Lots of action, few shots, goaltenders choking under the pressure, hitting, fans complaining about non-calls on both sides... it's playoff hockey! Yes, my friends, the Kings are entering the world of playoff hockey and it's terrific. The Kings' last game against Colorado was a good one, with good defense, great offensive moves, a little luck, a game-tying goal scored in the dying seconds of the game, and overtime heroics courtesy of Drew Doughty. The best part? They play again tonight!
The two teams are a fascinating match-up for one another, as both have great centers in Anze Kopitar and Paul Stastny. The Kings had last change on Monday so they decided not to pair the two of them up; instead, the Kings decided to attack rookie Matt Duchene with Kopitar and match up Michal Handzus with Stastny. Stastny had 26 regulation shifts; of those 26, Handzus was on the ice for 17.* Kopitar was on the ice for 16 of Duchene's 23 shifts. The results were predictable: Kopitar dominated Duchene while Stastny was far too quick and agile for Michal Handzus. Both centers got 2 assists on the night.
*One thing a lot of people misunderstand when people say "X matched up against Y" is that they think those players were always on the ice together. That's not the case. Handzus, for example, will play far less than Paul Stastny so Stastny will get a few shifts against Kopitar and Stoll. Some coaches (Randy Carlyle, for one) will also double-shift his best player to get a match-up against a 4th line. You all know this, of course, but it's important to remember every now and again.
Avalanche coach Joe Sacco's best chance to beat the Kings on the road was to play his top 2 centers as much as possible so that the Kings couldn't really match up against them consistently, and that's exactly what he did; both Stastny and Duchene both played over 23 minutes in the game. The Kings have the luxury of playing their third center, Jarret Stoll, more consistently because he's actually good defensively, so only Kopitar played over 20 minutes among Kings centers.
So last game, the best centers for each team did not face each other; instead, they each took turns dominating lesser competition. Tonight, since the Avalanche don't really have a great shutdown center, Kopitar and Stastny will probably face one another. The Avalanche will try to neutralize Kopitar with Stastny, or at least hope they match each other in scoring, while counting on Duchene's speed and the Avalanche's overall depth to defeat the Kings' lower lines. The Kings, for their part, will hope Kopitar can carry Wayne Simmonds and Brad Richardson enough that they can spread their depth to the other 3 lines. It should be awesome. It should feel like playoff hockey.
Prediction: Kings win, 2-1. Goals by Kopitar and Williams.
(Oh, and I focused mostly on centers for this because it makes for a better story, but the biggest change in the game was that Scuderi-Doughty started playing against Duchene but then switched to Stastny's line after the first goal. They matched up against him pretty regularly and held him until the last few seconds... when they changed and Johnson-O'Donnell came on. I'd imagine Doughty and Stastny are going to be very familiar with one another after this game.)