The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (27-12-3) at the Los Angeles Kings (25-14-6). SBN Blog: Jewels From The Crown.
The Time: 10.30PM ET
The Broadcast: TV – BSW, MSGSN
The Kings’ last game
In a wild California game on Wednesday, LA defeated the San Jose Sharks 4-3 at home. LA dominated the Sharks in the first, outshooting them 22-8, but could only muster a 1-0 lead at the break, courtesy of an early goal by Adrian Kempe. San Jose outshot the Kings in both of the final two periods, which were more evenly contested. Nick Bonino tied it up shortly after the first interval, before Quinton Byfield scored his first of the season to give LA a one-goal lead into the third. Tantalising trade prospect Timo Meier made things very interesting tying the game with ten minutes to go. However, quick goals from Gabriel Vilardi and Drew Doughty gave LA a two-goal lead only three minutes after Meier had equalised. Tomas Hertl did score with two minutes remaining to cut the deficit to 4-3, but LA held out, and won a tense one against their local rivals. In net for the Kings was recent sensation Pheonix Copley — more on whom shortly — who saved 27 of 30 to earn the decision with a 0.900 save percentage and 0.79 goals saved above expected.
How are the Kings going?
The Kings came into this season being largely expected to push on after making the playoffs for the first time since the 17/18 season last year. However, they were pretty lacklustre coming out of the gate, sitting 15-12-5 midway through December, having lost more games than they had won. Since then, they have gone 10-2-1, with no team having gathered more points over the same period than them. This has pushed them to second in their division, only two points off the Vegas Golden Knights, who hold the top spot in the Pacific. The Devils are coming up against the hottest team in the league, and they are riding one of the hottest goalies in the league.
The Kings had great issues in net at the beginning of the year. With a lot of money locked up to Jonathan Quick — that has been the case for a while now, of course — and Cal Peterson (just shy of $10 million between the two of them per season), you could forgive the Kings for expecting better than the 0.884 and 0.864 save percentages the two of them have posted so far this season, respectively. Peterson was waived and sent down to the AHL at the beginning of December, prompting the call-up of one Pheonix Copley, who has since gone 12-2, largely carrying the Kings up the standings.
With the Kings having been off since Wednesday, and Copley very much the hot hand, I expect to see him in net versus the Devils. Interestingly, Copley has not even been that great since taking the net. Of all goalies to have played at least 300 minutes at 5-on-5 since the beginning of December, Copley sits 15th in 5-on-5 save percentage with 0.923. Over the same time period, he sits 41st out of 47 qualifying goalies in 5-on-5 high danger save percentage. In contrast, however, in all situations since the middle of December, the Kings have gone from dead-last in the NHL in terms of all-situations save percentage to slightly better than league average, sitting 13th. The conclusion I draw here is that Copley didn’t have to be a world-beater, he just had to be good enough. Us Devils fans know all too well the impact bad goaltending can have on an actually fine hockey team: clearly, the Kings were going well — they were actually 6th in the NHL in 5-on-5 xG% for with 53.26% over that initial run — but just couldn’t get a save, and that sunk them. Since then, the good underlying numbers have shone through, and the Kings are a force. Let’s take a look at their offence and defence more specifically, aside from their seemingly-resolved goaltending.
The Kings Offence
Over the entire season, the Kings have been fine at five-on-five, posting a good-for-league-12th 52.43% xG for percentage (for the attentive of you, yeah, the Kings have actually been slightly worse in the run of play since beginning to win: strange). A very interesting trend across the entire season is the following graph, per HockeyViz. It shows where LA have created their expected goals at all strengths relative to the rest of the league.
As we can see, the Kings are extremely good at generating offence down their right side, but horrible down the left. Frankly, I am not sure what to make of this. Looking at their lineup from the San Jose game, they do not seem to have an imbalance in terms of better right wingers than left wingers. In fact, with Kevin Fiala on the left — the only King above a point a game for the season, playing extraordinarily well after being traded to LA from Minnesota last summer — I would almost tend to favour the left. I am not going to try and speculate why this might be the case, but it is clearly a significant trend. Our defensemen on the left — most likely Jonas Siegenthaler, Ryan Graves and Nikita Okhotyuk, given the lineups of recent games and Marino not yet being back from injury — will have to be extra vigilant and on top of their defensive game for this one.
On the powerplay, the Kings are a dangerous unit, with the 8th best conversion rate in the league at 24.4%. As shown by the following chart, also from HockeyViz, we can see that Fiala, Kempe and Doughty combine for 72% of the unblocked shots which LA take on the 5-v-4. With Fiala mostly in front of the net or to the right of it, and Kempe in the right circle, we again see the trend of a right-side-heavy LA offence. Doughty tends to roam all about the ice, taking shots from everywhere (but mainly bombs from the point).
Again, the Kings powerplay is one of the best in the league, and should be respected. Luckily for the devils, forwards Viktor Arvidsson and Trevor Moore, who have 18 powerplay points between them for the season, have missed LA’s last couple games, and will likely miss the Devils matchup. Nonetheless, this LA unit can clearly harm you, so beware.
The Kings Defence
As mentioned above, the Kings have been an above-average even-strength team this year in the run of play. This is mainly due to their phenomenal shot suppresion, as per the following graphic, which shows where the Kings are allowing shots, relative to league average. Again, HockeyViz, thank you.
All the blue stuff in front of the Kings’ net essentially means that, relative to the rest of the league, they are giving up fewer shots in these high-danger areas. In fact, they are giving up 9% fewer expected goals against per 60 than an average NHL team this season, which is a big amount. With veteran defensemen like Doughty and Alex Edler, the Kings make it difficult for you to get to the netfront, so the Devils will have to battle extra hard tonight. There does seem to be a sweet-spot in the higher slot where LA give up slightly more than league average shot opportunities. This may be an area to try to exploit, especially off the rush when there might be fewer defenders in the way blocking those shots.
On the opposite side of the special teams spectrum, the Kings have got a very poor penalty kill this season, ranking 28th. Their goaltending is bad for 30th in terms of penalty-kill save percentage. Even if we only consider their recent successful run, they are still below average in 19th and 18th, respectively. Interestingly, in their past ten games, they have conceded on the kill in seven of them — but they only ever concede one powerplay goal a game, strangely. The Devils to get one on the man advantage, anyone? Let’s hope so, that 5-on-5 defense looks tough.
What are we trying to do here?
The Devils looked very solid last night against the Ducks, with coach Lindy Ruff and his players all emphasising the importance of the team’s structure in their post-game interviews. Granted, the Ducks are a poor, poor team this season, but we have on occasion seen the Devils play unstructured hockey, especially early in games, so it was encouraging to see New Jersey suffocate Anaheim, and pick up an early 3-0 advantage. We are going to need more of that structured play tonight against an unforgiving Kings team.
The secondary scoring has picked up considerably over the last couple games, which has been a very welcome development. The Boqvist-Mcleod-Mercer line was instrumental in helping the Devils upset the Hurricanes a couple games back, and they were on song again last night, creating Hamilton’s opening goal with good cycling work, with Boqvist later scoring his second in two games going five-hole on the breakaway. This unit played the most 5-on-5 minutes of any Devils line, and had an xG for percentage of 67% in their 12 minutes together. Since being assembled recently, this line has done surprisingly well — surprising even to Lindy, going by his post-game comments — so let’s hope they can continue giving the Devils more depth.
One final player I would like to highlight is Nolan Foote, who was in for his first game last night, and did quite well in a sheltered role. Per Moneypuck, Foote played the entirety of his 10 minutes of ice time at 5-on-5, the majority of which was on lines with a combination of Yegor Sharangovich, Miles Wood, and Erik Haula. Any line he was on did very well in the run of play, and Foote himself had an individual xG for percentage of 92% at 5-on-5, the best on the Devils. He also had an individual xG of 0.4, albeit only on one shot on net, but there were clear signs of positive play from Foote. He has 13 goals in 33 games in the AHL with the Comets this season, one fewer than Graeme Clarke’s team-leading 14, and will likely have a couple of games to show what he’s got before Nathan Bastian gets back into the lineup, so hopefully he builds off his encouraging showing yesterday and makes a case for himself. His stock has fallen with the Devils since being part of the return in the Blake Coleman trade with the Lightning, with his skating being an especially large question mark. It is good to see him rewarded for his play in the AHL this season, and now it’s up to him to make the most of this opportunity.
Let me know what you think of tonight’s matchup. Who on the Kings should we be wary of? Are you looking for big performances from any of the Devils in particular? Give us your thoughts in the comments below, and thank you for reading.