LOS ANGELES- This year’s “Freeway Faceoff” rose to a new level of significance as the Ducks swept a two-game set from the Los Angeles Kings with a 3-1 win at Staples Center Saturday night.
The Ducks clinched a playoff berth Friday night in Anaheim with a 2-1 victory over the Kings and, in a stunning turnaround, secured home ice advantage in the first round with their win Saturday.
“Like, two days ago we didn’t even know if we were going to make the playoffs and two days later you’re in the fourth place, it’s amazing,” said Teemu Selanne, who scored both Anaheim goals Friday and contributed solid shifts to their win Saturday.
“We play exhibition season and then we play 82 games and now the fun starts,” he added.
Los Angeles’ aspirations shifted from being a potential first-round host Friday to avoiding the eighth seed as they watched the score of Sunday’s Blackhawks-Red Wings game. Chicago lost, meaning the Nashville Predators will be the fifth-seeded squad that faces the Ducks while the Kings have finished seventh and will play the San Jose Sharks in the first round.
“We had a chance to finish fourth and now we’re seventh or eighth. But at the end of the day we’re in the playoffs,” said the Kings captain Dustin Brown. “It’s a new season, everyone can hit the reset button and get ready to go because now all the 82 games are irrelevant.”
This season marks the first time in NHL history that both Southern California clubs have made the Stanley Cup Playoffs. By way of the Pacific Division champion Sharks’ berth, California will put more teams in this postseason than Canada, who will send the Canucks as well as the Montreal Canadiens.
“It’s one of those things where we just gotta keep trying to build the culture around here … when I first got here I was surprised at how popular hockey was but the more years we have like this, the better for hockey in California,” said the Kings captain Dustin Brown.
Saturday, the Kings drew penalties early and often, holding heavy advantages in shots on goal and possession time throughout the game, although many of their shots came from the perimeter.
Anaheim defenseman Francois Beauchemin caught Ryan Smyth up high with his stick and drew blood to start the Anaheim parade to the sin bin.
Los Angeles applied pressure early during the four-minute power play with Brown hitting the net twice on that trip. They only sustained possession once more with Jack Johnson’s wide miss being their only attempt to put a puck on goal.
A roughing minor to Jarkko Ruutu produced an equally hapless advantage. A truncated tussle between Lubomir Visnovsky and Jarret Stoll netted an extra minor for Visnovsky and another power play for the Kings. It ended after 1:25 when a sloppy line change left Los Angeles penalized for too many men.
“We’re not scoring on the power play, but at least some things are starting to go on the offensive zone, and we take a too many men on the ice—that was a tough one. Kills the momentum I thought,” Kings Head Coach Terry Murray said.
The four failures in less than14 minutes meant the Kings had not scored on their last 19 power-play chances. They had not scored a man up since Anze Kopitar sustained the broken right ankle that ended his season.
“One way or another we’ve got to figure it out and that’s the responsibility of the players,” Brown said. “Coaches can draw up all the players they want but if the players aren’t going to execute them, it doesn’t matter.”
Anaheim struck immediately off the four-on-four faceoff as Brandon McMillan swatted his own rebound out of midair past Jonathan Quick.
Special-teams woes persisted for Los Angeles. Their typically stingy penalty kill surrendered a goal when Corey Perry’s no-look pass across the crease set Saku Koivu up for a tap-in tally.
“Getzlaf made a great, patient play just to hold Doughty and finally he moved his stick and threw it down,” Perry said. “I knew Saku (Koivu) or Lubo(mir Visnovsky) is normally back there, I knew one of ’em was gonna be back there and I just threw the puck.”
Despite a 15-10 advantage in shots on goal and an edge in possession after spending much of the period on the power play, the Kings trailed 2-0 at the break.
At the start of the second stanza, a dangerous redirect by Michal Handzus, a pinged crossbar by Perry and a signature stuff attempt from Ryan Smyth came in quick succession. The chances, two for Los Angeles and one for Anaheim, produced no scoring.
Fierce fore-checking from Wayne Simmonds forced a turnover. Simmonds generated a chance for Kyle Clifford, whose bid went into the pads of Dan Ellis. Ellis made a spectacular kick save on Dustin Penner’s wraparound effort moments later as well.
A shorthanded steal near the blue line sent Brown on a breakaway but his last-second transition to the backhand proved ineffective. Drew Doughty barreled in behind the play to steal Cam Fowler’s listless breakout pass, drilling yet another shot into the pads of Ellis.
In a sequence emblematic of the evening for the Kings, the counterattack resulted in a Beauchmin goal in transition off the shorthanded pinch by Doughty.
The Kings put a nick in the 3-0 lead and ended their power-play famine when Doughty’s mortar from the left point was stabbed into the Anaheim net by Smyth. Johnson earned the secondary assist for the 100th point of his career.
Early in the third period, Ellis held strong against a barrage of L.A. shots on net that drew the Kings total to more than double that of Anaheim at 34-16.
“Our goaltender is one where we ask them to give us a chance. Some nights you have to stop 25, some nights you’ve got to stop 12 and some nights you’ve got to stop 40,” Ducks Head Coach Randy Carlyle said.
A late man advantage generated more strong chances for Los Angeles but they were unable to halve the two-goal deficit.
The game was filled with tiffs and tilts. In a classic, heavyweight under-card bout, George Parros went with his fellow Princeton Tiger alumnus Kevin Westgarth. Late in the game, a tag-team match between the middleweight regulars Kyle Clifford and Sheldon Brookbank alongside Brad Richardson and, of all players, Teemu Selanne.
“The Finnish Flash had the right hand going,” Carlyle exclaimed with a smile.
Selanne, who said he was upset and felt as though there was an attempt to injure him on the high hit by Richardson, showed up in the bout between the two not-so-seasoned pugilists.
The 20-year, 19-season veteran Selanne last fought with the Winnipeg Jets. It was during his first season when he set the rookie scoring record in the 1992-1993 campaign. Given his level of experience, he probably could have scrapped with Eddie Shore, but it was actually another future hall of famer, the American-born rearguard Chris Chelios.
For Anaheim, the team seems to be peaking and finding cohesion at the right time, a familiar sight for their fans in recent years.
“(Carlyle) keeps us in great shape and we work hard throughout the whole year,” the Hart Trophy candidate Perry said. “There’s no coincidence that we stride at the right time and it definitely helps when you’re headed into the playoffs on a high.”
For Los Angeles, some might consider their performance in recent weeks to be backing into the postseason, but seeding may mean little in this year’s hermetically grouped Western Conference.
“Our goal at the beginning of the year was to win the division and we didn’t do that. We had a chance to clinch home ice and we didn’t do that,” Brown said. “But at the end of the day you give yourself a chance making the playoffs. Teams have gone on great runs starting in seventh or eight position.”
California hockey fans from the South Bay to South Orange County have to share the enthusiasm of Los Angeles coach Terry Murray.
“It’s absolutely incredible what’s going on here in the last couple weeks of the season,” Murray said. “That’s what’s so exciting about it, it’s great to play in these games, it’s great to be a part of these games, it’s a lot of fun, its great for the fans to be able to come and watch the competition because it’s as good as its going to get.”