4/7 Preview – Lemieux In, Vilardi Out, playing to your identity, Lemieux’s first interview, odds & ends

WHO: Los Angeles Kings (14-17-6) vs. Arizona Coyotes (19-15-5)
WHAT: NHL REGULAR SEASON GAME
WHEN: Wednesday, April 7 @ 7:00 PM Pacific
WHERE: STAPLES Center – Los Angeles, CA
HOW TO FOLLOW: VIDEO: Bally Sports West – AUDIO – iHeart Radio – TWITTER: @DooleyLAK

TONIGHT’S MATCHUP: The Kings and Coyotes conclude their two-game series this evening at STAPLES Center, following Arizona’s 4-2 victory on Monday.

HEAD-TO-HEAD: Defenseman Drew Doughty (2-3-5) and forward Anze Kopitar (0-5-5) each collected a point on Monday, and continue to lead the Kings so far this season with five points apiece from four games played against Arizona. Doughty’s goal on Monday was his 12th all-time versus Arizona, tied for his most against any opponent, while his 39 points are more than he’s amassed against any other NHL team. On the Arizona front, with two primary assists on Monday, forward Conor Garland now has four points (1-3-4) against the Kings this season, while defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson collected his fourth assist from four games versus LA.

KINGS VITALS: The Kings returned to the ice this morning at Toyota Sports Performance Center for an optional morning skate.

Yesterday’s practice gave the impression that forward Gabriel Vilardi might be out of the lineup for the first time this season, which Todd McLellan confirmed would be the case this morning, with Brendan Lemieux checking in for his Kings debut.

On Monday, the Kings ended the game in the following configuration –

Iafallo – Kopitar – Brown
Grundstrom – JAD – Moore
Athanasiou – Lizotte – Carter
Kempe – Vilardi – Wagner

With Lemieux in for Vilardi, it could be as simple as Kempe sliding into the middle and Lemieux entering on the left. More to come on Lemieux below, but in terms of Vilardi, McLellan feels that the scratch tonight could be a good opportunity for him to reset moving forward.

“For Gabe, I think it’s a great opportunity for him to reset things right now,” McLellan said. “Sometimes, you realize things are a little bit different when you’re up above, where it looks a little bit slower. We’re asking a ton, putting a ton of pressure on this young man. He’s 21 and we’re playing him in the two-hole, we’re asking him to run a power play. His point production, not necessarily his play, created huge expectations…He hasn’t played that many games yet and his development curve is just fine. Like anybody, he needs work on his game, and we’ll continue to work with him, but he’s a great kid, he’s willing to learn and we still think that we have a really good player there.”

On the backend, no changes are expected in terms of personnel from what we saw on Monday. Olli Maatta skated for the third consecutive day, in a non-contact jersey, while Tobias Bjornfot remains “day-to-day”, and Matt Roy remains on the COVID-19 Protocol list. All three regulars on the blueline remain out of the lineup at this time, though McLellan indicated that Maatta may join the Kings on the trip to San Jose this weekend, and therefore is likely the closest to returning.

In terms of tonight’s goaltender, the rotation would point to Jonathan Quick getting the nod, after Cal Petersen took the loss on Monday. If he plays tonight, Quick would be in line to make his 45th career appearance versus Arizona, which would tie his personal high against any opponent. Quick is 20-20-4 lifetime, with a .905 save percentage and a 2.49 goals against average.

Regardless of tonight’s personnel, the team needs to play to its identity. McLellan and Drew Doughty used words such as intensity, compete, desperation as things that were lacking on Monday. McLellan did his best to define those qualities this morning, and wound up talking about the team’s identity, and how the team needs to find a way to play to it.

“Those words are tossed around like they’re common, and they’re almost used so much by players, coaches, media members that they don’t have any meaning, they’re just empty,” he explained. “We have to redefine what that is, and each individual might have a different recipe when it comes to those words. You have an identity and a reputation as an individual, play towards that. Use your strengths, you’re here for a reason, and then collectively, we should have an identity that also we should be playing towards.”

COYOTES VITALS: After a back-to-back on Sunday/Monday, the Coyotes did not practice yesterday and returned to the ice for morning skate today at STAPLES Center. Rick Tocchet announced that goaltender Adin Hill will make his eighth straight start between the pipes, bringing with him a 6-1-0 record, a .917 SV% and a 2.29 GAA in that span.

Tocchet also noted that forward Lane Pederson is expected to check in for Drake Caggiula, Jordan Oesterle is expected to enter on defense for Jordan Gross, and the team may make one additional change that was not mentioned, all per Alex Kinkopf of the team’s website.

Here’s how the Coyotes lined up on Sunday in Anahem, with Pederson in and Caggiula out –

Fischer – Larsson – Kessel
Keller – Dvorak – Pederson
Crouse – Brassard – Hayden
Bunting – Schmaltz – Garland

Brendan Lemieux
The newly acquired Brendan Lemieux is expected to make his LA Kings debut this evening at STAPLES Center. The Kings traded for Lemieux on March 27, in exchange for a fourth-round draft pick.

The energetic forward has now had a couple of skates under his belt, and one set of warmups, on Monday evening. Now he’s ready to go.

“I think it’s just imposing my game, just playing my game,” Lemieux said. “I don’t need to try to do too much, I’ve played in this league long enough to know what I need to do to have success and I’m here for a reason and that’s to play my game. They don’t expect anything different from me.”

In a normal season, we likely would have seen Lemieux in game action much sooner than tonight, but due to quarantine protocols around the league, Lemieux was forced out of action for around a week, which delayed his arrival to the team.

With that quarantine time behind him, Lemieux is aiming to bring his game to the Kings. Energy, agitation and as McLellan described it yesterday, the “game within the game.”

No player in the NHL draws penalties at the rate Lemieux does this season. At 3.22 penalties drawn per 60 minutes, with just three players around the league with more than 30 games played this season within even one of that mark. It’s an impressive statistic, which could give the Kings opportunities on the power play.

For Lemieux, it’s not the end result necessarily, but his mentality, and the way that he plays, that he takes pride in.

“It’s more just playing in hard areas and forcing them to make mistakes, and in that you do draw penalties and that is a key piece of my game,” he said. “Putting our team on the power play is important, I definitely try to put myself in a position to make it hard on them, make them pull me, push me, take shots. That’s been a part of my game since before I can remember.”

As he approaches his first game, McLellan is not looking for anything from his newest forward, other than what he does best.

Yesterday, the Kings’ Head Coach called Lemieux a powerful skater, among other things, and recognized his physical play and agitation abilities. Hear from Lemieux in his first media availability with the Kings below.

Odds & Ends
– The Kings placed forward Martin Frk on waivers this morning, per TSN’s Pierre LeBrun. We’ll learn more on Frk’s fate tomorrow morning at 9 AM Pacific time, when we find out if he cleared or not. Frk has played in just one game this season, and part of one game at that, due to a groin injury.
– Defenseman Sean Durzi has taken warmups in each of the last two Kings games, in between playing with the AHL’s Ontario Reign yesterday and Sunday. When asked about Durzi, McLellan focused more on the two players in front of him on the depth chart – Kale Clague and Austin Strand – who are both currently in an evaluation mode for the team. McLellan left the door open for Durzi getting a game at some point, as well as Christian Wolanin, who made his organizational debut yesterday with the Reign.
– Speaking of Wolanin, he cleared protocol himself prior to yesterday’s Reign game against Bakersfield, a 5-4 overtime defeat. He collected an assist, and by McLellan’s account “played well” in that game. Forward Matt Luff scored twice, Markus Phillips scored his first career professionl goal and Quinton Byfield also scored. Byfield has seven points (3-4-7) and a +9 rating in his last six games.

Kings and Coyotes, coming up tonight at 7 PM.

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