2/18 Preview – Welcome to the Big Time, Brandt + Gav-Roy-kov Steering the Ship, New Kids on the Du(Bois)k

WHO: Los Angeles Kings (26-16-10) @ Pittsburgh Penguins (24-20-7)
WHEN: Sunday, February 18 @ 3:00 PM Pacific
WHERE: PPG Paints Arena – Pittsburgh, PA
HOW TO FOLLOW: VIDEO: Bally Sports West – AUDIO – iHeart Radio – TWITTER: @DooleyLAK & @LAKings

TONIGHT’S MATCHUP: The LA Kings go up against the Pittsburgh Penguins Sunday night in the final contest of a four-game road trip to the east coast. The matchup will complete the Kings’s regular season series versus the Penguins and the second outing in as many days for the Kings, which began with a 5-4 overtime win in Boston Saturday afternoon.

HEAD-TO-HEAD: Forward Adrian Kempe has had the hot hand against Pittsburgh, scoring five goals in his last two games against the Penguins dating back to Feb. 11, 2023, when he netted four in a 6-0 shutout win at Crypto.com Arena.

The Kings came up short in the only prior meeting of the season between the two teams in downtown LA on Nov. 9, falling 4-3 in overtime. In addition to Kempe, other Kings goal scorers that night included Carl Grundstrom and Kevin Fiala. The deciding goal in overtime came from Bryan Rust, who had an earlier tally taken off the board moments before the one that counted due to an offside ruling.

Anze Kopitar leads the team with 22 career points (8-14=22) from 24 games played against Pittsburgh, while Kevin Fiala has eight points in nine previous outings on three goals and five assists.

KINGS VITALS: With Sunday’s game being the second of a back-to-back, the Kings did not hold a morning skate. There has been limited time on the ice for the group during this week’s trip, and today marks the third straight game where the team has not done an early ice session. As has been the case for games in New Jersey and Boston, we’ll have to wait for warmups and see if there are any changes to the lineup.

Saturday’s formation did have an unexpected change, as Pierre-Luc Dubois skated with Quinton Byfield and Alex Laferriere, a combination that produced a successful outcome which we have more on below.

Line rushes from Wednesday’s win in New Jersey –

Fiala – Kopitar – Kempe
Moore – Danault – Arvidsson
Laferriere – Dubois – Byfield
Anderson-Dolan – Turcotte – Lewis

Anderson – Doughty
Gavrikov – Roy
Englund – Clarke

Rittich / Talbot

While it’s unknown who the team will turn to in between the pipes this afternoon, the options include David Rittich, who earned a win in Boston yesterday and improved to 8-2-3 on the season, or Cam Talbot, who has not started a game since the Kings were in Colorado on Jan. 26. Rittich has earned the nod in six consecutive games, with Talbot’s last action coming in a brief relief appearance during a lopsided game in Buffalo on Tuesday. In four prior contests against the Penguins, Rittich has a 2.77 goals-against average and a 0.906 save percentage.

PENGUINS VITALS: Pittsburgh is coming off a 4-1 win over Chicago on Thursday but are 2-3-0 in their last five and are clinging to their playoff hopes, as they sit seven points back of Detroit for the final wild card spot in the Eastern Conference with 31 games remaining. Sunday’s game opens up a crucial four-game homestand with upcoming games against the Islanders, Canadiens and Flyers. The Penguins have fared well against the Pacific Division this season however, posting a 6-2-1 record from nine contests.

Per Penguins beat reporter Seth Rorabaugh, here’s how Pittsburgh lined up during their practice on Saturday –

Forward Jansen Harkins, who was rotating in on the team’s fourth line, will be a game-time decision for Sunday’s contest. According to Rorabaugh, he is currently designated to injured reserve due to a concussion and has missed the past two games.

Sidney Crosby, who leads the team in scoring with 54 points in 51 games, reached the 30-goal mark for the 12th time in his career Thursday by scoring twice in the team’s win over the Blackhawks. Forward Jake Guentzel, who is the only other Penguins skater over the 50-point plateau (52), was recently injured and is expected to miss the next four weeks with an upper-body injury. Two of Pittsburgh’s other superstars, Evgeni Malkin and Erik Karlsson, have totaled 41 and 37 points, respectively.

Notes –
Welcome to the big time, Brandt
Defenseman Brandt Clarke scored his first career goal in overtime on Saturday in Boston to give the Kings an emotional, come-from-behind 5-4 win over the Bruins.

Since he was selected eighth overall by the Kings two and a half years ago, we’ve seen that the young blueliner has a flair for the dramatic, showcasing himself best when he’s on the big stage. In addition to his eye-popping numbers in the OHL, Clarke has had success at the World Junior Championships where he helped Canada to a Gold Medal by assisting on an overtime-winning goal, he’s pulled off multiple highlight-reel moves to set up offense in the AHL with the Ontario Reign and recently starred at the league’s All-Star Classic with a rare 4-for-4 performance in the Accuracy Shooting event before helping the Pacific Division to a win in the 3-on-3 tournament.

Saturday’s game was an emotional, physical affair that had a playoff-type energy. The Kings controlled the run of play in the first period but fell behind and had to come back three different times before forcing extra time when Kopitar scored with less than two minutes left and an empty net at the other end of the ice.

With the game on his stick after he exited the penalty box in overtime, Clarke didn’t just try to shoot the puck past last year’s Vezina trophy winner, Linus Ullmark. He went for a deke that included some quick stickhandling and moved around the goaltender before shoving it past his left pad.

“I don’t know, this all happened really fast,” Clarke said after the game of his decision to go with the move he did. “I saw he was out, so I didn’t think shot was the best option there. I kind of wanted to get far, so I just tried to make one move to my backhand, try to get him to bite and luckily he did. I had the far side open so I just went back over there.”

When discussing the winning play postgame, Kings interim head coach Jim Hiller also made mention of the confidence his young defender had to make that move in the moment and make good on his chance.

“It just happens like that sometimes. You come out of the box, the puck comes out at the right time. You still have to finish that. That to me was the most impressive part of it. You’re coming down, you’re a young guy, you’re on the breakaway in Boston Garden. You got to finish it and he sure did that.”

It wasn’t just the head coach that Clarke impressed. A few of his teammates also commented on what they thought of the play:

Vladislav Gavrikov- “Huge. Overtime game-winner for his first NHL goal? I mean, that’s very special I would say. So happy for him. He has been good for us, and I hope he’ll make that huge step forward and we’re confident in that.”

Alex Laferriere- “I was so happy for him. He’s been through a lot and just works so hard. I think I jumped over the bench higher than I’ve ever jumped before.”

Gav-Roy-kov Steering the Ship
When Clarke scored his game-winner in overtime, it marked the 19th time in Kings franchise history that three different defensemen scored a goal in the same game.

The other two tallies were the team’s first two of the night by the defensive pair of Gavrikov and Matt Roy, who kept the Kings in the game after they fell behind on the scoreboard. Neither is particularly known for their scoring, Roy’s goal was his third of the year, while Gavrikov netted his fourth, but both are perfectly capable of making plays in the offensive zone and getting the puck to the net.

Each had career-highs in goal scoring last season, with Roy posting nine tallies while appearing in all of the Kings’ 82 games, while Gavrikov scored three with Columbus and added three more after he was traded to Los Angeles before the league’s March deadline when he posted a plus-12 rating in just 20 games.

Both are averaging over 20 minutes of ice time per game and continue to be a very reliable pairing for the team whenever they’re needed.

Hiller didn’t want to single out anyone in particular after Saturday’s contest, but he did mention that he appreciated the offense from players who first and foremost take care of their own end.

“Those guys, they haven’t scored a lot as a group they’re a defending group which we appreciate,” Hiller said. “But anytime anybody chips in, you take it.”

The pair were a big part of the Kings’ bounce-back win in New Jersey on Thursday, helping to stabilize the group with a shut-down defensive effort. They out-chanced the Devils 48-34 at even-strength in the game, with both Gavrikov and Roy logging 22 minutes apiece.

“We know how we’re going to play and sometimes it’s going sideways,” Gavrikov said Saturday when describing the recent lopsided loss to Buffalo. “You always got to find a way every single night as it’s a game for two points and we have to go and earn it, every single one. Nothing changes for us. You can fall down a little bit and just got to go and make it two strides forward.”

That’s exactly what happened against Boston during a back-and-forth energy-filled outing which had the group taking steps forward in some moments, while on their heels in others. But at the end of the day, the Kings also controlled the majority of the opportunities, out-chancing the Bruins 54-45 at even-strength. The defenders were both over a 57% CF rating in about 17 minutes of 5-on-5 ice time. They also weren’t always on the ice together, as the coaching staff elected to mix and match their pairings depending on game flow and situation.

After the game, Gavrikov mentioned he’s comfortable with any of the partner’s that he’s assigned.

“I mean, I feel comfortable with any of our D so we can rotate, it’s our strength and we can use everyone in a different situation. I think it’s helped us a lot too.”

The Kings are hoping their defensive versatility and consistency will continue to be a strength of theirs as they reach the stretch run and compete for a playoff spot over the next two months.

New Kids on the Du(Bois)k
The Kings debuted a new look in their lineup yesterday in Boston, placing Quinton Byfield in a combination alongside Pierre-Luc Dubois and Alex Laferriere.

The latter two of the three have gotten familiar with each other, playing together for most of the season, but Byfield added a new component to the trio.

It yielded immediate offense for LA, with the line producing two even-strength goals. First, the group established offensive zone time in the second period and Dubois found help from an open Clarke on the right point, who got the puck and quickly dished it to Gavrikov on his left for a shot that got deflected past Ullmark. Then, early on in the third, Byfield and Laferriere crashed the net and the puck bounced off of Laferriere past the goal line for the seventh goal of his rookie campaign.

Early positive results suggested that Hiller might keep them together, at least in the short term, but he would not commit to anything after the game.

“I like the line,” Hiller said. “There’s a lot of speed on the line and there’s a lot of size and length with [Dubois] and [Byfield], that’s a handful. So we’ll see, we’ve changed the lines quite a few times already since I’ve been here. We’ll see where things go. We’re experimenting a little bit but that line, that was good.”

Laferriere also remarked on the effort that Byfield puts in as the thing that stood out most to him about the new grouping.

“He works so hard and creates offense. Whether it’s getting pucks back on the forecheck or just in transition, he’s a really special player and that showed tonight and he’s a great addition to the line.”

As for the way Hiller has continued to shake up the combinations up front, Laferriere, who already had familiarity with his coaching style as an assistant, mentioned he hasn’t had a hard time getting used to the way the bench is being run.

“It’s awesome,” said the first-year attacker who was familiar with the TD Garden ice, having played there multiple times during his collegiate years at Harvard. “Anytime you have a coach like that, it’s pretty easy to play for him. He’s very energetic on the bench and wants the best out of his players. He knows when guys are going and to get them on the ice so I think that helped a lot.”

We’ll have to wait and see whether Hiller will make any additional changes to his team’s formation for today’s game in Pittsburgh, but he surely isn’t shy about trying new options when he thinks it’s warranted.

The Kings and Penguins will get underway in this week’s road trip finale at 3 p.m. Pacific time!

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