Hockey Fever Strikes SoCal

The question to be settled between the Kings and Ducks Saturday night wasn’t which team is the best in SoCal. That wasn’t the point. And certainly not who is the best in California. That was determined a week ago against San Jose.

Rather, the win on this night, for whoever got it, would do one simple thing—keep them from getting knocked out of the playoffs in swift and sure fashion. The loser, as the night began, would be facing the possibility of dropping to as low as eighth in the West. That, obviously, would mean challenging Vancouver in the first round.

The Ducks might have had a chance against the Canucks, if their speed could foil their opponent’s defense and rattle Roberto Luongo. The Kings would have no hope at all. Their grinding, low-scoring game would simply wither in the face of the up-tempo offense of the Canadian team.

The team which won the crosstown contest would be assured of a spot as high as fourth or the possibility of fifth, depending upon what else happened around the league. That would mean, probably, playing Nashville or Phoenix, and even without home ice, that would be a matchup either of the teams would have taken, as opposed to San Jose, Detroit, or Vancouver.

By the end of the game, it was settled, and you could have watched not a minute of the game, but seen Dustin Brown in his dressing room stall after, and known all you needed to about what had happened.

In the first period, the Ducks took the usual bunch of dumb penalties, putting themselves at a disadvantage for eight of the first 14 minutes. By the time nine minutes were left in the period, the Kings, as a result of so much time with the extra man, had ten shots to the Ducks’ three.

Dan Ellis, in goal with Jonas Hiller looking on in backup, was good enough, again. He didn’t have to be spectacular, mainly because the shots weren’t that dangerous. About the most frightening was one that came from the left side, but Ellis closed the pads and put his knees together to knock it aside.

After the game, he commented on what eventually became a 44-shot barrage. “I don’t know how many were dangerous, a handful or more? It wasn’t so much that the initial shot was dangerous.  It was just they always had traffic.  They’ve got some big bodies there with [Alexi] Ponikarovsky and [Dustin] Penner and [Ryan] Smyth, and they’re always in front of the net, so I’ve got to look around them, and make a good block, and hope it hits ya.”

The Kings’ first power play was on a double minor. The first minute, they were outstanding. The next three, weak. One shorthanded rush by the Ducks had Bobby Ryan going down with Brandon McMillan, passing a puck over in perfect position, and seeing it go under the stick of McMillan. However, he would have his moment shortly later.

The Kings, at the tail end of a Ducks’ minor, to total, as was mentioned, eight minutes shorthanded, took a penalty of their own. It was when the Ducks had 35 seconds left shorthanded. On the faceoff, McMillan stood still. The opposing center, Brad Richardson, poked the puck by him and rushed after it. Only it didn’t get past, but sat in McMillan’s skates. He kicked it up to his stick, went on a clear lane to the net, and shot on Jonathan Quick. The Kings goalie made the initial save, but McMillan banged home the high rebound (just under shoulder-height) and scored).

Three seconds had elapsed on the penalty clock. The crowd hushed.

The Ducks did it again when Matt Greene took a hooking penalty at about the 15 minute mark of the first. It was in a scrum in front of his net. The Ducks moved the puck around with the extra man, and Corey Perry got it at the left side of the net. He slid a no-look backhand pass under a defender’s stick and right to a streaking Saku Koivu, who shot into an empty side of the net to give the Ducks a 2-0 lead.

“Getzi [Ryan Getzlaf] made a great patient play to hold [Drew] Doughty,” said Perry, who recorded his 98th point of the season on that goal. “I know that Saku or Lubo[mir Visnovsky] will normally be there. I know one of them is going to be back there, and I just [passed] the puck.”

The period, long because of the penalties and a fight between the two Ivy-leaguers who now get paid to whack other people in the face, ended quite a while after it had started.

The middle period saw the Kings pressing early, collapsing the Ducks to their net. No great scoring chances ensued, excepting perhaps the pass from Wayne Simmonds to Kyle Clifford in front of the net, which the latter jammed at the goalie, who smothered it.

Meanwhile, Anaheim Coach Randy Carlyle was mixing his lines like crazy, as he had done the night prior. He had the following trios out in the first eight minutes or so: with Getzlaf and Perry, Matt Beleskey. Then at another point, Jason Blake. In addition, he played Ryan with Getzlaf and Beleskey. But here’s the crazy one: Koivu, George Parros, Koivu, and Jarkko Ruutu. In other words, a member of each of the second, third, and fourth lines.

The Getzlaf, Ryan, Beleskey trio produced a dangerous scoring chance, one that beat Quick on Ryan’s long wrist shot. The puck glanced off the crossbar and the post to Quick’s right. That was in the early going.

The Kings had a great scoring chance shorthanded when Brown knocked a puck through the middle and chased it down. He grabbed it about center and had the whole length of the rink to think about what he wanted to do with it. Ellis came out like he would on a shootout, challenging. Brown deked and came in with speed, but the right leg of Ellis got the better of him. He didn’t really get full oomph on the backhand.

Not long after, the Kings let up in their own zone, and the Ducks made it 3-0. The third goal was in no way chargeable to Quick. It was screened all the way.

The Ducks gave the Kings some life late in the second period in the form of another questionable moment of judgement which led to a penalty. The Kings capitalized in the form of a slap shot from the point which ended up in the scrum in the front of the net. From there, Smyth poked at it, and it flew up and hit the crossbar, then bounced in with Jack Johnson crashing in looking for a whack at it himself. It was Smyth’s 23rd goal of the year, and it came with just 1:36 left in the second.

What must Carlyle have been saying to his squad in the dressing room between periods? Something to the tune of—you screw this up, and you’re taking a very difficult road to get to the second round, guys. You hold on, stay out of the box, and win this thing, and for almost the only time all year, you’ve bested the Kings in the standings, and you erase the awful start that had people talking about me getting fired back in November.

OK, unlikely, but he had to have been firing them up—they’ve come so far, and to have fourth or fifth within sight—and not even need a last-minute comeback—what an opportunity.

No scoring by either team marked the third period, so the game ended where it had been at 40—3-1 for LA. Hence back to Brown. He had the most discouraged look imaginable sitting alone after the game. It was a combination of perplexity and wonder—like he just doesn’t know what’s going to happen in the playoffs. Check that. Like he knows, but he can’t face it.

“Whether we finish fourth, or eighth, or wherever we finish, playoffs are playoffs. There’s no easy match-ups,” said the Kings’ captain. “The only advantage that we missed out on was home ice, that extra game on home ice, so—we’re a good road team, and that’s why we’re in the playoffs.”

He added a litany of failures, on which he put a hopeful spin. “Our goal 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, but at the end of the day, you give yourself a chance by making the playoffs. It’s an opportunity.”

“Getting ready, physically and mentally, 82 games is a long season,” Brown concluded. “It’s up and down, especially this season. It’s been such a high-pressure situation, especially the last 30 games. We need to refocus. The only thing we need is 20 guys playing every night. I don’t know if we’ve had that lately.”

He also criticized the team’s power play effort, putting the responsibility squarely on the players.

Carlyle, meanwhile, was delighting in the fortune that had landed the Ducks in fourth.

“We found a way to get ourselves in position A here, especially when you consider where we were a couple of months ago,” he smiled. “Right now, it’s about a team that’s trying to work its way through all the hurdles it’s been presented, and now we’ve got an opportunity to play in the playoffs. I don’t think anybody would have picked us at any point, but it’s funny the way things fall in your lap if you continue to win your fair share of games.”

SoCal fans now enjoy the first double entry into the post-season since the Ducks came around in the early 1990s. How long the run will last is anyone’s guess, but in the next 10 days or so, four games will be played in the region.

Whether that’s good for hockey or not is for another discussion, but the energy is certainly in the air.

Minor Hockey Update

Congratulations to the Clarington Thunder Novice Division 2 A champion—the Yellow squad.  They won it by surviving a long overtime (for eight- and nine-year-olds). The game went six minutes of sudden death OT with no scoring.Then it was one minute of OT at a time, sudden death again. It went into the sixth of those frames before Jack Papageorgiou scored the winner.

Daniel Reimer played a solid defensive game according to eyewitness accounts. You’ll have to trust me on that—my sister, Reimer’s mother, usually sees things pretty honestly.

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