1/9 Preview – Full Team Skate + Last 3 Evaluation, Third Line Thriving, LHDurzi Through 40

WHO: Los Angeles Kings (23-14-6) vs. Edmonton Oilers (21-17-3)
WHAT: NHL REGULAR SEASON GAME
WHEN: Monday, January 9 @ 7:30 PM Pacific
WHERE: Crypto.com Arena – Los Angeles, CA
HOW TO FOLLOW: VIDEO: Bally Sports West – AUDIO – iHeart Radio – TWITTER: @DooleyLAK & @LAKings

TONIGHT’S MATCHUP: The Kings return home to begin a four-game homestand, which kicks off tonight against the Edmonton Oilers.

HEAD-TO-HEAD: Kings forwards Trevor Moore (3-0-3) and Viktor Arvidsson (0-3-3) had three-point nights when these teams met back in November, although Moore will not play tonight (upper-body injury). Defenseman Drew Doughty led the Kings a season ago with four points (1-3-4) from two games played against the Oilers. Doughty’s career 0.75 points-per-game against Edmonton is his best against any Western Conference opponent.

KINGS VITALS: After the Kings opted for an off day yesterday, the team took this ice this morning for a full-team skate in El Segundo.

Off first this morning for the Kings was goaltender Pheonix Copley, who would be in line for his fourth consecutive start this evening. Copley has faced the Oilers twice throughout his NHL career, posting a record of 1-1-0, with a .945 save percentage and a 1.58 goals-against average.

Listed below are this morning’s Kings line rushes –

Byfield – Kopitar – Kempe
Iafallo – Danault – Arvidsson
Fiala – Lizotte – Vilardi
Lemieux – Kupari – Anderson-Dolan
Grundstrom

Anderson-Doughty
Durzi – Roy
Edler-Walker
Spence

Copley
Quick

Rushes this morning do not indicate any specific lineup alterations, although we’ll see if anything changes between now and game time. Forward Carl Grundstrom and recently recalled defenseman Jordan Spence were on the ice late this morning, indicating that they are likely tonight’s scratched players.

OILERS VITALS: Tonight’s game begins a four-game road trip for the Oilers, all within the Pacific Division.

Per Edmonton’s team Twitter account, the visitors are expected to return to Stuart Skinner in net this evening. Skinner has faced the Kings just once throughout the course of his NHL career, when he made 29 saves in the 3-1 defeat in Edmonton back in November.

Per Edmonton play-by-play announcer Jack Michaels, here’s how the Oilers aligned this morning –

Last time out, here’s how the defensemen aligned –

Nurse-Ceci
Kulak-Barrie
Broberg-Bouchard

Edmonton is one of two teams with four players at over a point-per-game or higher this season, including the league’s two leading scorers in McDavid (1.85) and Draisaitl (1.59). McDavid and Draisaitl have both been held off the scoresheet just four times this season, including the 3-1 Kings victory in November.

Notes –
Starting To Get It
I think we all want to look at the win over Vegas as being of the “statement win” variety, but to me, it’s been more of a statement week.

The Kings played three consecutive games against teams currently leading their divisions and came away with four of a possible six points. As Todd McLellan shared, it wasn’t three wins and it wasn’t six points and that makes it a non-perfect week, but at the same time, it’s a good sign that the Kings are at that stage where things like going 2 -1-0 against those three teams is seen as successful, but not a full feel-good situation.

“It’s funny, because it’s easier to answer after the games and it was a test and we played well against those three teams,” McLellan said. “So yes, it was a nice run, but we only got four out of six points though. We still have Edmonton coming in, San Jose always plays us hard, New Jersey is playing extremely well, before we get to any type of a marker, I’ll call it, where we can breathe a little bit as a team.”

Have the Kings, however, established a bit of a new standard for themselves over these last few games?

I think it’s pretty apparent that the team is starting to put things together, but you’re only as good as you were last game, so they say. The Kings issue was never one of talent or inability, but one of inconsistency and stylistic commitment. When you have those types of problems, one game can’t be a solution. Over the last few weeks, though, the Kings have played a certain way on just about every night, at least at the defensive end. So, McLellan believes perhaps the team has come around and is understanding the way forward.

“I feel like the team is buying it more now than they were before, for whatever reason,” he said. “Human nature is sometimes to revert, and we don’t want to do that, but that’s why we play 82 games. We have to keep reminding the players, repeat, repeat, repeat and they have to keep buying in, and then they have to execute. Some nights we may want to play that way, it just doesn’t work, but I do feel it [overall].”

I think even on the nights when you look at a performance that isn’t up to standard – Philadelphia on New Year’s Eve as one – it’s now a game when the Kings are still taking care of their own end, they’re just not connected or crisp in doing so. Even on that night, the game was 2-2 in the third period, it just wasn’t a clean way to get there.

Seeing the “B” nights be more of that variety, and the “A” nights be what we saw against Dallas, Boston and Vegas is a good way forward for a team that’s really starting to get it.

Third Line Thriving
It’s hard to single out individual players or lines after a game like Vegas, when the theme was surrounding the play of the group from top to bottom, but I think the performance of the Kevin Fiala / Blake Lizotte / Gabe Vilardi trio merits at least a little bit of consideration.

McLellan spoke after the game last night about how the chemistry on that line is starting to build. It’s not necessarily the line you might have envisioned any of those three players on at the beginning of the year, but it’s working right now, with all three contributing with multi-point efforts against the Golden Knights.

Fiala – Yes, I think so. We had a great game, a great overall game. [We played well] defensively, I feel, and in the neutral zone as well. For sure we found each other offensively, so it’s been fun with them.

Lizotte – We like to move the puck quickly, all three of us are kind of looking to make plays right away and not hold onto it excessively long, although Kevin has the ability to do that. He’s a great player so we can give them the puck whenever we can, I think that’s a key for success for Gabe and I and I think so far we’ve been able to create a lot of chances, which has been good.

Vilardi – Yes, it’s good. I love watching [Kevin] play, I think he’s unreal, obviously very skilled to create stuff out of nothing. Lizzo, as I’ve mentioned many times, he just works and creates space for other guys. For me, I think I’m just trying to find that soft spot still. I think they’re both pass-first guys, obviously Kevin had the hat trick which was good to see, but I’m just working. I think we’re kind of figuring it out here as we’re going.

In Vegas, that unit had four scoring chances for, as opposed to just one against. They haven’t posted the more eye-catching puck possession metrics that say Danault’s line has, on a game-to-game basis, but their chances for having been there and the dynamic playmaking ability of Fiala can outweigh a bulk of chances. As he showed on Saturday, he might not need many opportunities to make an opponent pay.

Fiala has had that production level and ability independent of the line he’s played on, although things have gone well since he’s been moved to this line specifically. The team’s leading scorer, goalscorer and perhaps the hardest worker playing together. Not a bad unit.

“I think Kevin can go up and down, he can go from side to side, he can be a rover on lines, with different linemates and be just fine,” McLellan added this morning. “He’s proven he can do that not only here, but with his older teams. He’s a good team guy and it’s gone well for him since he’s gone there.”

Having that line together also gives a team like Edmonton, which is more loaded up in the top six than spread out throughout a top nine, a decision to make when it comes to matchups. Getting that balanced performance as has been the case recently should do that to most teams and it’s an advantage certainly for the Kings should it continue.

Left Side, Strong Side

Alright, alright, no need to overreact here. The Kings would, under ideal circumstances, prefer an alignment that features three left-shot defensemen and three right-shot defensemen. Rob Blake said as much when we spoke with him in Vegas on Saturday. However, the situation right now is four defensemen who shoot right and Sean Durzi continues to be the individual used on the left.

Earlier this season, we would hear about or talk about situations in games that would negatively impact Durzi specifically due to that predicament. He’s learned a lot about playing on the left and he’s growing more and more comfortable in that role and as of late, we’re hearing about that a lot less.

“Earlier in the year, we talked a lot about those situations where he was surprised maybe by how awkward it was and I think he’s beginning to figure some of them out,” McLellan said of Durzi. “Even in practice, he’s working on moments that occur in a game for a guy on his off side. Again, it’s not ideal, but he’s doing a real good job of it.”

The notion of practice that McLellan mentioned jives well with what Durzi said earlier today.

Durzi noted that he’s learning both offensively and defensively, specifically to the left side. If you asked me personally before this season, I would not have put too much stock into the differences in playing on the left side versus the right side. Ask me now and it almost feels like going from defense to forward.

“To be able to practice now being comfortable on that side, making passes and things like that, I’ve learned so many new skills on that side that I probably would never have learned if I never got the chance to play the left side, he said today. “I’m learning new ways to be more of a threat on that side, whether it’s deception, breakout passes and then defending. I’m learning a lot of new skills.”

The pairing of Durzi and Matt Roy has not allowed a goal over their last three games, while they’ve been on the ice for one in each game. Over their last 10 games, it’s six goals compared to four against. It’s been the best stretch of action for that defensive pairing, over a course of time when it’s been the best stretch of games for the Kings.

It’s not to say that one necessarily has impacted the other, but it’s clear that there’s more comfort and familiarity there now than there was earlier this season. A good sign as the Kings continue to make the best use of the personnel available to them at this time.

Kings and Oilers, postseason rematch, tonight at 7:30 PM from Crypto.com Arena. See you there!

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