In a enormously important game for their postseason chances, the Los Angeles Kings will turn to a familiar face in net against a familiar opponent they’ve faced 28 times, including playoffs, dating back to their 2011-12 home opener.
There are some less familiar faces on their side of the rivalry, though. Take, for instance, Jarome Iginla, whose 1,540th career game will be his first introduction to the tight checking and physical play associated with the Los Angeles-St. Louis rivalry. He should feel right at home.
“Yeah, it’s cool, huh?” Jake Muzzin said with a smile on his face. “Sometimes I look over, I’m like, ‘It’s Jarome!’ Obviously we all know leadership, experience, veteran player, presence, shot. Everything he brings to the table is there and it’s nice having it on this team, for sure.”
There is no margin for error at this point of the season as Los Angeles (72 points / 15 games remaining) sits below the playoff cutoff and looks up at the standings at St. Louis (75 points / 15 remaining), Nashville (78 points / 14 remaining), Edmonton (79 points / 14 remaining), Calgary (80 points / 14 remaining) and Anaheim (82 points / 13 remaining). Eight of the Kings’ 15 remaining games will pit them against one of the teams above, but all focus at this point is on the team directly in front of them, both in the standings and on the schedule.
“Well, it’s a must win game,” said Muzzin, who has adhered similar declarations to particularly important games in the past. “We all know where we are and who we’re trying to catch and they’re ahead of us, so points-wise it’s a huge game. You know, every game for us coming down the stretch here is important, and we’re looking to get points in every one of them.”
They’ve done a good job of that over the last six seasons. Los Angeles hasn’t lost at home in regulation to St. Louis since 2010-11 and has won 20 of the last 28 overall in the series, including those from playoff series wins in 2012 and 2013.
That matters little for a pair of teams that retain tighter checking and defensively capable characteristics but have recently become more mobile since their most recent heavy-handed playoff series in 2013.
“I think our structure and the way we play, they play a similar game, so I guess we just know how to defend really well,” Dustin Brown said. “And if you look at, like tonight, they’ve got Tarasenko. You know who you’ve got to check and be aware of on the ice. They have a lot of really good skilled forwards and good puck-moving defenseman.”¬Speaking of Vladimir Tarasenko, he is tied for third in the league with 32 goals but has been limited to one assist through the first two games of this year’s season series, in which each team has won in regulation on home ice. He’s been held out of the goal column for six straight head-to-head match-ups since erupting for three goals in a come-from-behind victory on December 16, 2014.
“Obviously a few years ago when we played them in the playoffs it was one of our biggest rivalries every game against them,” Trevor Lewis said. “Yeah, they’ve got a little more skill now, but we’ve got to be aware of that and I think it’s good. It’s a big test for us tonight.”
After a 5-1 Kings win in the teams’ last meeting, which took place during the team’s previous seven-game home stand, Los Angeles will get its first look of St. Louis as coached by Mike Yeo, who assumed the coaching reins after the team parted ways with Ken Hitchcock on February 1.
Yeo: "(LA) is putting plenty of importance and emphasis on this game, so I think if we want to have a good chance to win, we better, too."
— St. Louis Blues (@StLouisBlues) March 13, 2017
The Blues’ goaltending has solidified since the most recent match-up, with Jake Allen, who was pulled in the game on January 12, entering tonight’s game with a 1.85 goals-against average and .941 save percentage over his last six outings. With his steadied play, St. Louis’ team save percentage has risen from 30th to 25th in the NHL over the past two months.
In order to place pressure on Allen and a St. Louis defense that will be with Colton Parayko, who did not play on Saturday, but without Kevin Shattenkirk, who was traded to Washington at the deadline, the Kings will look to exit their zone quickly and play to a disproportionate degree in the attacking end.
“They’re a big, physical team and they gain a lot out of having a good forecheck, so the key for us is to be quick,” Muzzin said. “Hold-ups, executing our retrievals and getting low smooth and fast, eliminating zone time – that’ll be a focus for us tonight, for sure.”
Also a focus will be trying to accentuate their five-on-five scoring. Los Angeles received two even strength goals in their win over Washington on Saturday and now has three goals at even strength – as well as nine on the power play and one while shorthanded – over the last five games.
Very rarely do broadcasters get to say, “He shoots…he scores!” in a modern game that features more “greasy” goals off rebounds, tips and redirections than actual shots off the rush. The Kings understand that there aren’t style points awarded for how goals go in.
“At this stage? No,” Muzzin said. “We’ll take off the butt and in, highlight reel, whatever we can take, we’re going to take.”
Tom Timmerman / St. Louis Post-Dispatch: Blues get Stastny, Parayko back for key showdown with Kings