Maple Leafs, Kings set for rare meeting
MAPLE LEAFS (16-20-4) at KINGS (23-17-1)
-- LEAFS TV, FS-W (HD)
-- Toronto 4-6-0; Los Angeles 5-5-0.
-- This is the only meeting of the season for Toronto and Los Angeles. The Kings took their only game with the Maple Leafs a year ago, picking up a 5-3 win at the Air Canada Centre on Jan. 26, 2010.
-- With their longest losing streak of the season over and one of their young guns freshly inked for the long term, the Kings seem primed to go on a run and climb the jampacked Western standings as they welcome the cellar-dwelling Maple Leafs to Los Angeles.
-- At first glance things look bleak in southern Ontario. The Maple Leafs are mired in last place of the Northeast with a double-digit point total separating them from the East's top eight, but while the playoffs look like a longshot as the season enters the second half, there are signs that the future could be brighter. Toronto has won three straight games on the road and three of four overall, and if its last outing is any indication the offense looks to be warming up in a big way as the weather gets colder.
The Leafs beat up the Thrashers Friday night in Atlanta to staggering tune of 9-3, an outburst that could have signalled the Leafs' breakout game had they not lit the lamp five times in a 6-5 shootout win over St. Louis the night before. Phil Kessel has been one of the key reasons why with nine points in his last six games, but Toronto has gotten ample help between the pipes as well. In the absence of Jean-Sebastien Giguere, James Reimer may have usurped Jonas Gustavsson's role as the top backup, going 2-1-0 with a 2.02 goals-against average in his last three starts, including 41 saves Friday in Atlanta.
It seems an unfortunate stroke of luck that L.A. happened to suffer its worst losing streak in the midst of what could have been its best bet to make a move in the standings. The Kings are currently five games through a season-high eight-game homestand, but did themselves few favors by dropping the first four outings of the current stretch. While L.A. managed to snap what was a five-game skid overall with a 6-4 win over Columbus Saturday, there must be a sense that an opporunity was squandered.
Of course, that missed opportunity has been somewhat muted by Saturday's breakout performance. The Kings are still involved in the great Western Conference playoff logjam of 2011, and evidently general manager Dean Lombardi was so impressed with a three-assist performance by defenseman Jack Johnson
Saturday that the U.S. Olympian was given a seven-year $30.5 million extension after the game. Despite the recent losing streak, L.A. is still a good bet to be in the playoff mix at season's end, and with one of its stud defensemen locked up for the longterm, the Kings seem set to be in the mix well beyond this spring.
-- Parenthood seems to be agreeing with new father Mikhail Grabovski. The Leaf has 12 goals in his last 14 games. ... Despite L.A.'s recent troubles, Ryan Smyth
has lit up the scoresheet with five points in his last three games.
-- Willie Mitchell
and Alex Ponikarovsky should be good to go for the Kings after returning from lower-body injuries Saturday against Columbus. As Toronto continues to wait for Jean-Sebastien Giguere to return from IR with a groin injury, the Leafs will also have to do without John Mitchell, who is going to be out 4-6 weeks with a knee injury. They may also be without Fredrik Sjostrom, who is questionable with a charley horse.
-- Teams are prone to losing streaks over the course of a long season, but the Kings' recent one is particularly remarkable given that the last four games were played at STAPLES Center. Prior to the swoon L.A. had lost just two home games in regulation all season.
-- With the Western Conference playoff race as tight as can be, the Kings can ill-afford to let any opportunity for two points slip away. Dropping four straight games at home could be a tough pill to swallow for L.A., but if the Kings can cool off the hot Leafs and put together a winning streak, those losses could soon be a distant memory.