Fresh off an unbeaten four-game road trip, the Kings will kick off a four-game homestand Thursday night that will see them host the other three remaining Expansion Six franchises, beginning with the Pittsburgh Penguins.
They’ll also welcome the Philadelphia Flyers and St. Louis Blues, who like the Kings and Penguins entered the NHL in 1967, with a match against the decidedly younger Florida Panthers (established 1993) between those opponents to round out the slate.
The Kings have gotten more and more from their one-time No. 2 overall pick, Quinton Byfield, while Pittsburgh will need quite a bit from its third-string goalie after Alex Nedeljkovic (lower-body injury) was placed on injured reserve in late October and Tristan Jarry took both a powerful pivot of Adam Henrique’s hip and a puck to the mask on Tuesday, forcing him from a 2-0 shutout of the Ducks. Per multiple reports, Jarry did not practice Wednesday.
Byfield, who was selected second overall in 2020 but had been limited in his development significantly by a broken ankle and then an illness that took around 25 pounds off his formidable frame, started his career with 14 points in his first 61 games. A move to left wing last season opened up more minutes, albeit in a role with an emphasis on puck retrieval and board work, and this year his production has been more congruous with his talent level and prominence.
He extended his point streak to four games (seven points) with an assist on Anze Kopitar’s empty-netter, which was the captain’s 400th career goal, in a 4-1 victory over defending Stanley Cup champion Vegas on Wednesday night as the Kings became just the eighth team in NHL history to win their first seven road games.
“He wins a ton of battles down low, against the big D-men too, which shows he’s using his body really well,” linemate Adrian Kempe said after Byfield notched three assists in Philadelphia on Saturday. “Going back to last year, we had a ton of chances and he didn’t really get the points that he deserved, so those are showing a little bit more this year, so I think everybody’s really happy for him.”
Byfield, who at 6-foot-4 and more than 220 pounds has prototypical size for a center similar to teammates Pierre-Luc Dubois and Anze Kopitar, has long been considered a finesse player for his stature. He already is one of the fastest skaters on the team, per data recently released by the NHL, and he has shown flashes of strong puck skills. What might have been left for Byfield to acquire, other than mere experience, was a higher level of assertiveness, which Kopitar felt was emerging.
“He’s using his speed, his skill and his size. It’s great to see him develop, and he’s playing with a little swagger too,” Kopitar said.
The Kings entered the season with questions about their goaltending, but Cam Talbot has answered them affirmatively thus far. He stopped 37 shots and nearly turned in his second shutout of the season against Vegas.
Pittsburgh’s engine has sputtered early in the season, leaving the Penguins in the Metropolitan Division’s basement. But California has been kind to them as they bombarded the San Jose Sharks, 10-2, on Saturday and then blanked the Ducks on Tuesday in a tight-checking, low-enthusiasm affair. In it, Hellberg made 11 saves in relief, and the 6-foot-6 Swede seemed like a borderline lock to start Thursday.
“Obviously, I’m playing hockey to play games as well. So of course, if they tell me to keep playing here, I’m up for it, for sure,” Hellberg said after Tuesday’s game.
While it was unclear how long Hellberg would be the de facto owner of the Penguins’ net, Pittsburgh coach Mike Sullivan expressed his confidence in the 32-year-old, whose top-level professional experience has been more extensive in the Russian-based Kontinental Hockey League than in the NHL.
“I think it’s terrific. He’s such a great guy. He works hard and brings such positive energy to our team,” Sullivan said.
Hellberg will not be the biggest name from Sweden in the game, since his countryman Erik Karlsson was acquired by Pittsburgh, adding last year’s Norris Trophy winner to a core that included Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang. The Penguins also continue to employ another multiple-time champion in the twilight of his career, former Kings forward Jeff Carter, who was scratched in the games against San Jose and the Ducks.
“First time in my career,” Carter told reporters. “But I understand it. I’m part of a team. And whatever [Coach Sullivan] decides to do in terms of the lineup, we’re all on board.”
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday
Where: Crypto.com Arena
How to watch: Bally Sports West
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