at 46.23% Corsi For at five-on-five play, above only Dion Phaneuf and Kurtis MacDermid. Granted, Martinez’s goal differential is in the positive, with 51 goals for and 45 against. Is the end result more important than the process? Does it matter if Martinez and his defensive partner don’t hang onto the puck that much, if they’re still generally keeping it out of the net?
Oscar Fantenberg hasn’t fared much better; in his limited minutes in the regular season, he sat at 47.39% Corsi For, right above Martinez. On Wednesday night in Vegas, his numbers were much better, but he was also paired with Drew Doughty, so it’s less of a surprise that he looked to drive and maintain more puck possession.
But the defensive pairings don’t matter if the Kings can’t establish offensive pressure. Whether it was even strength, the power play, or with Quick pulled at the end, the Kings could hardly get established in the offensive zone. Most of their scoring chances on Wednesday were of the one-and-done variety. There was little net-front presence to capitalize on rebounds, and the one time there was, it was Tanner Pearson accidentally blocking Anze Kopitar from what would have otherwise been a good chance at the net. The Kings on Wednesday looked timid and tentative, afraid to make a mistake, and that spread across the roster, from rookie to vet. Maybe it was nerves, maybe it was intimidation by Vegas’ exuberant home crowd, maybe it was bad luck. With the exception of Jonathan Quick, who absolutely gave his team every chance to win, the Kings didn’t look like a team with much confidence in their play.
Tonight, they need to make a statement. Don’t want to go back to Los Angeles in a two-game hole? Then prove it. The Golden Knights don’t give opposing teams much room to work on the ice, but the Kings’ strategy in Game One didn’t do much to get them out of that situation. While the hit counts might be a bit inflated — it will be interesting to see what those numbers look like once the series returns to Los Angeles — at the end of the day, if you’re coming out on top in the hits department, it’s because you don’t have the puck. And pasting someone into the boards doesn’t mean you’re going to get the puck back, either.
Expect Vegas to stick to their game. Fast, physical, relentless. They’re going to try their best to wear down the Kings’ depleted defense, and it might not be that hard. Each pairing has a weakness, an easily exploitable mistake waiting to happen. When it comes to line matching and gamesmanship, I don’t think Vegas is going to care which set of Kings defensemen come up against Vegas’ top players.
The only way to overcome a weak defense is to outscore the other team. If there’s a night for the Kings’ offensive players to give everything they have, it’s tonight. It doesn’t matter if it’s a puck that bounces in off of someone’s chest, or a sniper shot from the top of the circles, but something’s got to get past Marc Andre Fleury tonight.
Projected Line Combinations
Los Angeles Kings
Pearson - Kopitar - Brown
Rieder - Carter - Toffoli
Clifford - Kempe - Lewis
Thompson - Amadio - Mitchell
Fantenberg - Martinez
Phaneuf - LaDue
Gravel - Folin
Vegas Golden Knights
Marchessault - Karlsson - Smith
Neal - Haula - Tuch
Tatar - Eakin - Carpenter
Nosek - Bellemare - Carrier
McNabb - Schmidt
Theodore - Engelland
Merrill - Miller
Opposing Preview: Knights on Ice