TV: FOX Sports Sun
TIME: Pregame coverage begins at 10 p.m.
WATCH IT LIVE ON FOX SPORTS GO
LOS ANGELES — The red-hot Tampa Bay Lightning continue their three-game road trip through California when they meet the Los Angeles Kings on Thursday in a matchup of division leaders.
Tampa Bay (12-2-2) is coming off a 5-1 victory over the Sharks in San Jose on Wednesday. Los Angeles (11-2-2) prevailed in an emotional 4-3 overtime victory over the rival Anaheim Ducks on Tuesday night.
The Thursday game at Staples Center could feature an offensive explosion.
Tampa Bay boasts the NHL’s leaders in goals, Nikita Kucherov (15), and points, Steven Stamkos (28). Kucherov is second with 26 points.
Kucherov, Stamkos (seven goals) and Vladislav Namestnikov (seven goals, 17 points) each recorded three points against San Jose.
“They play fast and their support game with the puck is fast, and they’re always looking to make plays, and their D are involved all the time, which a lot of teams are, but their ability to play fast and make plays has been impressive,” Los Angeles coach John Stevens, speaking to LAKingsInsider.com on Wednesday, said of the Lightning.
The Lightning ranks second in the NHL with 64 goals, and Tampa Bay goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy leads the league with 12 victories. Vasilevskiy saved 32 of the 33 shots he faced in the win at San Jose.
Should the Lightning play backup goaltender Peter Budaj on Thursday, the Kings would know what to expect. Budaj appeared in 53 games for the Kings last season, posting 27 wins and keeping Los Angeles’ hopes for the playoffs alive late into the season while replacing the injured Jonathan Quick.
“Whether (Budaj) is in there or Vasilevskiy’s in there, there’s a big challenge of their team game and the way they play,” Stevens said. “At the end of the day, we’ve got to get people to the net, we’ve got to get pucks to the net, we’ve got to spend time in the offensive zone.”
Los Angeles has shed its low-scoring style under Stevens. Anze Kopitar (eight goals, 19 points) and Dustin Brown (seven, 15) lead a group of six Kings with 10 or more points. With 52 goals, Los Angeles is a goal shy of the scoring lead in the Western Conference.
Tampa Bay’s forwards must penetrate a punishing Los Angeles defense that includes the rugged Kurtis MacDermid, who knocked Anaheim’s Ondrej Kase to the ice and out of the game Tuesday with an illegal open-ice hit.
Drew Doughty represents the Kings’ other formidable force on defense. Doughty played 35 minutes against the Ducks after MacDermid was lost to a game misconduct.
If the Lightning get past the Kings’ back line, they will encounter Quick.
In Anaheim, Quick showed his familiar brilliance. He flashed across the crease spread-eagled to save a short-handed bid by Ducks center Chris Wagner early in the game. Quick sits second in the league in both save percentage (.937) and in goals-against average (2.06).
Los Angeles will have to power past a seven-man defensive corps if the Lightning use their traditional lineup.
Stevens said of Tampa Bay’s approach, “It’s interesting — they’ve played seven D and 11 forwards so much, and I think the reason they do that is because they’re so deep up front.”
The Lightning’s depth comes from all over the ice.
Defenseman Victor Hedman, a Norris Trophy finalist last season, played 21:46 on Wednesday. On Tampa Bay’s first goal, he powered down the ice, dangled through several Sharks, then dished the puck off in the offensive zone. He did not receive an assist on Jake Dotchin’s first NHL goal, but credit the tally to Hedman’s rush.
Dotchin said of recording his initial goal, “Obviously exciting. It was a dream of mine to not only play in the NHL but to score, and to have it come on a day that we win is even better. It’s a big win for our club, and (we’re) ready to go again tomorrow.”
Tampa Bay allowed the Sharks an early goal as Joonas Donskoi scored at 25 seconds of the first period. The Lightning responded with five unanswered goals. From early in the second period, Tampa Bay was in complete control. By the third period, the Sharks could only chase.
“We had no panic,” Stamkos said of the Lightning’s reaction to the early deficit. “Great response in the second and third. Probably the second for sure was probably our best period of the year. That’s against a really good team. Obviously a big one for us.”