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    Kings and Oilers brace for another superb playoff clash
    • April 14, 2023

    Last year’s first-round clash between the Kings and Edmonton Oilers was such an entertaining, edifying series that it only seemed fitting that they would meet again.

    On Monday, they’ll square off in Canada for Game 1 of a series that should be spellbinding if last year’s postseason offered any indication.

    That confrontation saw the maximum number of lead changes, four, with the Kings at one point responding to an 8-2 onslaught by Edmonton with a 4-0 shutout. Their 3-2 series lead evaporated as Edmonton captain Connor McDavid took over Game 7, a 2-0 clincher on the same ice where this series will begin.

    “We’re in a good spot,” Kings forward Trevor Moore said. “We’ve been doing it for 82 games now and I feel like we know what we’re doing; whoever we get in the playoffs I think has a big challenge.”

    Invaluable experience

    For the Kings, their lineup last season was brimming with first-time competitors in the playoffs, while the Oilers were looking to make the leap from invitee to guest of honor.

    They did just that, leaving behind a strenuous bout with the Kings and advancing all the way to the conference finals, where they lost to eventual Stanley Cup champion Colorado. McDavid has credited the Kings series with helping Edmonton’s growth as a group and now hoped to draw on that experience during the rematch.

    “I think just being older, a little more experienced in these games. Playing a series against L.A., we know the game that works against them.” said McDavid after the second of two recent Edmonton victories over the Kings that evened the season series.

    Arms race

    McDavid and Leon Draisaitl have dominated the scoring race and most valuable player voting alike since 2017, and this year has been no different.

    McDavid’s 153 points were the most by any player in a single season since Mario Lemieux’s 161 in 1995-96, the 15th most in NHL history and the second most by any player other than Lemieux or Wayne Gretzky. That made him a lock for the Hart Trophy and Ted Lindsay Award with the Art Ross Trophy and his first Maurice Richard Trophy already in his back pocket. McDavid concluded the campaign on a 16-game scoring streak and Edmonton ended on a 15-game points streak.

    Draisaitl finished 15 points ahead of the next non-Oiler in scoring and fourth in goals this season, while Ryan Nugent-Hopkins had his first 100-point campaign at age 30.

    “I don’t think there’s anything that sets you up for Edmonton, it’s a different monster,” said Kings coach Todd McLellan, who coached the Oilers from 2015-18.

    That trio was historically productive on the power play, an area where the Kings improved vastly but fell short of Edmonton’s lethal quickstrike ability. Yet the Kings kept Edmonton’s NHL-leading unit and its top three power-play producers off the board entirely in the first three meetings of the season.

    Firing back

    The Kings bottled up Edmonton at times last spring thanks to a hermetic 1-3-1 system and the defensive savvy of their top centers, Anze Kopitar and Phillip Danault. But Kings general manager Rob Blake knew they’d need to potentiate their attack to get deeper into the playoffs.

    Enter winger Kevin Fiala, who held the team lead in scoring until Game 82 despite missing 13 games with a lower-body injury. His acquisition via trade and the emergence of Gabe Vilardi as a goal-scoring force gave the Kings unparalleled scoring depth in their top nine, creating advantageous matchups galore.

    While the Kings may or may not have Fiala (lower body) or Vilardi (upper body) for Game 1, their defense is much healthier than last season and their top six has been carrying the mail of late. Kopitar overtook the team scoring title and did so, in large part, setting up Adrian Kempe, whose hat trick in the season finale made him the first 40-goal scorer for the franchise in nearly 30 years.

    The second line, which was integral to the Kings’ success last season, showed more signs of cohesion during the Kings’ final two games of the season, both victories.

    “They looked as good as they’ve looked in a long time,” McLellan said. “They had some pace to their game, their tenacity of puck pursuit was at an elite level and they were responsible defensively.”

    Fortified at the deadline

    The Kings and Oilers meandered at times early in the season, each seeking to stabilize their defense and goaltending for a substantial portion of the campaign.

    Fiala and new power-play guru Jim Hiller were as advertised for the Kings, elevating their attack and making their man-advantage unit among the best in the league, a foreign feeling to Kings fans. But Cal Petersen ended up toiling in the minors, Jonathan Quick struggled to find consistency and Pheonix Copley was the only man standing between the Kings and a potential meltdown between the pipes. Meanwhile, a left-hand-shooting defender with some heft to his game was an apparent need, so Blake filled both holes in one fell swoop, with the acquisition of Vladislav Gavrikov and Joonas Korpisalo from Columbus.

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    For the Oilers, Stuart Skinner offered an internal solution in goal, while the additions via trade of rugged defenseman Mattias Ekholm and towering center Nick Bjugstad made them harder to play against.

    The result of these deals? From March 1 until the close of the season, the Kings had the NHL’s sixth-best points percentage while Edmonton’s staggering .881 mark was 63 points better than that of any other club.

    “That’s the regular season. Now’s the time to really play,” McDavid said. “It was a good regular season, individually and for the team, but now it’s the fun time.”

    ​ Orange County Register