Call It What You Want, There’s Hockey

They’re calling it the Freeway Faceoff, but that’s old news out here. That’s been the nickname for the LA-Anaheim season series for a number of years. Most fans hear that now and just shrug. The point is, these two teams are both very good, but both totally different, and calling this matchup puts a number of different facets of hockey into the spotlight.

By the way, Coach Sutter of LA jokingly said late in the week that he thought all the games would be played at Dodger Stadium. Actually, he’d better hope not, because his team looked pretty sick losing to the Ducks in that historic venue on January 25th.

No, these games will be played at the two arenas, themselves a reflection of their places. For those of you who are watching from afar—Honda Center is in the middle of a huge parking lot, next to a freeway. It’s suburbia at its finest, the perfect model of the OC.

Staples Center is right next to a freeway too, and within blocks of urban condos. But it’s also a couple of blocks from where people set up tents on the sidewalk for the night. Just south is a blighted neighborhood plagued with gangs and crime. It’s the LA of the movies. (This is not stereotyping on my part—I have a spouse who works for the hospital two blocks from Staples, and oh, the stories she could tell you about the people who find their way in there.)

But in the end, none of that matters much, because these teams are pretty much made up of displaced Canadians who have turned into rich kids who can drive the Ferraris their salaries afford them to the games. Except that that wouldn’t be very team-oriented.

So what about the hockey? What should you expect from the Kings-Ducks series?
For one thing, less of the familiar unfamiliar. What? That is, less of the “it’s the playoffs, and we never see these guys otherwise” feel than if the Kings or Ducks were playing a more distant opponent. In fact, everyone gets to sleep in his own bed every night, and the longest ride is a bus journey up or down I-5. There just won’t be the feeling, it seems, that this is somehow for the Stanley Cup. More like it’s a summertime set of games that has some greater significance. Only when a couple of games have gone by, I think, will it seem like there’s something larger at stake than beating the hated rival.

For two, you can expect an interesting, if asymmetrical, goaltending battle. You’ve got Jonathan Quick on the one hand coming off a couple of mediocre games followed by some outstanding ones where he was everything he had been in 2012 and more. Then there’s the Andersen-Hiller duel, one a newbie and the other fighting towards a contract. The Ducks are much less settled in net than the Kings on the one hand, but on the other enjoy the advantage of two guys who are interchangeable parts. One goes in, the other comes out, and you hardly notice the difference.

For three, you can expect less cheap crap than either team endured in the first round. The Ducks had to put up with the Roussel-Garbutt pairing, who trashed it up in the middle games of their series, including offering a spear in the privates to Corey Perry. The Kings had to put up with the cheapness of Couture and Brown for the Sharks. This series, though, will feature two lineups which are devoid of meatheads. Sure, there’s Kyle Clifford for LA, who fights when it’s needed. And there are a few roughnecks in Anaheim, including Beleskey and Maroon. But if there’s one difference, it’s that the whole Ducks lineup is made up of guys who will tussle, or almost all of it. Perry, Getzlaf, Beauchemin, Sbisa, and others throw down. It’s unlikely that they will, though, because the fact that they can means that they likely won’t need to. The Kings are big, but they don’t play the fighting game anymore.

And then there’s the biggie, which is what happens when the Kings defensive scheme meets up with the Ducks’ speed. A week ago, one NHL insider I spoke with diagnosed the Kings loss (which didn’t end up happening) to San Jose as a product of their style being outdated. The word I got was this: Sutter’s done what he’s done, his style is now outmoded, and he’ll choose to quit over the summer. Sounds pretty silly now.

But the point is still solid—if the Ducks can penetrate the Kings’ D layers, get the puck deep and regain it, and foil LA with their cross-ice passes, they’ll do well. But if the Kings can keep things close, frustrate the Ducks’ highest producers, and then turn up a few goals of their own, they’ll find success.

The offensive question is more or less this: will the Kings’ big scorers and kids score? And will the Ducks’ big scorers and depth guys score? Leaving aside the stars—Kopitar, Carter, Brown, Getzlaf, Perry, and Selanne—if the Toffolis and Pearsons score for LA, or the Boninos and Beleskeys score for Anaheim, the games will be decided that way.

If the games end up being Kings-like 2-1 and 3-2 affairs, then LA wins. If the Ducks start to open it up and are truly faster and better than the Kings, then they’ll quickly run away.

Fans are partial of course. One I spoke with Thursday said without hesitation, “Ducks in six,” but when I asked which two games they’ll lose, he was bamboozled, finally naming a couple of games. Kings fans might be equally vague. What each side knows is that their team is better. Many don’t quite know why. Perhaps that’s how it is in Toronto and Montreal too. Perhaps that’s fandom. But if the worst you can say about this series is that it creates awareness in the greater LA and OC area, then possibly, that’s enough.

After all, I was asked more than once at work this week about game seven. “Is it over?” one person wanted to know. “Well, if it weren’t would I be talking to you right now?” I didn’t say it, but as the question was asked, I was thinking, “Do you honestly know that overtime in the playoffs is endless?”

Not likely, but people know now that there’s hockey out here, no matter whether it’s a bunch of Canadians who wear the sweaters from either team or not.

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