Key Observations Heading Into Game 65 Between the Penguins and Kings

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By: Andy Hughes (@PensNation_Andy)

This West coast road trip has been tough for the Penguins. They will play their third game in four nights tonight against the Los Angeles Kings, the defending Stanley Cup champions. After Pittsburgh lost a tough game in Colorado on Wednesday night, the Penguins needed to bounce back. They certainly did that last night in Anaheim, defeating the Ducks 5-2. Even after the Ducks’ loss last night, they still have the most points in the NHL. A great win last night against the league’s top team should be a big confidence booster for the Penguins. Patric Hornqvist scored twice in the game while Evgeni Malkin, Sidney Crosby and Blake Comeau each had a goal of their own. Backup goaltender Thomas Greiss made 27 saves to record his 8th win of the season.

Hornqvist has been on fire ever since he rejoined Crosby on the first line. In his last 5 games, the Swedish winger has notched 5 goals and 2 assists. He now has 21 goals on the season, just like Crosby, but in 9 fewer games. Hornqvist has now scored 20 goals in 5 NHL seasons. That line with David Perron is very fun to watch. Perron’s production has tailed off a bit recently, but he exceeded the original expectations after racking up a ton of points immediately following the trade that sent him to Pittsburgh. Say what you want about Crosby, but his 66 points is only a single point behind the NHL’s leaders in Malkin, Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and John Tavares. More people do expect to see more goals from Crosby though. He hasn’t gotten many shots on goal recently, which needs to change.

Malkin’s line with Comeau and Chris Kunitz dominated last night against the Duck’s second line, which is a key to the victory. Malkin and Comeau both scored while Kunitz had an assist. If they can continue to play like they did last night, the Penguins will be very successful in the postseason. However, it’s a bit of a gamble considering Kunitz is declining and Comeau has exceeded expectations this season. Jim Rutherford could have traded for another top-six forward, but he clearly believes in Comeau and Kunitz. He didn’t have much cap room to work with, so making another trade would have been difficult.

Speaking of trades, the Penguins’ new defensemen Ben Lovejoy and Ian Cole looked good last night. The team rallied around Lovejoy, who is very well-liked in the locker room already. It has been a very easy transition for Lovejoy. It seems that way for Cole too as he had a nice assist on Hornqvist’s second goal of the night last night. Cole ripped a slap shot from the point and Hornqvist deflected it into the net. He makes a good first pass and seems to be able to rip a good slap shot from the point, even in bad positions on the ice. He could blossom into a steady NHL defenseman for the Penguins, just like Matt Niskanen did after he got shipped out of Dallas.

The Kings (31-21-12) come into this game surprisingly out of a playoff spot with 74 points. A win tonight, however, would push them into a tie for sixth place in the Western Conference. Just like Los Angeles has done in the past few years, the Kings are clicking at the right time. Their 7-3 record in their last 10 games is one of the best in the league. Nothing has really changed with the Kings since the last meeting between these two teams, which was a 3-0 Penguins victory on October 30, 2014. They still rely on veterans Jeff Carter, Anze Kopitar, Drew Doughty and Jonathan Quick. Carter leads the team in goals (22) and points (50) while Kopitar leads the squad in assists with 36. 22-year-old forward Tyler Toffoli has played well this season too, recording 19 goals and 21 assists in 58 games this season. Quick, who did not start in the last meeting between these two teams, has a 2.40 goals-against average this season, which is his worst in the last four seasons. He is expected to start tonight against Marc-Andre Fleury. One new face for the Kings is defenseman Andrej Sekera, who Los Angeles traded for. They sent a conditional first round pick and a prospect to the Carolina Hurricanes for the pending unrestricted free agent. Sekera, a very underrated player, should help out the Kings’ depth on defense.

Rutherford and Mike Johnston have always talked about making the Penguins a “playoff-type” hockey team. Well, here’s a chance to see what they’ve built in preparation for the postseason. It’s a chance for the Penguins to play a powerhouse team late in the season on back-to-back nights. This is as close as you can get to playoff hockey in the regular season, so this should be another great measuring stick for this hockey team.