Waking up with the Kings: February 16
-In Darryl Sutter’s post-game press conference, the question was asked whether the “best line” has been whichever line Kyle Clifford has played on. It was a relevant question, and not one I expected to be asked at the start of the season. Clifford has been very good, and his underrated speed and nose for driving to the net has been rewarded by the most consistent offensive performance of his career. He is on pace for 28 points in 48 games, which would double his career high of 14 points, set in his 76-game 19-year old rookie season of 2010-11. It will be interesting to see if Clifford can sustain his goal scoring pace – prior to this year, his career shooting percentage was 7.6%, and through 12 games this season his shooting percentage is 16.7%. The most interesting stat? Throughout his career, he has averaged exactly one shot per game. He has appeared in 169 career games, taking 169 shots. This year, he has taken 12 shots in 12 games. Darryl Sutter has been advocating Clifford to shoot more, and if he does – considering he’s someone who attempts the majority of his shots from close range – he’s likely to see a spike in his goal output, even if his shooting percentage doesn’t appear to be sustainable. His second period goal last night was a terrific individual effort. He was rewarded for his pressure at the Kings’ blue line in forcing the puck away from Nikita Nikitin with his stick before driving into the offensive zone and placing his shot inside the far post with a crisp snapshot after opting to shoot. Good things will happen if he starts taking more shots.
-Judging by Darryl Sutter’s postgame comments, I’m banking on Jonathan Quick getting back between the pipes in Chicago on Sunday. “I said we were going to ride a hot goalie, but at the same time, our schedule’s got to demand that Jonathan and Jonathan both play well for us” to me is indicative that he wants Quick to get back into a rhythm and re-establish the level of play he demonstrated a season ago. It’s unwise to start planning goaltenders games in advance, but I’d expect Quick to start in Chicago, while he and Bernier split the two games in Alberta. If Quick does go in Chicago tomorrow, it will be a pivotal start. After two games off to practice and refocus, it will be a strong benefit for the team if he produces a standout goaltending performance to dismiss the rotation questions that have arisen over the last week. Should he struggle after a week without game action, questions of that rotation will continue.
-That being said, Bernier was good for the second consecutive game. He didn’t face a ton of action but was good when called upon, especially during a Grade-A scoring chance during a Blue Jackets power play in the second period when he denied Derek Brassard’s point blank one-timer. He has been very good since a rough outing in relief of Quick in Anaheim two weeks ago. Still, the biggest question is whether this goaltending balance will help Quick find his game again, because L.A.’s ceiling is obviously raised considerably when he is operating at a high level.
-It wasn’t the prettiest game on the eyes Friday night – and they’ll certainly need a stronger performance versus the conference-leading Blackhawks – but I’m not ready to really recalibrate any opinions based on an effort against Columbus. At Staples Center, the Blue Jackets and Kings seem for whatever reason to engage in low-scoring, low-chance affairs, and last night’s game appeared to fit the familiar script. Most importantly, L.A.’s puck possession game and ability to spend the plurality of its time in the offensive zone were highlighted in the win, and by limiting Columbus to 13 shots on goal, they lowered their shots against average to 23.9 per game, which ranks second in the league.
-A much stiffer test awaits at the United Center, where the Blackhawks average 3.36 goals per game and allow 1.86 for an average goal differential of +1.5, easily the best in the league. Red hot Chicago goaltender Corey Crawford remains day-to-day with an upper body injury; he didn’t skate Friday morning, nor did he dress in the Blackhawks’ 4-1 win over San Jose last night. If he is unable to go, count on Ray Emery (who is 4-0-0) starting against the Kings on Sunday afternoon. Chicago is yet to lose in regulation this season.