As Thanksgiving weekend began, both the Kings and Ducks were sitting on losing streaks, and their two coaches were taking opposite tacks in dealing. The Kings’ Terry Murray was pointing to the fact that while his team lost to the Blackhawks, there were positives in the game.
“There were times in the game when we were really good, but it’s a 60-minute game,” he said after Saturday’s loss.
The day before, Coach Randy Carlyle of Anaheim was critical of certain players, indicating their mistakes by name.
“If you look at it, he [Andy Sutton] was involved [in the game] physically, but there were some situations that he created because he was wreckless, leaving the forecheck coming out of the penalty box, defensemen staying down in their zone,” the Ducks coach said. “That’s not the style of defense that Andy Sutton’s going to play for the Anaheim Ducks.”
Wow. The Ducks went to Phoenix the next night and played a whopper, being tied at 1-1, then going down 3-1 before scoring five goals in a row to win, 6-4. What that meant was that when LA came in Monday, the Anaheim team was down just a point to them in the standings, with both out of the top eight. The subtext here was that the Ducks had played three more games than their LA rivals, and so in theory were further behind them than a point.
But when both teams exited Honda Center at the end of play Monday, it was the Ducks who were ahead in the standings after taking the game, 2-0.
Murray has never looked so despondent as he did after the loss.
“Everybody’s battling a little bit, a little bit of fumbling with the puck, and maybe a little bit of nervous play with the puck at times,” Murray said.
On the other end of things, Carlyle was upbeat in his press comments, though that’s usual for him, win or lose.
“That’s the type of game our hockey club has to play night in and night out. It’s a good one,” Carlyle stated. “We feel good about ourselves, because we won a big hockey game, and we had an effort from every member of our group, and that’s what’s important. Those who play three, four minutes, six minutes, seven minutes, ten, fifteen minutes made a contribution.”
He also cited the end of the game, when people were “getting into the shooting lanes to block shots, protect the shutout for Jonas Hiller, and we’ve got to feel good about our group right there.”
What looked like it would be the only goal of the game came halfway through the second, on the power play. Ducks defenseman Cam Fowler got his second NHL goal with a low wrist shot off of a pass from Lubomir Visnovsky which went through and eluded Jonathan Quick. The goalie played a great game, this goal and one more notwithstanding, stopping good shots if not a lot. The Ducks had 19.
Hiller was great on the other end too, never moreso than when Anze Kopitar got a puck right in front of the net late in the game. It was a pass out from behind he cage, and Kopitar was alone, shooting a quick one-timer. It was one of 27 shots the Kings got on net.
“It was a bang-bang play, it kind of, I don’t know how it came on net,” Hiller said about the play. “I just saw him, and I tried to come out a little at him. Then it was kind of a reaction thing. I was probably a little lucky, but we finally got those points that we hadn’t had in the last few games.
“It was nice to come up with a save like that in the right moment.”
Hiller essentially lunged at Kopitar, glove out, and the puck ended up neatly in his (right) catching mitt. In other circumstances, you might say that it was a microcosm of the night, the Kings working for chances but missing by an inch, or not getting the breaks. In truth, they weren’t that good.
Early on, both Drew Doughty and Jack Johnson made defensive mistakes, turnovers, and got beaten to pucks, giving the Ducks chances.
“The only way you get out of anything is with your best players taking charge,” Murray said. “We need them to be our best players; the two kids on the back, Doughty and Jack Johnson, we need them to be A+ every night, and certainly right now. I thought they had a slow start, and then they got a little bit better as the game went along, but we need those guys better for sure.”
Other problems included an insipid power play that could do little, not even get set up in the zone. The Kings were 0-for-3 with the man advantage.
On one power play, with Corey Perry in the box for interference, they gave every indication of having read our coverage of their game against the Blackhawks, because they suddenly started firing the puck from the point. Jarret Stoll took a slapper from the point, then a one-timer, then another one-timer. On that one, Hiller made a leg save but gave up a big rebound. The power play ended with Alex Martinez taking yet another slapshot. This one broke his stick and sent him back to the bench shaking his head. That, perhaps, was the picture of the night.
“We got better every period, and that’s why we can have that [winning] feeling, and everybody was battling, everybody was fighting hard,” Hiller said. “I don’t think the first period was that well, but after that we were able to put pressure on them; we were able to cycle the puck in their end. We found a way. We didn’t just back off. The further the puck is away from our end, the less dangerous for us to get scored on, and that’s what we did. We can be happy with that one, and it’s something we can build on.”
It’s interesting to note as a way to take the temperature of the local fans that post-game radio callers to the Kings’ show said two things. One, the team is too young. Two, they need a left-winger. The latter is a point that we discussed on the weekend, when Dustin Brown was moved to LW on his line with Kopitar and Wayne Simmonds.
What’s a bit amusing is that so many people lament the loss to injury of Alexei Ponikarovsky, where a couple of months ago, after he came to the team in the off-season, the joke was “How do you spell that Russian guy’s name,” with the answer being “FROLOV.” The idea was that he would be another Russian player who took up space without pulling his weight. He did play well in the 13 games he got in, gelling with Simmonds and Handzus as the shutdown line. But if he’s the savior, then this group is in bigger trouble than it looks like. In fact, they haven’t played too badly in the last two games, despite the losses.
Their defensemen made mistakes against Anaheim, and their forwards aren’t quite in sync, but if Murray sticks to the line shifting he did for Saturday, they should come around. It’s not time to panic yet. Don’t tell that to LA fans, though, particularly those several thousand who helped fill out a somewhat thin OC crowd (a sellout was announced). They left the building with their heads hanging, surprised perhaps that their hated rivals were now out front, at least for the moment, in the race for pride in SoCal hockey, but even more, seeing a big picture that didn’t seem to be brightening.
The Ducks, for their part, have their first line stalled a bit despite having gained ten points between them against Phoenix. Their second unit, the old men (Jason Blake, Saku Koivu, Teemu Selanne) got the insurance goal, but also has the speed, something Carlyle says is the key to their game. And their goalie is doing his steady best to keep them in games when they don’t put up a lot of goals.
What will the situation be a month from now? If the Kings find themselves, they’re the better team. But the Ducks have the elements to do OK if their defense can do enough to survive. These teams meet five more times this year, and each will be a measuring stick.
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