The Ducks and Kings complimented each other in the LA press Sunday in advance of their game, and in truth, each side does have reason to praise the other, because they pencil out as having more or less identical chances going towards the NHL playoffs. This despite quite different starts where the Kings faltered out of the gate while the Ducks charged.
Now, with three-quarters of the season gone, each team looks strong. Different, but strong. Both those differences and strengths were on show in Anaheim in a one-off six o’clock start.
To characterize the differences: the Ducks play a risky and open style. They often turn their defensemen loose, and frequently have a winger covering the point, even at regular strength, because the Dmen have taken the puck to the net. The Kings play a puck possession style, with short passes and a lot of cycling. It’s a relatively low-risk approach which doesn’t give chances for glaring errors to turn into opposition scoring chances.
The strengths are, respectively for the Ducks and Kings, speed versus size, long passes which connect across zones versus short ones which cycle, and goaltending. That last point is not one of contrast. Each team has two goaltenders that they trust. For LA, that’s the pairing of Jonathans, Quick and Bernier. To this point, each has played as well as the other, and unlike last year, Bernier has had his chances. Whereas last year he got into 16 games of 82, thus far this year, he has appeared in 13 of 39.
On this night, the Kings’ style was evident in the play of their first line. That trio is the quite complementary pair of Mike Richards and Jeff Carter with the quite unlikely third member being Kyle Clifford. He was on the fourth line much of last year, producing 12 points on five goals but adding 123 PIMs, mostly by fighting.
This season, he has 11 points in less than half the number of games, and just 45 PIMs thus far. IH asked him about the teams’ strengths and his own place on that primary line. “We both have a lot of high-end players and we’ve both got a lot of depth. Good goaltending. It definitely makes for a good match-up. You saw the playoff atmosphere out there, and it was an exciting game.”
He carried on to describe his role in particular: “I just try and create room for them [his linemates]. I’m not necessarily the most skilled player, and I’m not going to give them, break out or whatever. I just try to go to the net, create room for them and create turnovers for them so they can do their thing.”
That “thing” is, for Carter, to score. He did that to gain LA’s second goal and his 23rd, although Clifford was not on the ice at the time. Carter was with Richards and Brad Richardson.
Clifford continued, “It’s not saying that I don’t have skill, but obviously they’re high-end guys, and my job on that line is to create room for them and get them the puck. Turnovers.” He tells the tale of a team which rarely doesn’t have the puck, which is a good way to talk about the Kings.
Sunday’s action went back and forth, with first the Ducks, then the Kings being stronger, but the Kings’ plan from the first was to fire away. Fasth made a number of memorable saves, including one in period one where he came out to challenge Muzzin, who fired a wrister that the goalie swallowed in his stomach, and another in period three when Doughty was up in the play and fired a low shot which Fasth got with his blocker. Another in the third saw a slapshot by Muzzin go off of Fasth’s body, but not by luck. Because he was aggressive, well out of the net to challenge.
So when you match two good teams who happen to play differently, who wins? The one who capitalizes on the other’s mistakes.
Problem was, on this night, there were very few of those. One that might be pointed out was the apparent defensive breakdown which allowed Corey Perry to score the Ducks’ second goal, to make it 2-1. The game had opened with Kyle Palmieri getting a bit of a fluke goal when the puck came to him at the front of the net and bounced in off his skate.
Perry’s goal came when Souray cleared the puck out of his zone to Cogliano, who sent it to Perry at the Kings’ blueline. He charged in on net alone and shot a wrister low to the long side. It was a goalscorer’s goal, as Sutter said after the game. He described the play this way: “Muzz [Jake Muzzin] came down the strong side, puck changed corners. Corey Perry’s a . . . , scores goals, right? If you check, he wins the scoring title. So the break, he actually had two tonight. Scored on both.” He was referring to Perry’s eventual shootout goal, which ended the game.
So discount that mistake. Perhaps charge one up to Bernier on the third Ducks’ goal, though. The play came with Anaheim on the power play, and Sheldon Souray slapping a puck at the net off his back leg. The puck went off Bernier’s chest, but he stayed frozen, glove in the air, as if he were trying to hold it in his equipment. The problem was, the puck wasn’t trapped. It dropped to the ice, and Matt Beleskey picked it up, went forehand to backhand, and put it in the net. The Kings would tie the game late in the third period when Brown whacked a puck out of the air after Kopitar came off the wall and shot it to the crease.
It was lucky for the Ducks that their netminder was as good as he was, because if there was a mistake made frequently by the team, it was in being overly aggressive in their own zone. Blocking shots is a mixture of courage and skill, and they did an amazing job by blocking 23 to the Kings’ 6, but often, their attempts to block led to open chances. The Kings timed their shots so that the Ducks’ players had dived out of the way and a lane to the net was afforded them.
So who wins in a game with equal but opposite skill? The team with the better goalie. On this night, that was Viktor Fasth, and not just because he stopped 35 of 38 shots, to Jonathan Bernier’s 19 of 22. Put it down to his ability to come up to the pressure, never more apparent than when the game went to a shootout.
Bernier said as much afterwards. “I gotta be better. It wasn’t my best game, that’s for sure. I’ve gotta come up with those big saves to get that extra point.” He was scored on on all three shootout tries the Kings took, while Fasth was scored on once. The last Kings’ chance was not taken, since the Ducks had already posted three goals in the shootout. Bernier summed up the skills contest by saying, “It wasn’t my best one, that’s for sure.”
To illustrate Fasth’s strength by way of a return to Clifford, he said that the Kings’ strategy was to get traffic in front of the goalie. The problem was, Fasth was better. He challenged, getting out to the top of his crease. He made saves with his body, his blocker, and his legs.
Coach Sutter put a point on it when asked about his team’s ability to come back on the evening. They were down 1-0, 2-1, and 3-2 before tying the game late and going to the shootout. “Three times,” he said, “Can’t complain about that. So that’s the game.”
He summarized the night by saying, “We keep getting points because we’re trying to make the playoffs. I’m sure they’re saying the same thing.”
The beneficiary of the strength of the two clubs is local fans, of whatever stripe. Should these two meet in the playoffs, it would be a raucous affair, with full buildings on both ends and the pressure up to full intensity. A few weeks will tell the tale.
There’s word of an outdoor game in January in Dodger Stadium. Personally, I wish they’d leave that to the cold climates.
Getzlaf may play tomorrow, but it depends on how he feels. His coach said afterwards, “It’s not Bruce saying he can have a day off. It’s every day, I ask him in the morning, ‘Can you play tonight?’ I’ll ask him again tomorrow (Monday) morning.”
Follow me on twitter and I promise few tweets but good ones @growinguphockey. But I’d rather you just read my books, starting with Growing Up Hockey, and leave the tweeting to people with more time on their hands.