By Stu Hackel
No one is filming a reality TV series about the run up to tonight's Flyers-Kings game, but it's a compelling match between two teams that are legitimate Stanley Cup contenders.
It's also an ambush game. The Kings played -- and not very well -- in Phoenix on Wednesday night while the Flyers, who played -- also not very well -- in Vancouver on Tuesday are waiting for them in L.A. And since both teams are coming off sub-par outings, there's a good chance that they'll try to make up for it tonight.
Following a shaky stretch in November, the Kings have fashioned a December that has so far earned them 18 of a possible 26 points and vaulted them to the top of the tightly packed midsection of the Western Conference. They're seven points south of the frontrunning Red Wings, and this is the first of an eight-game homestand for a team that is very good on its own ice. The Sharks and Blackhawks visit right after the Flyers, so the Kings will have to improve on their no-show against the Coyotes if they want to move up.
Stong defense has worked for the Kings: their 2.33 goals-against average tops all Western teams (L.A. ranks fourth in the league) and they've allowed the fewest shots-against in the Conference as well (also fourth in the NHL) at 1,008. Jack Johnson, who came into his own last season and played strongly in the playoffs against Vancouver, has emerged as a two-way force on the blueline for L.A., and he's helped compensate for a slow start by Drew Doughty, who was a 2009-10 Norris Trophy finalist.
Although not the fastest team in the league, the Kings do cycle the puck well in the offensive zone. And with talented forwards like Anze Kopitar (probably the most underrated player in the NHL), great leadership from Dustin Brown, and consistency from a finally healthy Justin Williams, scoring hasn't been the issue it was a couple of seasons ago when the Kings finished with the third-fewest goals in the league.
The Flyers are trying to adjust to life without Chris Pronger, and the adjustment has not gone well. They lost to the Panthers 5-0 right before the Christmas break, and after their 6-2 loss to the Canucks (in which they surrendered 22 shots in the first period and then three goals in the first 5:30 of the second), it was clear this wasn't the same team that led the NHL a few weeks ago. And to make matters worse, there is concern that their other top defenseman, Kimmo Timonen, could be lost as well with a sore hip. If he plays, he won't be 100 percent. The Flyers have called up defenseman Erik Gustafsson from the AHL as insurance.
"The last couple games, we've been a very soft team," Danny Briere told The Philadelphia Inquirer. "We've been easy to play against, and we're not winning any battles. If we keep playing that way, it won't take long. We'll disappear."
That softness may speak to the consequences of Pronger's absence.
The Flyers also won't have the toughness of Jody Shelley in the lineup after his sucker punch of the Canucks' Andrew Alberts...
...earned him a match penalty and his second suspension of the month. Some Flyers fans (like the one who commented after this story on the Inquirer website, "I must say that I like the fact that Shelley keeps removing himself from the lineup. Thank you, Colin Campbell and Gary Bettman for making it so." ) are not terribly upset that Shelley is sitting.
Shelley said he thought that Alberts was getting ready to fight him, although Alberts never threw a punch or even dropped his gloves.
Alberts told The Vancouver Province that Shelley's actions were completely unexpected. “I don't think any of us were going to fight,” he said. “There was seven minutes left in the game. What's the point, it was 6-2.”
"I don't try to play like an idiot," Shelley said. "I don't try to put my team in a bad situation."