12/23 Preview – No(el) Morning Skate + Home Mull-one, Vilar-Die Hard, The Night Before

WHO: Los Angeles Kings (19-12-5) @ Arizona Coyotes (10-16-5)
WHAT: NHL REGULAR SEASON GAMES
WHEN: Friday, December 23 @ 6:30 PM Pacific
WHERE: Mullett Arena – Tempe, Arizona
HOW TO FOLLOW: VIDEO: Bally Sports West – AUDIO – iHeart Radio – TWITTER: @DooleyLAK & @LAKings

TONIGHT’S MATCHUP: The Kings have one more game before the holiday break, as they complete a back-to-back set this evening with their first-ever trip to Mullett Arena.

HEAD-TO-HEAD: Forwards Anze Kopitar (2-0-2) and Kevin Fiala (1-1-2) led the way for the Kings against Arizona during a 5-3 Kings victory earlier this season. 12 Kings players tallied a point in that game, with 10 of those 12 expected to dress tonight in Tempe. Overall, dating back to the 2020-21 season, the Kings have a six-game point streak versus the Coyotes, in addition to a seven-game winning streak in Arizona.

KING’S VITALS: Following yesterday’s overtime victory over Calgary, the Kings will not hold a morning skate today in Arizona.

Considering the back-to-back, consider goaltender Jonathan Quick tonight’s likely starter, after Pheonix Copley got the nod yesterday versus the Flames. Quick has posted a lifetime record of 23-20-5 against the Coyotes, with a .904 save percentage and a 2.50 goals-against average. Quick’s start would be his first since December 11 in Columbus.

“Quickie has been through a lot in his career and he’s as competitive as they come,” McLellan said. “He wants that net and he’ll [eventually] get that net and when he does, he’ll play very well…..and I expect our group to play very well in front of him too, they owe him that.”

Considering the lack of a morning skate, we won’t know tonight’s lineup until closer to puck drop. As we saw yesterday, a lot can change between now and then. For reference, here’s how the Kings lined up yesterday evening at home –

The Kings will once again be without forward Arthur Kaliyev, who will miss tonight’s game due to injury. Kaliyev blocked a shot late in the win over Anaheim and although he did practice each of the last two days, he was unable to go last night and is already ruled out for this evening’s game. Forward Carl Grundstrom checked in last night in his place, with Gabe Vilardi moving up in the lineup as a result. More on that below.

Should the Kings opt for a change, forward Brendan Lemieux is now healthy and available, after he was activated from injured reserve yesterday afternoon. Lemieux missed 18 games with a lower-body injury and took warmups last night. He is the team’s lone available extra up front. On the backend, defenseman Jordan Spence was the odd-man out yesterday and is available tonight should the Kings opt for a change on the blueline.

COYOTES VITALS: Tonight’s game begins a three-game homestand for the Coyotes, with the Avalanche and Maple Leafs set to visit Arizona following the holiday break. Arizona has lost three straight coming in and four of their last five.

Goaltender Karel Vejmelka is tonight’s projected starter for the Coyotes, marking his seventh start from his team’s last eight games played heading into the break. Vejmelka has faced the Kings three times throughout his NHL career, including the 5-3 defeat earlier this season. The Czech netminder is 1-2-0 with a .907 save percentage and a 3.30 goals-against average from those three appearances.

Per Arizona’s official team account, here’s how the Coyotes lined up last time out –

Former Kings defenseman Troy Stecher is expected to play tonight against his former team. Arizona defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere is tied for fourth in the NHL in goals by a defenseman this season, with eight. Forward Nick Schmaltz has 74 points over his last 82 games played.

Home Mull-one
Tonight’s opponent in Arizona is playing just its tenth home game of the 2022-23 season. Despite their overall record being six games below .500, the Coyotes have points from six of their first nine played here in Tempe, with a respectable 4-3-2 record from those nine contests.

Perhaps those numbers show that Arizona is a bit better than their record shows? The Coyotes started the season with an absolutely grueling run, consisting of 20 of their first 24 games on the road. That stretch included a ridiculous 14-game road trip from November 5 through December 7, a span that saw the team go more than a month without a home game. While there were a few breaks in the journey, it was a stretch that saw the deck stacked heavily against the Coyotes. As a result, they have just one trip of more than three games remaining on their schedule and we’re not even into 2023.

In Mullett Arena tonight, the Kings will cross off another new building from their list, after they did so twice last season. In January, the team skated to a 3-1 victory over the Seattle Kraken in their first game at Climate Pledge Arena. The Kings also won their first game at UBS Arena in New York in February, a 3-2 win over the Islanders that was also Drew Doughty’s 1000th NHL game played.

Last 5 Games In New Buildings
2022 – 3-1 W at Seattle
2022 – 3-2 W at New York (Islanders)
2020 – 3-1 W at Colorado (Falcon Stadium, Stadium Series)
2017 – 4-2 L at Vegas
2017 – 4-1 W at Detroit

The Kings will add another arena to that list tonight, with the hopes of making it three straight in new venues.

Vilar-Die Hard
Moving up in the lineup is always an opportunity that players are eager to take advantage of. Last night against Calgary, Gabe Vilardi certainly took advantage.

With Arthur Kaliyev sidelined due to injury, Vilardi was moved back onto the third line and responded with a big night. Late in the first period, with Calgary leading 1-0, Vilardi worked his way to the net and deflected a Sean Walker shot into the net for his team-leading 14th goal of the season. Early in the third period, just seconds after the Kings took the lead, Vilardi created one, as he worked his way into the offensive zone and collected the assist on new linemate Blake Lizotte’s goal to put the Kings ahead 3-1.

“This year for me, I feel like I’ve played with so many different guys all year,” Vilardi said. “You like to stick with some sort of line and build chemistry that way, but last night I just kind of went with the flow and we had a good game. Now, we’ve got to do it again tonight.”

Speaking with Lizotte last night, he agreed that it can be difficult to have your linemates change with the snap of a finger. On Tuesday against the Ducks, Kaliyev was the third member of that line along with Lizotte and Viktor Arvidsson. Kaliyev’s ability to practice the last two days, but ultimately not play, didn’t give the trio a practice day to kind of get comfortable or familiar.

It’s the NHL though and things happen, you just have to roll with it. As Lizotte detailed, everyone can play at this level and teams are relatively stable in terms of personnel, so you at least have an idea of ​​what to expect.

“It can be difficult, but at this level, every player is good, so you step in and learn pretty quickly how each guy plays,” Lizotte said. “I’ve been with this group for four years, a few guys change here and there, but I generally know how most guys play. Anyone they plug in with me I feel like I’m able to make it work.”

Vilardi was quick to praise Lizotte and Arvidsson as being guys he could click with pretty quickly. He called both players “hardworking and skilled in the corners” and he believes that meshes well with his game.

The Kings view Vilardi as a player who can help drive a line, not just complement one. With two players who are as tenacious as Lizotte and Arvidsson are, it only emphasizes that.

“I think when I’m on my game, I can help my linemates, make everyone around me better and it gets easier when you play with guys like Lizzo and Arvy who work so hard,” Vilardi added. “They really battle in the corners and create space for other guys. I think when I’m playing at my best, I can create space for other guys and draw attention to myself in doing so.”

If McLellan wanted to see more from the third line – independent of personnel – last night was an excellent step towards doing so.

The Night Before
Last game before the break.

From a team perspective, the Kings are trying to keep things as much “business as usual” as they can, but that’s not always 100 percent doable. Everyone has at least one eye on the holidays and that’s understandable. But, there are also two big points to be earned here and that’s what the Kings are here in Arizona to earn.

Todd McLellan detailed the overall situation a couple of days prior, with approaching this time of the year:

“We’re trying to keep it as routine as possible, but they’re human beings, they have events that are special to them,” he said. “They have traditions that are important to them, family that means a lot and supports them, some have little ones that are counting on Santa Claus flying in on the 25th and they’re asking a lot of questions, yhere’s the religious part of this time of the year, there are so many things that go into play, we’re all human and we have to recognize that. It probably gets cranked up a little bit, everyone’s been thinking about it for a little while and they’re no different.”

With that being said, coming off a win and some travel with a late arrival last night, the focus will have to be on the Coyotes today, with a well-deserved three days off coming, beginning tomorrow. Kings and Coyotes in a Reverse Retro battle – Tonight at 6:30 PM Pacific, 7:30 PM here in Arizona!

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