4/4 Preview – Danault Out, “Very Likely” Rittich in Net + Power-Play Making Progress, Playoff Race Heats Up

WHO: Los Angeles Kings (39-25-11) @ San Jose Sharks (17-49-8)
WHEN: Thursday, April 4 @ 7:30 PM Pacific
WHERE: SAP Center – San Jose, CA
HOW TO FOLLOW: VIDEO: Bally Sports West – AUDIO – iHeart Radio – TWITTER: @DooleyLAK & @LAKings

TONIGHT’S MATCHUP: The Kings complete their final back-to-back of the season, as they visit San Jose to conclude the season series with the Sharks.

HEAD-TO-HEAD: Forward Kevin Fiala leads the Kings this season with five points (1-4-5) from three games played against the Sharks to date. Three Kings forwards – Adrian Kempe, Trevor Lewis and Trevor Moore – have two goals from the first three games played against San Jose.

KINGS VITALS: The Kings did not hold a morning skate today, considering the back-to-back games.

Look for goaltender David Rittich to get the nod tonight against the Sharks, after Cam Talbot picked up the win yesterday against Seattle. Rittich has played in each of the three games versus San Jose this season, with a record of 2-0-1, and he carries a lifetime mark of 4-3-3 versus the Sharks, with a .898 save percentage and a 2.80 goals-against average.

For reference, here’s how the Kings lined up last time out –

Byfield – Kopitar – Kempe
Moore – Dubois – Arvidsson
Fiala – Lizotte – Lewis
Kaliyev – Lewis

Anderson – Doughty
Gavrikov – Roy
Englund – Spence

Rittich / Talbot

For today, Head Coach Jim Hiller confirmed that forward Phillip Danault did not travel with the team to San Jose, as he looks set to miss his fourth consecutive game. Not expecting forward Carl Grundstrom to play either, as he has not been activated from LTIR, which leaves the Kings with a decision to make between an 11F / 7D alignment and a 12F / 6D look, with forward Akil Thomas ready and available should the team look to make a roster adjustment.

SHARKS VITALS: San Jose has won just twice from its last 21 games played, but did pick up a big 4-0 victory over St. Louis on Saturday, which snapped a nine-game skid and benefitted the Kings in the Western Conference playoff picture.

Goaltender Mackenzie Blackwood has made four consecutive starts entering tonight’s action and is expected to get the nod once again between the pipes here this evening. Blackwood has a career record of 2-0-2 versus the Kings, with a .950 save percentage and a 1.74 goals-against average.

Per Curtis Pashelka of Bay Area News Group, here’s how the Sharks lined up on Monday against Seattle –

Despite a difficult stretch for the team, forward Mikael Granlund had a strong month of March with 15 points (5-10-15) from 15 games played. No team in the NHL has conceded more goals this season than San Jose (298). Defenseman Marc-Edouard Vlasic is set to play his 85th career game against the Kings tonight, the third most among active players (Ryan Suter, Brent Burns).

Notes –
Power-Play Progress

In advance of Thursday’s game versus Calgary, Jim Hiller was asked about a power-play unit that had not caught a ton of fire as of late.

He pointed specifically to one area – controlled zone entries – as an area he wanted to see more from.

“Our entries haven’t been great over the last few games……once you get in the zone and you get the puck, the players are skilled and they know what they needed to do, they can usually execute pretty well,” he said. “We’re not getting in clean and that can lead to frustration.”

That night, the Kings scored twice on the man advantage. The first goal came just eight seconds into the team’s first power play and no zone entry was required. The second required the team to execute in that area and they did, one positive from an overall performance the Kings have lamented as a group.

Fast forward to last night, after the team didn’t get a single power play opportunity in Winnipeg, and the Kings struck again, with Adrian Kempe’s power-play goal in the first period breaking an early deadlock.

While the inconsistency has been apparent, so has recent success. Kempe’s goal yesterday was particularly noteworthy, because of how much it differed from his power-play goal in Calgary.

The goal against the Flames was a patented Kempe one-timer. Right-hand circle, in the wheelhouse, hammered it home. When the Kings power play was at its most effective last season, though, it came when the pieces were moving around, almost interchangeable. Then came last night’s goal.

Viktor Arvidsson was on the right side of the net, with Kevin Fiala up high on the right and Kempe positioned in the slot. The three combined on a nice goal, with Arvidsson looking off the pass through the crease with his eyes and finding Kempe in the slot instead. The proof was in the pudding on the finish.

“I’m just trying to read off of what the guys are doing,” Arvidsson said. “It’s just a matter of reading. We’re in spaces, you see Juice is in a position in the middle and we ready off each other well.”

Everything is more dangerous when it’s fluid. Fiala top right, Kempe in the slot, Arvidsson on the other side of the goal line presented a different look at the Kings cashed in. Good stuff. The power play was such a positive last season for the Kings, finishing the season as one of the league’s top-five units, continued with seven goals from six playoff games. This season, overall production has fallen from 25.3% to 22.5%, with the team ranking 12th in the NHL with seven games remaining in the regular season.

When it’s on, it’s a contributing factor and a relief. If you can count on a power-play goal, it takes a ton of pressure of the team at 5-on-5. Jim Hiller was hopeful to have even found another goal last night, but he’ll take the progress as of late.

“It was a great execution, really nice goal, we came close a couple other times, but when the power play’s not scoring, it makes a big difference, it puts a lot of pressure on 5-on-5,” Hiller said. “So, to get one, two really if we can get that hot again, it eases the pressure a little bit in support of scoring goals.”

The re-addition of Arvidsson helps to set that unit in place a bit.

Arvidsson is a key member of the PP, playing that role down low that Hiller ideally has pegged for a right-shot forward. In the 11 games that Arvidsson has played this season, the Kings have scored nine power-play goals on 29 attempts, good for just over a 31-percent conversion rate. It’s not just about one guy, and both units have contributed. But, the Kings do seem to be finding another level on the man advantage and it couldn’t be coming at a better point in the season.

“I haven’t been on it so much, but I’m trying to find my old rhythm back and I think I’m there now,” Arvidsson added. “We’re trying to take responsibility of the puck, try to be open. We have creative players that make great plays and I think we are getting in the groove and finding some good plays.”

The Obligatory Playoff Scenarios
Tis The Season.

The Kings magic number moved to 10 with yesterday’s win over Seattle. That number is against St. Louis, which now sits five points back of the Kings with seven games to play and the teams even on games played. Big win yesterday to make good use of the game in hand.

The Kings are obviously in action in San Jose, while St. Louis takes on Nashville in what is close to a must-win for the Blues. Nashville is a point ahead of the Kings and six ahead of their opponent this evening. There’s a scenario in which the Kings could surpass the Predators tonight, which puts another team as a potential clinching scenario. The Blues/Predators game is important, but less so than the result in San Jose. If the Kings take care of their own business, they’ll be right where they need to be.

“We just have to go and just keep doing out thing,” Hiller said. “I don’t think anybody’s approaching the game any differently. It’s a game we’re fighting for two points, that’s what we’re doing in every game. We won’t put any pressure upon ourselves.”

Hiller added that for the Kings right now, playoff seeding is not relevant to him.

The Kings are in a position as of today, giving themselves a bit of cushion last night, but we all saw at the end of the Canada trip how close three days can bring them closer to the fire. Seat gets a little hot when that happens. The singular focus is to get in and worry about things from there.

“We’re just in a playoff race and we’re trying to get into the playoffs. That’s where we’re at right now.”

Hiller won’t speak to the media this morning but is expected to later in the day before tonight’s game against the Sharks. Lower quota on the “we’ll see” counter, with Danault already ruled out and Hiller already giving a good sense that the goaltenders would split the back-to-back. Will hope to get a better sense of final roster decisions closer to gametime.

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