12/27 Preview – Moore Out, Byfield In + Coming Off The Break, 1 versus 2, QB’s Focal Points

WHO: Los Angeles Kings (19-12-6) vs. Vegas Golden Knights (24-11-1)
WHAT: NHL REGULAR SEASON GAMES
WHEN: Tuesday, December 27 @ 7:30 PM Pacific
WHERE: Crypto.com Arena – Los Angeles, CA
HOW TO FOLLOW: VIDEO: Bally Sports West – AUDIO – iHeart Radio – TWITTER: @DooleyLAK & @LAKings

TONIGHT’S MATCHUP: The Kings are back in action following the NHL’s holiday break from December 24 through 26, as they host the division-leading Vegas Golden Knights.

HEAD-TO-HEAD: Forward Gabe Vilardi led the Kings with two points (1-1-2) from the first meeting of the season between the two teams, on Opening Night back in October. Forward Adrian Kempe, who also scored in that game, has four goals from five games played against Vegas over the last two seasons. No player in NHL history has more points versus the Golden Knights than Anze Kopitar, who has 30 (11-19-30) from 26 games played.

KING’S VITALS: Following the three days off, the Kings held a full-team morning skate today at Toyota Sports Performance Center in El Segundo.

Coming out of the break, goaltender Pheonix Copley was the first off this morning and Head Coach Todd McLellan confirmed that he will be tonight’s starter against Vegas. Copley has never faced the Golden Knights in his NHL career to date. The Alaska native brings with him a 6-1-0 record this season, to go along with a .910 save percentage and a 2.43 goals-against average.

Below is how the Kings aligned during this morning’s skate, a potential look at the team’s approach to tonight’s divisional matchup –

Fiala – Kopitar – Kempe
Iafallo – Danault – Arvidsson
Anderson-Dolan – Lizotte – Vilardi
Lemieux – Byfield – Kupari
Grundstrom

Anderson – Doughty
Durzi – Roy
Edler – Walker
Spence

Copley
Quick

Per McLellan, forward Trevor Moore will not play tonight, due to an injury sustained during the Arizona game. Moore could also miss out on Thursday’s game in Colorado. Arthur Kaliyev, who was placed on injured reserve this morning, also will not play. Forward Quinton Byfield is expected to play tonight and should see power-play time in Moore’s absence, with forward Viktor Arvidsson taking his spot at even strength. Forward Carl Grundstrom and defenseman Jordan Spence were on late after morning skate, signaling potential scratches this evening.

GOLDEN KNIGHTS VITALS: Vegas is in Southern California for a quick two games, with the Kings tonight and the Ducks tomorrow evening in Anaheim.

No word yet from Vegas morning skate, but for now, we’ll project goaltender Logan Thompson as tonight’s expected starter against the Kings. Thompson has faced the Kings twice in his NHL career, including Opening Night in October, and brings with him a 2-0-0 record, a .942 save percentage and a 2.00 goals-against average.

Per Jesse Granger of The Athletic, here’s how the visitors lined up last time out –

Vegas could have three former Kings – Michael Amadio, Alec Martinez and Brayden McNabb – in the lineup tonight against their former team. The Golden Knights are the NHL’s best road team this season at 14-2-1, while forwards Reilly Smith (goals) and Chandler Stephensen (assists) rank inside the NHL’s Top 10 in road scoring categories. Stephensen is also tied for the NHL lead in assists this month with 14.

Notes –
Back In The Saddle
“When we look back at our history, we’ve had some really good returns and we’ve had some ugly returns.”

It’s the first game back for the Kings, coming off of the first three-game break of the season. The above quote from Todd McLellan references returns both good and bad, with the latter including the one coming off of holiday break a season ago, although that included more days off.

It’s not the longest spell away from games the Kings will face this season, but it is the longest to date. Last season’s holiday break saw the Kings have an extended stretch of time, although that came mostly due to games canceled on either side of Christmas. This season, it’s three days and three welcomed ones…..for the most part at least.

“I think if we can get everybody playing quickly, the last thing we need to do is be shorthanded for four of the first six minutes or something like that, get everybody involved in the game,” McLellan said. “It’s probably a common theme around the league for coaching staffs, simplify your game and execute. Really, the team that finds it the fastest is often the winner, so that will be our goal.”

When we say that “for the most part” everyone was looking forward to the break, perhaps forward Brendan Lemieux is the lone outlier.

Lemieux missed 19 games due to injury and finally returned versus Arizona on December 23, a long-awaited return to action. Along the way, Lemieux hasn’t been able to get a ton of practice time in, due to the team’s schedule, so he’ll have to work his way back through game repetition. He’s expected

“Now that we got the break over with – just what I needed another three days off – it’s good to be back with the group,” he said this morning. “I’m excited to get into some nitty gritty, this is that grind time of the year. It’s everybody’s least favorite stretch, so I’m excited to have some energy for it.”

More on Lemieux and his return to follow in tomorrow’s practice report.

For everyone else, however, McLellan spelled out what the goal is and now it’s about execution.

Players in the room seemed to share the same mentality and that’s about finding it as quickly as possible. You never know exactly when and how a team will respond in that situation because it’s usually different from break to break. The Kings understand where they’re at, however, and believe they have what it takes in the room to be the team that jumps first.

“It’s the first game after the break, it’ll be the first team who can find it quicker,” defenseman Sean Durzi said. “I think we have a good enough group in here that we can use our leadership and our mentality, play our game and focus on what we do well to attack them.”

Versus Vegas
“You always want to get to the top and the only way to get there is to beat them.”

That was added by Durzi this morning, leading into tonight’s game against Vegas. Tonight’s game is a battle of the top two teams in the Pacific Division, by point totals, and the standings have tightened up compared to where they sat say 15 games ago. Vegas began the season 13-2-0 out of the gates, holding a seven-point lead in the standings with a game in hand back on November 10. Into December, the lead grew to as many as eight points, with games in hand , but currently sits at just five points, with the teams nearly even on games played.

That alone adds a little bit of extra juice into tonight’s game. Add in the fact that it’s the Kings and Golden Knights, who have seen games develop a little bit of an extra intensity over the last year or so, and tonight’s game certainly has that feeling coming out of the holiday break.

“I feel like it’s become more of a rivalry with Vegas over the years, it’s always a tight game,” forward Adrian Kempe said this morning. “Going back to last year, we had some good games against them and we’re hungry for a win here. Obviously we lost our first game at home this season against them and we’re excited to play them again. Usually there’s a good crowd for this game and a good hockey game.”

Looking back, these two teams met on October 11 and Vegas was the superior side on that night. The Kings nearly took the game to overtime, on a night when Jonathan Quick was the clear first star from LA’s perspective, but were unable to pick up the standings point. That was two and a half months ago, so the outlook of both teams has changed, even though Todd McLellan said that there are characteristics that show up in Vegas’ game now as there were then.

Both teams have injury issues this evening and both teams have changed, but the Kings know they’re in for a difficult test tonight regardless.

“In reference to the first game of the season, we weren’t very good against Vegas,” McLellan added. “We still had an opportunity to get a point, we didn’t do that, we probably got what we deserved. Coming out of the Christmas break, it’ll be about getting the team going again a little bit. and up and running, but they’ll think the same way. It’s our last opportunity on home ice to play them. There are a lot of reasons, over and above just the standings, to get our game together.”

Bye, Bye, Byfield
Less of goodbye, though, and more of hello!

Expect to see forward Quinton Byfield back in the fold this evening against Vegas. Byfield took line rushes with Lemieux and forward Rasmus Kupari this morning, making him tonight’s projected 4C. It’s been a long stretch in the AHL for Byfield, since he was loaned to Ontario back in November, but now he has an opportunity with the Kings that was set up both through his play (9G and 15PTS from 16GP) with the Reign and stemming from injuries to others on the NHL roster.

“Right now, I’m just focused on playing my game,” Byfield said this morning. “You want to just do your job, there’s obviously a role that you have to play, but you want to be the player that you’ve always been. I’m just going to go in and try and do that.”

Coming from a 1C role in Ontario to a 4C role with the Kings presents an adjustment, though as Byfield mentioned, you don’t just completely reinvent your game, either. The switch does represent less ice time, although Byfield will see power-play time tonight, likely with Durzi’s unit.

Byfield talked about focusing on some of the other parts of his game down with the Reign and is hopeful to see them translate, alongside the offensive production, being back with the Kings.

“I [worked on] the defensive end, I was playing a lot of PK time, doing a lot of faceoffs and working on that area,” he added. “Those were the two big things and offensively, I was working on getting points again and getting that going again.”

From McLellan’s perspective, he spoke – as he did prior to the holiday break – about seeking consistency, game-to-game, and how that push is still there. At this time, Byfield was the natural option to fill this spot and he’s got the ability to step in and contribute right away.

Now, it’s about doing it.

“He had some really good nights, in talking to Marco [Sturm], there was still a push for consistency, night in and night out, and that’s the same for any young player really, that’s what you’re pushing for,” McLellan said this morning. “Right now, with the injuries that we have and the positional needs, he’s the recall that we chose and he’s likely best suited for that recall. Now, we want him to come and play with confidence, he knows how to do it on both sides of the puck and have an impact.”

Back at it, Insiders! Kings and Golden Knights, tonight at 7:30 PM in Los Angeles, see you there!

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