INSIDERS. A game night at Staples Center awaits (7:30 p.m. / FOX Sports West / FOX Sports app / LA Kings Audio Network). Let’s get down to brass tacks. Today’s skate was an optional, though based on Kurtis MacDermid and Paul LaDue remaining on for extra work, lineup sleuths can deduct the following alignment:
–The vitals: Jonathan Quick left the ice first and is projected to start in goal. He’s 6-2-0 in his career against Montreal with two shutouts, a 1.74 goals-against average and a .937 save percentage. The .937 Sv% is his second highest against any NHL team, trailing only Philadelphia (.946). Alec Martinez (upper-body) is expected to return to the lineup for the first time since suffering an upper-body injury late in overtime during the shootout loss to Vancouver on Valentine’s Day. With two goals, six points and a plus-six rating in 11 career games against the Canadiens, he’s among the group that has forged success in head-to-head match-ups. That group also includes Adrian Kempe, who has five goals, seven points and a plus-eight rating in just three games against a team that seriously kicked the tires on him in 2014. He should be good for another two goals and five points tonight, right? “I hope so. I had some good nights against them,” he said.
“Some of the Eastern teams, they like to play with a little bit more speed, maybe. They like the rush game a little bit more, so that’s going to open up more chances for us as well. I think against some of those teams I can take advantage a lot. I just get a little bit more scoring chances than usual. Maybe Montreal is one of those teams. They’ve got good speed up front. The way some teams play, it’s going to open up more chances for you.”
He might be onto something. In 66 career games against Eastern Conference competition, he has 19 goals and 33 points. In 104 games against the West, he has nine goals and 33 points.
Kempe is “starting to play some of his best hockey” this season, per Willie Desjardins, but his success in the series sounded to be in spite of the type of looks the Canadiens afford their opponents.
“They do have good structure. Julien’s a good coach. His teams always had good structure in Boston, too. They protect the mid-ice. They’ll give you stuff outside, but they won’t give you a lot in mid-ice. We’ll have to work hard for that area to get shots out of there.”
Los Angeles’ recent success in this series isn’t limited to just individuals like Quick, Martinez and Kempe. Though the Kings have won only 35 of the 156 all-time meetings, they’re 8-2-1 in their last 11.
–Austin Wagner (lower-body) didn’t skate today. He’s deemed to be “day-to-day,” but I’m not expecting him to return to game action during this home stand. Let’s talk Wagner in a few days.
–Their vitals: Carey Price is expected to draw the start and is 6-3-0 in his career against Los Angeles with a 2.71 goals-against average and a .911 save percentage. There had been a bug going through the Montreal room, and Price was held off the ice for practice yesterday as he recovered, but Julien didn’t seem particularly concerned by the health of his team. That also refers to injuries; the Canadiens don’t have a player currently on injured reserve.
There will be one noteworthy change to their lineup, however:
Carey Price is starting and…Jesperi Kotkaniemi is sitting tonight. Claude Julien says signs of fatigue have crept into his game and he wants to give him a chance to rest a bit. Notes he has played more games this year than anyone else.
— Аrpon Basu (@ArponBasu) March 5, 2019
Jordan Weal will get some power play time tonight in his Montreal debut, an illustration that Julien isn’t afraid to put his newest forward into situations that align with his playmaking skill set.
“Not when you’ve played on the power play before on other teams, so it’s not like all of a sudden this is a new thing. So, he’s just going to blend in here,” Julien said. “Again, this is a guy that not too many people know a lot about, but he’s a skilled player, and when you watch him in practice, the way he moves the puck and his decision-making, he’s a guy that can play on the power play.”
Along with Nate Thompson (0 G, 1 A, 13:25 TOI/GP in 10 GP w/ MTL), Christian Folin (0 G, 2 A, 16:36 TOI/GP in 3 GP w/ MTL) and Nic Deslauriers (2 G, 1 A, 9:55 TOI/GP in 45 GP), Weal is one of four players to have played for the Kings or been recalled as a Black Ace on the Canadiens’ roster.
Sporting a +25 goal differential in 5-on-5 play and a 54.0% raw CF% that ranks fourth in the league, Montreal has played with good structure under Julien.
“Our pace of our game, our quick transition and our attack has been really good,” Julien said. “It’s kind of been our saving grace. When you look, our special teams haven’t been as successful, so right now that’s allowed us to be where we are.”
–It was a special moment early this season when Jaret Anderson-Dolan recorded his first career NHL point, an assist, at the Bell Centre in front of a mother, Fran, a life-long Canadiens fan who dashed across the country to be able to make it in time for her son’s game.
Tonight, Matt Luff will experience something similar. He’ll play against the team he grew up following, and though his parents – also Canadiens fans and native Montrealers, per Luff – won’t be in attendance, it’ll still be a career benchmark and a special moment for the 21-year-old first year player who has seven goals and 10 points in 31 games.
Luff, from Oakville, Ont., isn’t fluent in French. “I’m the only one in my family that’s not,” he said. Required to study a foreign language in ninth and 10th grade, he hasn’t yet returned to pick up where he’d left off. “I know ‘hi,’ and ‘how are you?’ That’s where I hit my limit,” he said. Both of his parents are English speakers.
But Luff recalled attending playoff games in Montreal before embarking in his junior career, which was spent with OHL-Belleville, and then Hamilton after the team’s relocation following his 17-year-old season.
The Canadiens’ 1993 Stanley Cup triumph over the Kings took place four years before he was born, but Luff still experienced a playoff spring in Montreal when taking in a game against Boston during the teams’ particularly fiery playoff series in 2014. “You had PK and Brad Marchand going at it. I think that was my favorite one I’ve been to. I’ve been to a lot of Toronto-Montreal [games].”
It was worth checking in with Desjardins to get a sense of how Luff has grown since his mid-November assignment to Ontario that had been made alongside the reference that they wanted him to build his work ethic. (His second assignment to Ontario was made following an inconsistent stretch in which he was on the ice for wide discrepancy in scoring chances against, but with seven goals in his limited time overall, his intriguing mix of skill and speed has been unearthed at the highest level.)
“I think it always goes with confidence with young guys,” Desjardins said. “When he came back, he was working hard, he was getting rewarded, so it was easy. You get confidence and then the game’s easier for you. It didn’t go so good, he lost a little confidence and ended up going back down. But he’s back and I think he’s skating well again. I liked what I saw from him. He’s a guy that I think can step in, and I think he can step in and play well, so I’m looking forward to seeing him tonight.”
–I rarely advocate for particular lines and pairings when they’re not playing together – and no, sorry, I don’t share all your lineup recommendations with the coaching staff – but I’ve always been interested in seeing an extended run in which Tyler Toffoli plays to the right of Anze Kopitar. That happens infrequently, with Toffoli primarily skating to the right of Jeff Carter and Dustin Brown, who is equipped to play both wings, often playing to Kopitar’s right. Tonight, Brown, Kopitar and Toffoli will line up from left to right for the third consecutive game.
“It seems we get about 10 to 15 games together during the season,” Kopitar said. “Last year we saw some time with each other, but it always kind of fell back into place where he plays with Carts and I play with Brownie and whoever slides into the other slot with both lines, it’s there. Rarely it’s me, Brownie and Ty, but I think we’ve been playing well, we’ve been creating, we had some chances, and ultimately we got on the board a few times.”
In the past, Toffoli has fared well when skating with Kopitar. Milan Lucic was a massive influence, figuratively and literally, but in 2015-16, the Kings compiled a 59.0% Corsi-for percentage, a 59.2% Scoring chance-for percentage and 18 goals for with only eight against in the 271 minutes Toffoli and Kopitar played together that season. Individually, Toffoli scored 1.55 goals for every 60 minutes he spent on the ice with Kopitar that season with an extremely high on-ice 3.99 GF/60.
Keeping the puck out of their net has been a challenge in the 537 minutes they’ve spent alongside each other since then, a span in which they’ve been on the ice for fewer than 50% of five-on-five goals-for but were able to maintain strong possession numbers that drop when they’ve been split up. The team’s raised 2.9 GA/60 when they’ve skated together over that span is influenced in large part by a depressed PDO of .976.
It’s not easy or necessarily accurate to amalgamate possession statistics and goal rates across multiple seasons with different personnel an evolved focus from the team’s more physical, possession-heavy days, but Brown, like Lucic, is a power forward that one would think could serve in a similar role and potentially spur his linemates’ success.
“He’ll be the first one to tell you that he’s going to create space for us, and it’s up to us to just make plays and get him involved as much as we can,” Kopitar said.
Whether this grouping can find success together and remain together for any useful period of time will be among the subplots for the coming week. Even if the group is broken up, it’s going to be interesting to see if playing with a playmaking, left-handed center and opposite a heavier winger could spur additional production into the 26-year-old Toffoli, who has been the best player on the team at generating scoring chances at even strength but has found it a great deal more difficult to bury the puck. In 65 games – Toffoli will play in his 177th straight game tonight – the right wing has 12 goals and just 28 points. He scored a career-high 31 during his season with Lucic, and, occasionally, Kopitar in 2015-16.
“Two reasons [why Toffoli isn’t often used with Kopitar],” Desjardins said. “One, you’re on with Carter. I think they’ve played well together, so that’s a natural place to keep him. I think the other is Brown. Brown and Kopitar have played well together, and both Brown and Toffoli mainly play right side, so you’ve only got one spot for one of them there. So, what we ended up doing was moving Brown to the left side so both of them could stay with Kopi. … And he’s played some left side in the past, so he’s a guy that you can move over there. It’ll take him a little while to adjust, but he was pretty good last game.”
–Tonight’s officials are referees Gord Dwyer and Dean Morton. Linesmen are Steve Miller and Ryan Galloway. Malia Civetz will sing the O, Canada before Pia Toscano will handle The Star Spangled Banner. More to come, Insiders. Let’s talk soon.
— Jen (@NHLhistorygirl) March 5, 2019
–Lead photo via Juan Ocampo/NHLI