The Blue Jackets return home to Nationwide Arena on Monday night, when the defending Stanley Cup Champion LA Kings will make their only visit to Columbus this season. The Kings snapped a three-game losing streak on Saturday afternoon with a 4-2 road win over the Tampa Bay Lightning.
The Kings have won two Cups over the past three seasons and won both in a similar fashion, being a middle-of-the-pack regular season team that got hot in the spring and became a team that no one wanted to play by the time April came around. But the Kings will need the latter part of the plan to kick in quickly if they plan to use that process a third time. The Kings are five points out of the final wild card spot in the Western Conference and are also fighting with the rejuvenated Minnesota Wild in the chase to track down both the Calgary Flames and Winnipeg Jets.
The Kings have only three regulation wins in their past 10 games and don’t feel quite like the same team that lifted the Cup in June, but Anze Kopitar remains one of the game's best two-way centers despite an unusual minus-7 rating, and Marian Gaborik has 30 points in 39 games after missing the start of the season to injury. But “That 70’s Line” that carried the Kings' offense early in the season has since cooled, and now, Tanner Pearson will miss significant time with a broken leg sustained earlier in January.
The Kings blue line is still strong, with Drew Doughty having another All-Star season. They’ve missed Willie Mitchell as a shutdown presence on the back end, not to mention the suspended Slava Voynov. They’ll likely be missing another solid two-way defender on Monday night after Alec Martinez left Saturday’s game in Tampa with an upper body injury.
The Kings hosted the Jackets at Staples Center on Oct. 26, wrapping up the Blue Jackets three-game swing through California. The mid-day matinee started on the right foot for Columbus, with Tim Erixon getting Columbus out in front with his first NHL goal. That was the only lead Columbus would enjoy, as “That 70’s Line” took over the contest.
Jeff Carter tied the game with a power play goal early in the second period, and Tyler Toffoli and Dwight King scored two minutes apart late in the period. (King wears #74, and ironically, has now replaced Pearson alongside Toffoli and Carter). Pearson scored two in the third period to ice the 5-2 win. Toffoli and Carter finished the game with a goal and three assists each. A scary moment occurred in the third period when Nick Foligno’s head collided along the boards with a linesman, leaving Foligno down on the ice. Foligno was stretchered off the ice, but X-Rays were negative. He would miss just one game recovering from the collision.
Drew Doughty is having another terrific season for the Kings, on pace for another 60-point campaign. His 31 points rank third on the team while his 29:21 of average ice-time per game ranks second in the entire league. More impressively, he’s played over 140 total minutes more than any other player. The All-Star and Canadian Olympian is a threat every time on the ice, and he’s out there almost half the game. Doughty has cracked the 10-goal mark in four of the last five seasons, scoring six in the lockout-shortened year and has five this season. That can change for Doughty, who has a career-low 3.4 shooting percentage and may be due for a bit more puck-luck down the stretch. In every facet, Doughty is one of the game’s best franchise defensemen.
During any player's break-out season, it’s only natural that people may wonder if it’s for real or if that player will regress to the mean. If anyone thought that Nick Foligno’s scoring touch might have been cooling off, he was sure to silence them the last two games. Foligno has three goals and four points over the last two games, and he now leads the team with 49 points in 50 games. Foligno’s goals have all come in different ways, via a net-mouth scramble, via a sharp high-slot wrister, and via speed and strength as he drove to the net in Ottawa and fended off the back-check to slide a puck through Robin Lehner. The three goals of late make it easier to appreciate Foligno’s larger body of work. He has 19 points (5-14-19) in the last 18 games.
“Away from the Throne”
The Kings have struggled mightily the road this season with 6-12-6 record away from STAPLES Center. The team that has prided itself on being comeback masters has only a 7-16-5 record when giving up the first goal (23rd in NHL). For the Blue Jackets, it becomes clear that they must get out to a strong start like they have the last two games, get on the board first, and not give a very desperate Kings team any reason to feel optimistic in a setting where they haven’t fared well. Los Angeles is sure to carry some confidence into Monday's game in Columbus after a solid performance in Tampa over the weekend, but it's up to the Jackets to bring their work boots right from the start. The Kings are banged up, not unlike the Jackets, and the Jackets need to set the tone early.