Preview...Kings at Blues
By John Hoven...TrueHockey.com contributor based out of LA
Oh what a difference five weeks can make.
When the Kings and Blues last met, in Los Angeles on October 18, it was a 5-0 win for the home team. Since then, much has changed on both sides, most notably the coach in St. Louis - with Ken Hitchcock replacing the departed Davis Payne.
A similar move in Los Angeles isn't expected anytime soon, much to the dismay of a small, vocal group of Kings fans, who seem to call for Murray's head after each loss. However, GM Dean Lombardi doesn't seem to be in any rush to replace the coach who has guided his team to two straight playoff appearances and is a veteran leader who understands what it takes to win in the NHL.
"They're going to be a harder team," said Murray, when asked for observations on the new look Blues. "I know Hitch very well, coached with him, and I know the things he talks about and the way he demands certain parts of the game to be played. It’s not going to be a track meet. It’s going to be a trench game. You have to dig in and really battle hard."
Five of the players Murray will suit up for tonight's game are expected to be different as well.
Up front, forwards Dustin Penner (injured reserve, hand - aka upper body injury), Brad Richardson and Trevor Lewis are not expected to play.
The latter two haven't produced a single goal this season, forcing Murray to contemplate sitting both guys. Following the team's practice in Los Angeles Monday, Murray said he hadn't made a final decision if they would play just yet. But, was quick to note, "It’s not there right now. We’ve gone through 20 games, and no goals."
Their most likely replacements will be Colin Fraser (acquired in the June deal that sent Ryan Smyth to Edmonton) and Princeton educated tough guy, Kevin Westgarth.
Russian rookie Andrei Loktionov will definitely be in the line-up though, playing left wing on the second line in place of the injured Penner. During the second half of Saturday's 4-1 loss to Detroit, Murray moved Loktionov to third line center, flipping him with Jarret Stoll. It's a move Murray said he may go back to if the Kings offense continues to struggle.
On defense, the major change will be Drew Doughty, who was nursing a sore shoulder when the teams met last month. Interestingly, his replacement at the time, rookie Slava Voynov, was sent down a few games later and is now back with the team once again - this time, replacing the injured Alec Martinez. Voynov is a dynamic puck mover, with speed, who likes to shoot and create offense. At the same time, he's shown intelligence on the defensive side of play, earning much praise from the Kings coaching staff and his teammates.
In goal, the Kings will most likely turn to Jonathan Bernier. Murray was rather coy when asked who his starter would be prior to the team boarding their flight to St. Louis yesterday. Yet, he did indicate he'll use past performance as a strong indicator. Given that October's win over the Blues was Jonathan Quick's first in eight tries - coupled with Murray's desire to play his top goalie against division rivals (the Kings play Dallas on Wednesday) - it's a safe bet Bernier will get his fourth start of the year.
Other things to keep an eye on...entering this season, center Mike Richards had played the Blues only four times, fewer than any other team in the league...left wing Simon Gagne, another newcomer to the Kings this year, scored two goals in the first match-up and now has 13 points (four goals, nine assists) in 11 career games vs. the Blues...captain Dustin Brown has 13 goals in 26 career games vs. the Blues, his best goals-per-game ratio for any team he's played more than 10 times...Anze Kopitar (one of the NHL points leaders this season) has 27 points in 21 games vs. the Blues, his best points-per-game ratio for any team he's played more than 10 times.
On top of all of the above changes, there's still room for one more difference than the Kings-Blues game from October. This will be the first road game in which the Kings wear their 'third' jersey, which is actually their home jersey from last season (black sweater with a crown logo).
After tonight, the two teams won't meet again until early February. By that time, expect a few more changes for each side. Until then, with five being the theme, expect a total of five goals tonight...somehow, someway - most likely a 3-2 final.
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