The Maple Leafs kick off their annual California road trip with a formidable challenge against the Kings in Los Angeles (10:30 p.m. EST, Sportsnet Ontario).

With the tight-checking Hurricanes game providing the immediate precursor to this matchup for the Maple Leafs, the hope is that Toronto will be able to manufacture a much better effort against the Kings than in the first game of the season series at Scotiabank Arena back in late October, a 4-1 loss in which the Leafs never got out of first gear offensively.

The 20-8-5 Kings have slowed down in the last month or so with a 4-4-2 record through December while scoring just 2.92 goals per game (22nd in the NHL), but their elite defensive numbers are no mirage. The Kings enter the game having allowed just 77 goals in 33 games (2.33/game), the best in the NHL by a solid margin.

LA locks down the neutral zone with their 1-3-1 and protects the home plate effectively. In addition to continuing to build on their defensive showing against Carolina — just four high-danger chances against at five-on-five, tied for their best mark of the season — the Leafs will have to be prepared to chip pucks in, work to earn them back, and win enough battles to get on the interior of the offensive zone if they’re going to score enough to win tonight.

Martin Jones will take the start in goal against his former team and David Kampf will return to the 4C spot in the lineup after his 323 consecutive-games-played streak ended with a healthy scratch on Saturday. Otherwise, the Leafs‘ lineup is expected to remain the same from the 3-2 loss to Carolina.

Game Day Quotes

Sheldon Keefe on the challenge the Kings present:

Best defensive team in the league. Best penalty kill in the league. You have to expect that offense will be tough to come by. They keep scores and games close. There is that much more pressure on us to defend well, protect our own net, and capitalize on the opportunities that we have.

It certainly is a big challenge for us tonight. Yesterday, I watched the first period and what they did to the Oilers in here tonight. That is the way games can look and can start. That is a lot of how the game went when we played these guys earlier in the season.

We are going to have to be at our best, no doubt.

Brad Treliving on the Leafs‘ play entering 2024:

It is funny. If you look back at the beginning of the year, we were getting some points we weren’t earning. We were just getting some points. You take the points when you can get them. At the end of the day, it is all about results in this business.

I have liked our last two games. We will use the Carolina game. I think we gave up six chances at five-on-five. That is winning hockey. That is going to give you a better chance to have success long term. We didn’t get points out of the game and lost the special-teams game.

If you look at what we have given up going back to the Columbus and Carolina games, it is a better recipe for success. We have a lot of talent and a lot of skill. We know that. It is the ability to check. When we do that on a real consistent basis from the top down in our lineup… We are going to score enough, but we have to check.

When you look throughout the league, look at the team we are playing [LA Kings]. It is a great team. They pride themselves on checking first.

It is a big [key] to our success. It is a long way of saying that we have to continue with that mindset. The results will follow.

Morgan Rielly on Simon Benoit’s emergence and steady play on the blue line:

I think he has been outstanding. In the last couple of games and the last couple of weeks, he has really had a chance to put the kind of player he is on display.

He is a big guy who can skate well. He likes to be physical. He is strong down low. He can move the puck, too. He has had flashes of great stuff, but all around, he has been outstanding for us.

When you see a player like that take an opportunity to play a bit more, move up the lineup, and play well, it is always great.

Kings head coach Todd McLellan on his team’s 4-4-2 stretch over the last 10 games:

They’ve been tight games. We’re playing against real good opponents. I said this 10 games ago: We weren’t going to play .800 hockey the whole year. It just never has happened.

Other teams are adapting to us a little bit, too, but I don’t think we’re playing poorly. I think we’re right there. I go back to the Vegas game; I didn’t think we played poorly as a team. I think we made some individual mistakes — which are going to happen — and we’re not scoring goals as easily as we did earlier in the year. That’s probably the biggest difference.

Head-to-Head Stats: Maple Leafs vs. Kings

In the season-to-date statistics, the Kings hold the advantage over the Leafs in four out of five offensive categories and five out of five defensive categories.

Toronto Maple Leafs Projected Lines

#23 Matthew Knies – #34 Auston Matthews – #16 Mitch Marner
#59 Tyler Bertuzzi – #91 John Tavares – #88 William Nylander
#89 Nick Robertson – #11 Max Domi – #19 Calle Jarnkrok
#74 Bobby McMann – #64 David Kampf – #18 Noah Gregor

#44 Morgan Rielly – #78 TJ Brodie
#22 Jake McCabe – #2 Simon Benoit
#55 Mark Giordano – #37 Timothy Liljegren

Starter: #31 Martin Jones
#41 Dennis Hildeby

Scratched: Conor Timmins, William Lagesson, Pontus Holmberg
Injured: Joseph Woll, Ryan Reaves

Los Angeles Kings Projected Lines

#55 Quinton Byfield – #11 Anze Kopitar – #9 Adrian Kempe
#22 Kevin Fiala – #24 Phillip Danault – #12 Trevor Moore
#78 Alex Laferriere – #80 Pierre-Luc Dubois – #34 Arthur Kaliyev
#91 Carl Grundstrom – #46 Blake Lizotte – #61 Trevor Lewis

#44 Mikey Anderson – #8 Drew Doughty
#84 Vladislav Gavrikov – #3 Matt Roy
#5 Andreas Englund – #53 Jordan Spence

Starter: #39 Cam Talbot
#31 David Rittich

Injured: Viktor Arvidsson, Pheonix Copley