First Steps Towards Rivalry

For something that took twenty years to happen, the Kings-Ducks playoff series that began Saturday late afternoon local time started off with more a whimper than a bang, though how it ended was something altogether again.

The parking lots at Honda Center, home of the Ducks, were empty of revelers before the game. People did what they always did—they parked their cars and quietly strolled to the doors appropriate for their tickets. Many cars, to be fair, had Ducks flags flying, but that was the extent of it.

The start of the game was equally anti-climactic. The Ducks kind of played into that with their opener, a duet of a violin and bass at center ice. The bassist was a 50-something with flowing gray locks. And yes, I did say that in reference to the beginning of a hockey game.

The game itself started with less fire than might have been expected. The Kings had been off just a few days after their historic and remarkable comeback from being down 0-3 to a team that truly is a rival, the San Jose Sharks. Yet they pushed just five shots at starter Jonas Hiller in the other net during period one.

They should have poured it on, and would have had they bought into the Ducks goalie dilemma storyline which was circulating all week. The Ducks had gone with Andersen in the playoffs until he was replaced by the cold-as-ice Hiller, who had not only been in a backup role in the playoffs, but hadn’t played at the end of the regular season. That replacement took place in game four versus Dallas, and was reprised in game six. Andersen took the loss in game four, Hiller the series winner in game six.

LA didn’t exploit whatever lack of confidence Hiller might have had, though, and even through two frames, they had only fifteen shots. The second period, obviously, had them put a league-average ten shots on the net, but the majority of the shots came in the last seven minutes of the period after a rather Ducks-dominated early part.

Though local news stories played up the enmity supposedly existing between the teams, most of which was evident on social media, it was more the “you suck!” “no, you suck!” kind of stuff than anything with substance and specificity. The arena itself was often surprisingly quiet of rivalry. There were cries of “Go Kings Go” which seemed to take over the noise in the building at times, and the obvious cheering of the home crowd for things like PKs. But the action, as well as the crowd’s reaction, was more back and forth and not dangerous than it was thrilling and terrifying, if by the latter one means nick-of-time saves of the type being made by Price of Montreal over the first two of his team’s games with Boston.

In fact, to the players, the playoffs have their importance, but more than anything, this series was notable to them for the lack of the need to fly to games. The general plan was to have the Kings bus down to the OC the days before games, stay in a hotel, and then bus back after the game. Boudreau said that he would stay over with his squad in LA between games three and four, if sufficient practice time was available up there. And the players had commented repeatedly in the press that they liked the idea of the low wear-and-tear series.

This is probably something that East Coast fans take for granted, so for those from far away, here’s a primer on SoCal NHL hockey. The distance from arena to arena, depending upon which freeways one takes, is something like 40 miles. But no one here talks about distance, In fact, I’d say that almost nobody knows how many miles they live from work. And they will never answer the question “How far is it?” (no matter what “it” is) in distance terms. It’s always time.

And the sentence is always begun the same way, “Depending upon traffic. . . .” So if you want the bottom line on how far it is between Staples Center and Honda Center, it’s “depends on traffic, about an hour and a half,” but that could mean an hour, or it could mean two. Depends on traffic. (You’re getting the traffic thing, right?)

So the players were looking forward to a very much East-Coast style of travel. And they were thinking about rivalries because they were told to by the press. But for them, these are just games which stand between them and the obstacle that motivates guys who work for free during the post-season—they want the Stanley Cup.

So that brings us back to the game itself. The Ducks poured past the Kings using their speed, though they didn’t get all that many shots, and they scored just once, in the first period. The Kings played behind the puck a lot of the way, though they too had a goal in period one. Period two saw neither team score, and period three had Selanne as the hero until there were seven seconds left. The goal that made the game 2-1 came when the Finnish Flash followed Patrick Maroon down the ice and kind of slid into a pass that Maroon left in front of him, smacking the puck into the net.

A few fans left, as early as with seven minutes to go. Mistake. The Kings pulled their goalie at 1:22 and got a shot that Hiller saved.

Hiller, to get to the matter of Anaheim’s netminding, was solid if unspectacular most of the going. His best save might have been one that he took off the face with about seven minutes to go. But it wasn’t until the end that he was tested beyond his mettle. And even then, he didn’t let in anything that the coach of his team was willing to charge against him.

The Ducks took a timeout with 40 seconds to go, and the Kings continued to play sans-netminder. They took a shot from the point that was blocked by Bonino off his foot. Then the puck went through the crease and off the goalie with Bryan Allen in front of the net. He couldn’t get to the puck, and Marian Gaborik picked it out of the air and knocked it past Hiller. There were seven seconds left on the clock exactly.

With that, all the symmetry that could have been, with the Ducks continuing their streak of beating the Kings (four of the past five in the regular season—the Kings won the first of their season series in a shootout, and the Ducks the next three in regulation time. Then the Ducks won the last of the five-game series in the shootout) went out the window.

In terms of streaks in the post-season, the Kings obviously had four straight wins. The Ducks, in their series with the Stars, won the first two, lost two, and then won two more.

Now, the Kings’ streak extends to five, and the Ducks begin one that they’ll try to end on Monday, a losing streak. It happened like lightning.

The overtime began with a push by the Ducks which the Kings survived. Things went back and forth, each team getting a shot. Quick stopped two crucial chances on Devante Smith-Pelly, who had parked on the edge of the crease and waited despite the play maybe heading the other way.

He did the same thing again, breaking in with Etem and Bonino and challenging Quick. They were not late in the zone, but their offensive chance cost the Ducks a three-on-two, with Kopitar and Gaborik breaking in alongside Jeff Carter. That line, by the way, was a new invention made up in the middle of the third period.

After the game, this factored into Darryl Sutter’s comments, as he said, “With ten minutes left in the third period those guys played on the power play,” but he said that others had played together who normally didn’t also. “We managed to tie the game up,” he said, commenting on the fact that Carter had also been with Kopitar and Gaborik on the LA second goal.

Anyway, on the OT winner, the puck was kept in by Carter, who went around the net with it. It ended up going against the grain back to Kopitar, who took a long wrister. Gaborik crashed toward the net and redirected it past Hiller, who was lying on the ice for a few seconds after as if he hoped to be able to erase the fact that it had gone past him. He obviously couldn’t, and the Kings had taken a 1-0 lead in the series. This happened at 12:07 in the first extra period.

The goalscorer said, “I think whoever would have been there, in my spot, he would have gotten it, too. I think we did a good job on the forecheck, and in the corner.” His coach would later disagree with that, crediting the Slovak with good skilled play both last series and this one.

This performance was no surprise to the coach. “It’s what he did in the first round too. He scored three goals, big goals, and he had a lot of good opportunities in the first round. He was a big reason why we won the first round. He finishes more opportunities. If you look at both those goals, they were classic goals. You’re got to go to the net to score, quite honestly. You score a lot of goals from around the net, not from the outside. . . . You pull the goalie, and you’ve still got to go to the net. . . . How many guys can score those goals? You’ve got to be a scorer to do that.”

The intensity and closeness of the game were a big feature of player comments afterwards. Matt Greene of the Kings said, “They’re able to put it on you for a good portion of the game, and you’ve got to be able to withstand it, and that’s what we did tonight.” He described that game as going in “fits and starts,” and said, “you’ve got to answer back. We got quality goaltending, and we got a chance to turn our game around a little bit.”

Drew Doughty said, “I think we showed in the last series that our team doesn’t give up. We never once thought that we were going to lose that game, even with a minute left, even when the timeouts were called. We believed we were going to get that goal. It may have been a lucky bounce or whatnot. It doesn’t matter how it went in, it went in, and we took it over in overtime.”

Sutter also said that the atmosphere in the arena was “awesome,” and he said to sum up, “It’s going to be a pretty good series, I hope.” He further said, “Both teams are going to play a good forecheck game, and I think that’s what they did.”

It is a series, and not a game, of course, and Boudreau seemed to focus on that point in what he said after the contest. “When you get scored on with seven seconds to go, it’s a tough pill to swallow, but I think this is what all the games are going to be like. We had our opportunities to win the game but we didn’t convert, and they converted when they had to.”

He also said, “We did a lot of good things, but ultimately we ended up with the loss, so it doesn’t really matter; we’ve got to do better the next time.”

And that, in the end, is perhaps the lesson. Despite all the talk, this is not a rivalry, in one sense, yet, because up until now, all these teams have played is games. They’ve had some back-to-backs, and one that had marquee value in that it was an outdoor contest. But they’ve never played when one could punch the other’s ticket to an early summer, and every game that goes by makes the end game more evident, until the total gets to four or five or six or seven.

Now that the Kings have a quick start on that process of creating the final moments of the Ducks’ season, fans and players alike can start to build a case against the other side and for their team. From the Anaheim point of view, nothing’s settled yet, and they have their chance to make it a best-of-five series Monday night. If they cash in that chip by winning, then things ramp up one more level.

Then, you can start to talk about rivalries.

Notes
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2 Responses to “First Steps Towards Rivalry”

  1. Dan
    May 4, 2014 at 1:31 pm #

    Well done. Was curious how the atmosphere was. I agree that this series is not an automatic rivalry with the players, as it takes more than regular season games to create that. It’s the fans that have the rivalry due to proximity.

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