WHO: Los Angeles Kings (14-10-4) @ Toronto Maple Leafs (16-5-6)
WHAT: NHL REGULAR SEASON GAME
WHEN: Thursday, December 8 @ 4:00 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 continue on their Eastern excursion this evening in Toronto, with the final game of the season against the Toronto Maple Leafs.
HEAD-TO-HEAD: LA took the first matchup of the season against the Maple Leafs by a 4-2 margin back in October. Forwards Kevin Fiala (1-1-2) and Anze Kopitar (0-2-2) led the way with two points apiece, while forwards Viktor Arvidsson, Adrian Kempe and Gabe Vilardi also scored in the victory.
KINGS VITALS: The Kings held an optional morning skate today from Scotiabank Arena in Toronto, following yesterday’s full-team practice day.
Goaltender Jonathan Quick did not skate this morning in Toronto, making him tonight’s projected starter against the Maple Leafs. Quick brings with him a record of 7-5-1 all-time versus Toronto, with a .919 save percentage and a 2.50 goals-against average, including a win here a season ago.
With the optional skate, no line rushes this morning, but no changes were indicated, minus the goaltender. Here’s a projected alignment based off of how the Kings lined up last time out, with no changes expected –
Fiala – Kopitar – Kaliyev
Moore – Danault – Arvidsson
Iafallo – Kempe – Vilardi
Grundstrom – Lizotte – Anderson-Dolan
Anderson – Doughty
Durzi – Roy
Edler – Walker
The Kings currently have 20 available skaters, following the loan of defenseman Brandt Clarke to Team Canada for the upcoming World Junior Championships. Defenseman Tobias Bjornfot and forward Samuel Fagemo appear to be the two players out of the lineup against the Maple Leafs this evening, although we’ll wait until warmups to confirm.
MAPLE LEAFS VITALS: Toronto enters tonight’s game on fire, with a 12-game point streak courtesy of a 9-0-3 record over that stretch. The Maple Leafs begin a three-game homestand tonight, with matchups against Calgary and Anaheim to follow.
Goaltender Ilya Samsonov is expected to get the start this evening for the Maple Leafs, following goaltending partner Matt Murray’s 44-save effort in a shutout win over Dallas last time out. Samsonov is 2-1-0 against the Kings throughout his NHL career, with a .942 save percentage and a 1.69 goals-against average.
Per David Alter of Sports Illustrated, here’s how the Maple Leafs lined up this morning –
#Leafs lines at morning skate Dec. 8/22
— David Alter (@dalter) December 8, 2022
A trio of former Kings are not expected to play tonight for Toronto, with Wayne Simmonds a projected scratch, Jake Muzzin currently on long-term injured reserve and forward Kyle Clifford currently with the AHL’s Toronto Marlies. Toronto forward Mitchell Marner carries with him a 20-game point streak into tonight’s action, dating back before the Kings and Maple Leafs squared off in Los Angeles back in late-October.
Welcome Home, Durz
Tonight will be a special one for Kings defenseman Sean Durzi, who will play here in his home city of Toronto for the first time in his professional career. Durzi made his NHL debut against the Maple Leafs a season ago in California, but his recall came after the Kings had already taken their Eastern Canada trip.
Durzi said he grew up coming to Maple Leafs games and supporting the team as a young kid, recalling coming to games with his dad and making the short trip from Toronto suburb Mississauga to watch the NHL club. Tonight it will be friends and family making that drive to watch him play here in person for the first time, undoubtedly a special night for him and his family.
“Yeah, it’s super exciting to think about,” he said. “My first NHL game I ever watched, growing up there as a fan, I’ve been multiple times to watch hockey games and watch my favorite players play. Now, to play there and to have those kids looking at you now as one of those guys, it’s exciting. I have a lot of friends and family who are excited about coming to the game and I’m looking forward to it.”
Growing up, Durzi recalled being at the first-ever shootout game in Toronto, but it was the memories of spending time with family – and a welcome change in seating location that stood out. Durzi remembered his father getting seats low in the 100 level the first time they went to a game, but he asked to sit higher in the bowl for a different vantage point the next time, to see plays develop. Saved a few bucks too, though not necessarily his thought process at the time.
As he grew into the industry, and as he went through his first crack at the NHL Draft without getting selected, Durzi said his affinity began to switch from a team to selective players, a fan of the game more than a few of just the Maple Leafs. There’s still the excitement of facing Toronto, for sure. The Leafs were the team that selected Durzi in his second go so he was a part of the organization as an amateur.
“I grew up a Leafs fan and as I went through my first draft and didn’t get picked, I kind of just started liking hockey, more than just teams, when maybe I thought I should have been with a team,” he said . “Now, there’s a little bit of excitement, but at that time, I was as much a hockey fan as I was any team.”
Now, he’s here as an LA Kings player and an important part of the team, contributing in a variety of ways offensively and on the power play. Durzi has a six-game point streak entering tonight’s game, with nine points (1-8-9) in total over that span.
Durzi’s point streak is the longest active streak in the NHL among defensemen and the longest active assist streak in the league, tied with Toronto’s Michael Bunting. Durzi is also one of five defensemen in franchise history with an assist streak of six-or-more games.
“He’s been a great find for our hockey club,” Todd McLellan said of Durzi. “Very competitive first of all, we can talk about passing, playmaking and power play, but his competitiveness is the number-one thing that he has, it shows up every night and he lays it on the line. He has a lot of courage on the ice and sometimes tries things that other defensemen don’t, but that’s what makes Sean Durzi, Sean Durzi and we’re fortunate to have him.”
Line Three, Take Two
After the win over Ottawa, McLellan expanded on an answer regarding Alex Iafallo to discuss his line as a whole, complementing their play against the Senators.
For a variety of different reasons, that line was of interest. For one, it was Iafallo’s first game back after missing the previous 23 due to injury. It was also Adrian Kempe’s first game playing at center since……2018? Something like that. Also, it was the first game that the three members have ever played together as a line, with Gabe Vilardi joining the aforementioned duo of Iafallo and Kempe.
“That’s the first time they’ve been together, period, in that type of formation, you can go back to any time over the years,” McLellan said this morning. “Kempe going back into the middle is not an easy task when you spend that much time on the wing, but he did a real good job, I thought he had a lot of pace through the middle, we were looking for that. Iafallo coming back in the lineup had an immediate impact on the group and Gabe continues to do some really good things. Maybe not as much on the scoresheet lately but we appreciate the other things that he’s doing. It makes it an effective line.”
While McLellan is correct – those three players have not played together as they were aligned last night, or aligned in any way for that matter, there is familiarity between the three of them. Kempe and Iafallo were linemates for the better part of last season, while both have also played at various times with Vilardi, just not at the same time.
It’s an interesting concept – can chemistry of essentially three separate pairs of players come together when they all form one unit? Kempe believes that it can.
“I think it’ll come well, obviously me and AI played most of last year together, me and Gabe have played a little bit and at the start of the season they played really well together,” Kempe outlined this morning. “Hopefully we can all move along with that, but I thought the chemistry was there last game. I think we talked a lot on the bench and before the game, that’s something we’ve got to keep doing and just have our game keep getting better and better.”
Kempe went on to discuss feeling pretty good at center, focusing on certain aspects of playing through the middle. He noted that with a few less shifts than he’s used to on Anze Kopitar’s line, he felt quite energized when he was on the ice and tried to take advantage of that to play as hard as he could with the time he had.
Against a team like Toronto, having that depth throughout the lineup is key, especially when doing so on the road. McLellan believes that the Kempe line can present difficulties for opponents when selecting matchups,
“It’s a lot tougher, especially on the road, for teams now to match up just against two lines,” he said. “We feel like we have three, four some nights, that can contribute. The nights we’ve been successful, we’ve had all four lines going.”
Difficult opposition tonight, naturally.
The Kings know that going in and believe they followed the blueprint against Ottawa on Tuesday, as it pertained to producing offensively without any sort of dropoff defensively.
“I think we definitely have the firepower, we don’t need to be going out there and making boneheaded plays or trying to cheat for offense, anything like that,” defenseman Sean Walker said this morning. “If we just play our game, guys are good enough on our team that they’re going to make plays, our power-play is clicking and we know the goals are going to come, we just have to focus on the defense.”
Speaking with Kempe, he knows the Kings will get a different level of opposition than when these two teams met in Los Angeles and they’ll need to take that same approach. He knows the quality that Toronto has and was quick to bring up the matchup last season, when the Kings were very good in Toronto but did not have the same level when the teams rematched in Los Angeles.
The setting is reversed, but the point holds true. It’s a solid team all around and the Kings will need to be ready.
“200-foot challenge, they’re playing very well defensively,” McLellan added. “There’s always the offensive challenge of shutting them down, their power play, their key guy and their ability to score, but their goaltending has been really good and they’re committed to playing a full, 200-foot game. That makes it tough on teams, but we know it’s coming and we have to be prepared for it.”
We’ll see what the rematch brings this evening, with the teams set to square off at 7 PM here in Toronto, 4 PM Pacific!