Edmonton (41-25-5) at Los Angeles (38-24-10)
Approaching the final 10 games of the season, the Oilers have been eking out close wins in a dramatic push to catch the Kings for 2nd in the division. Their efforts culminate in tonight, a chance to pass the Kings outright in a head-to-head matchup against possible first round opponents.
The last game against the Sharks was close, hard fought, and ultimately provided us with the serotonin from an all-time classic goal and celebration between Smith and McDavid on the OT winner. Draisaitl has gone years since missing a game, and it was great to see the Oilers pull off a victory without him. We’ll see if he’s back in the lineup tonight, for the purposes of this article I’ll assume he misses tonight’s game.
First on McDavid and Draisaitl, the pair recently eclipsed the 100 point mark, Leon hitting 50 goals once again. At some point Connor will have a 50 goal season. Both have already won a Hart Trophy. Maybe it’s a personal bias of not caring much for individual awards but I could care less how anyone thinks the “MVP race” should shake out. I also don’t think it’s fair to say either McDavid or Draisaitl are underrated, as both have been officially recognized as the best player during each of the past 2 seasons. That isn’t to say that the two aren’t sublimely and incomprehensibly talented, it’s just that having already tasted the hollow emptiness of individual success we should all realize that the collective team success is of much greater value. Bigger fish, as it were.
With Smith likely getting the start in net for the Oilers tonight (With Koskinen missing time with a non-Covid illness) it is important to acknowledge that although things have not gone well for the netminder to this point in the season there are still significant contributions that he can provide for the team. We’ve seen some of the expected negatives with long, recurring injuries that kept him out for long stretches of the season early on. We’ve seen how it took a while to get back to an acceptable level of play upon his return to the lineup. We’ve seen how Koskinen, and perhaps even Skinner have outperformed him to this point in the season. Despite all this the veteran can still rediscover his form, as we’ve seen in his starts more often. If the Oilers are to have success with a deep postseason run it’s more than likely to include both Smith and Koskinen playing well at different points. Much closer to the back-to-back Champion Penguins splitting starts between Fleury and Murray than to back-to-back Champion Lightning starting Vasilevskiy for every minute.
Having just defeated the Kings in a 4-3 shootout win on March 30th, just part of the Oilers current 5 game winning streak, the teams and their fans should be relatively well acquainted. That game featured goals in regulation and the shootout for both McDavid and Draisaitl against Kings goalie Quick and a huge night for Koskinen who earned 2nd star. It will likely be the other two goalies tonight, as Cal Peterson seems to be in line for the Kings.
Kane — McDavid — Puljujarvi
Hyman — Nugent-Hopkins — Yamamoto
Foegele — McLeod — Ryan
Brassard — Shore — Kassian
Nurse — Ceci
Keith — Bouchard
Kulak — Barrie
Iafallo — Kopitar — Kempe
Moore — Danault — Arvidsson
Vilardi — Byfield — Kupari
Grundstrom — Andersson — Kaliyev
Bjornfot — Durzi
Maatta — Spence
Edler — Stetcher
PLAYERS TO WATCH
With Koskinen fighting an illness and Draisaitl day-to-day with some sort of injury the Oilers might be without some key pieces once again. As they did in the last game, the expectation is that without Draisaitl in the lineup that RNH will jump into the 2nd line spot, while Shore fills in behind. I’ve taken the liberty of ordering McLeod’s line ahead of Shore’s in this instance.
The line of Foegele-McLeod-Ryan might have to play a huge role with Draisaitl out, as the Kings have last change and will be able to control the matchups against the Oilers scoring lines, likely a large dose of Kopitar and Danault.
There is certainly the feeling that this is a new beginning in L.A., the start of something quite special. With tons of prospects en route, and many playing big roles already, optimism is beaming. The Kings have done well in being in a playoff spot at this point, but look poised for even greater heights before they are through.
Maybe he isn’t quite the player he was in the Cup years, but Kopitar still has lots of game yet. He did a lot of heavy lifting through some lean years but it’s all paying off as he’s leading a competitive outfit once more. Iafallo has been a pretty consistent linemate and as expected in such a role his play is regarded by many metrics. Kempe is having a breakout offensive season, leading the Kings with 31 goals, a fact perhaps lost amidst all the other exciting happenings.
Danault is proving once again that his dominant flow of play differentials are no fluke, he is no doubt one of the league’s elite defensive centres. Trevor Moore has been outstanding on his wing, a late bloom into legitimate top 6 production. He plays with a lot of compete, a style coaches and fans can appreciate just the same, stylistically similar to Hyman in a sense. Arvidsson is gritty and intense in his own right, but is a dangerous shooter who has scored 30 before. This line has been dominant both ways.
Byfield is still quite young, even within his own draft year, and with the OHL being shut down last season his developmental path was likely altered from ideal. At this point he’s playing in a limited role, one that is nice for him to gain some experience while Kopitar and Danault are more than capable of doing a lot of heavy lifting. It’s likely a matter of a season or two until he’s pushing to be the top centre on this team, especially offensively. He can use his size and passing skills to make plays off the cycle, but is extremely dangerous off the rush thanks to his speed, hands, and shot. Both Vilardi and Kupari are offensively gifted forwards still looking to find their way in the league. The trio is high on skill but might be prone to some growing pains.
Grundstrom and Andersson both have some snarl to them, fierce competitors who aren’t afraid to get a bit abrasive. Meanwhile their linemate Kaliyev is a uniquely talented sniper. A clean shot from anywhere is as dangerous as anyone’s on the ice tonight. Despite this he’s still found himself low in the lineup at even strength, but he’s still growing into his game.
Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the Kings turnaround is what has occurred on the blueline. Despite Doughty being out things are looking quite good thanks to the unexpectedly strong play of some young players.
Bjornfot is young but plays with poise and awareness. He looks to be a strong but quiet presence for years to come as he’s worked his way up the lineup over his first two seasons. Durzi has taken a big step this year, taking on huge minutes of late. He’s got offensive skills and can use his speed and passing to spring the attack.
Spence, like Durzi, has quickly found himself holding his own in the NHL, as the former World Junior defender has been able to leverage his puck moving skills into a regular spot, at least while the Kings deal with injuries. Pairing him with a defensively minded veteran like Maatta is ideal.
Meanwhile the 3rd pair has a definite shutdown feel with the veteran Edler alongside Stetcher. The pair of former Canucks have recently been paired together after Stetcher was acquired at the deadline and Edler returned from injury.
The Kings have split starts between their goalies fairly evenly, Quick outpacing Peterson 38 to 33 in starts. It’s likely that Quick will be the go to for a playoff series at this point, although their performances have been quite similar over the year.