3/5 Preview – Kupari’s NHL debut & lineup projections, plus getting the PK back on track

WHO: Los Angeles Kings (9-8-4) vs. St. Louis Blues (13-8-2)
WHAT: NHL REGULAR SEASON GAME
WHEN: Friday, March 5 @ 6:00 PM Pacific
WHERE: STAPLES Center – Los Angeles, CA
HOW TO FOLLOW: VIDEO: Fox Sports West – AUDIO – iHeart Radio – TWITTER: @DooleyLAK

TONIGHT’S MATCHUP: The Kings continue their three-game homestand tonight against St. Louis.

HEAD-TO-HEAD: Kings forward Dustin Brown has four goals from four games against the Blues this season, to lead all players in the season series. At .38 goals-per-game against St. Louis, Brown has only scored at a higher rate against Edmonton in his NHL career. Forward Anze Kopitar also has four points (1-3-4) in the season series, while linemate Alex Iafallo has three (1-2-3). On the St. Louis side, forwards Ryan O’Reilly (1-3-4) and David Perron (1-3-4) have each collected four points from four games played.

KINGS VITALS: The Kings held an optional morning skate this morning in El Segundo, with everyone on the ice besides Andreas Athanasiou, Dustin Brown, Jeff Carter and Drew Doughty.

Yesterday’s practice gives us an indication that the Kings might make some lineup changes from the group they iced on Wednesday against Arizona. With the expectation that Rasmus Kupari could check in alongside Adrian Kempe and Trevor Moore, here’s a projection at how the Kings might line up at forward tonight, with listed defensive pairings the same as we saw versus the Coyotes.

Iafallo – Kopitar – Brown
Athanasiou – Vilardi – Carter
Kempe – Kupari – Moore
Grundstrom – Lizotte – Luff

Anderson – Doughty
Bjornfot – Roy
Maatta – Walker

Quick / Petersen

Both goaltenders have impressed so far this season against the Blues. Jonathan Quick posted a 31-save shutout last time out, and is 2-0-0 on the season, with a .952 save percentage and a 1.51 goals against average in head-to-head matchups. Cal Petersen was also impressive last time out, as he made 35 saves on 36 shots, in a 2-1 victory. On the season, Petersen is 1-1-0, with a .938 save percentage and a 2.03 goals against average.

With the Kings and Blues playing both tonight and tomorrow, expect for each goaltender to play one game.

BLUES VITALS: The Blues will go with backup goaltender Ville Husso tonight against the Kings. Jordan Binnington has seen the bulk of the starts to date – he ranks one game played shy of the NHL lead this season – but considering the back-to-back this weekend, you’d have to think we’ll see four goalies in total across the two games.

Husso has won each of his last three starts, is 4-2-0 this season and holds a .879 save percentage and a 3.82 goals against average. The Finnish netminder has started once this season against the Kings, as he took the loss with 29 saves on 34 shots in a 6-3 Kings victory on January 24 in St. Louis.

Here’s how St. Louis lined up in their most recent game, against Anaheim. Per Jim Thomas of the Post Dispatch, it looks like we’ll see the same lineup for St. Louis tonight as they used against the Ducks

Sanford – O’Reilly – Kyrou
Walker – Schenn – Perron
Blais – Sundqvist – Hoffman
Clifford – Joshua – MacEachern

Krug – Faulk
Dunn – Scandella
Mikkola – Bortuzzo

Binnington
Husso

Could we see the return of forward Vladimir Tarasenko tonight for the visitors? When I pre-wrote some of this preview yesterday, it felt like it might happen. This morning, however, Craig Berube said that Tarasenko will not make his season debut tonight against the Kings. The Blues have an internal date for Tarasenko’s return, though they are not sharing that publically.

Perhaps tomorrow will be the day -Berube indicated previously that he expected Tarasenko to return on their current road trip. St. Louis plays these two games against the Kings, and one final game against the Sharks, before heading home.

The Kupari Kickoff
Expect to see forward Rasmus Kupari in tonight’s Kings lineup.

“Rasmus is going to get his first NHL game tonight, we want him to play free, play hard, don’t worry about making mistakes,” Todd McLellan said this morning. “We’ll help him with those things, and enjoy it.”

Kupari has spent the bulk of the season to date in the AHL with the Ontario Reign, but earned his second recall to the taxi squad yesterday morning, when he skated on a line with Adrian Kempe and Trevor Moore.

It’s looking like Kupari will center that line between Kempe and Moore in his debut tonight. As McLellan said previously, the middle of a road trip, in the situation the Kings were in, wasn’t the right time. Now, at home, with a full practice and the team not in the middle of an extended winning streak, the time is right for his introduction to the lineup.

“The timing on the road was a little bit different too, because the team was winning games and we needed to continue to reward those players that were involved in it,” McLellan said this morning. “Here, we obviously haven’t won in a few games and a couple guys haven’t performed to the level that we expect from them, and probably what they expect of themselves.”

Kupari has produced at a pretty great level in the AHL so far this season. As crazy as it is to say that a 20-year-old forward can feel like a bit of a veteran, on a team consisting of so many players in their first foray into professional hockey, it has felt that way at times. His performance, and production, has been greatly improved in his second season in North America.

Kupari spoke with media this morning in large variety of topics, including his adjustments to the AHL from Year 1 to Year 2, his combination of speed and skill, adding more physicality to his game, friends and family tuning in tonight from Finland, and more!

The Killers
The penalty kill was an area of improvement for the Kings after Wednesday’s defeat. That evening’s opponent, Arizona, scored a pair of power-play goals, both of which came off of failed clearing attempts.

Heading into Wednesday, the Kings had not allowed a power-play goal against in four-straight games (11-for-11) and ranked fifth in the NHL with an 85.9% success rate in penalty killing to date. Through 20 games, the Kings had only “lost” the special teams battle in 2 of 20 games, meaning allowing more power-play goals than they scored. Wednesday, however, marked number three.

Over the last two days, the team watched video of the penalty kill, serving as a bit of a refresher course for what they’ll need to button up against the Blues.

“We watched some video on it, I think we all know what to do, we know our positions and our responsibilities,” defenseman Matt Roy said this morning. “We just kind of refreshed our memories and walked through it a little bit, so hopefully tonight we can be dialed in there.”

McLellan felt after the game that mistakes the Kings were making last season on the penalty kill showed up in their game against the Coyotes. On both goals allowed, Los Angeles had opportunities to clear the defensive zone, and neither instance resulted in a full 200-foot clear, which would have both allowed the Kings to relieve pressure and get fresh bodies on the ice. The results of not doing so were two goals against.

“We were certainly out of position on one of them, and just an individual mistake on another,” McLellan said. “It’s going to happen, from time to time. It’s hard to be elite and perfect on your penalty kill, there’s a lot of really good power plays in the league right now. We got stung for two and it cost us a game. I’d like to think that we can clean that up tonight.”

Kings and Blues, tonight in Downtown Los Angeles, an hour earlier than usual. Game Thread is coming up next!

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