EL SEGUNDO, CA — If the first thing you’re thinking of with the Anaheim Ducks and Los Angeles Kings facing off at Staples Center tonight (7:30 PM PDT) is whatever rivalry that might exist between the two teams, well, you’d better think again.
Indeed, the two teams have 99 points in the Pacific Division standings. The Kings have two games remaining before the playoffs begin, and the Ducks have three. Although the Ducks have an edge with a game in hand, if the Kings beat the Ducks in regulation and win their game against the Winnipeg Jets on April 9, they would win the division even if the Ducks were to win their final two games because the Kings would win the tiebreaker with more regulation and overtime wins.
To be sure, with first place in the division up for grabs, any thoughts about a rivalry are the last thing on their minds.
“[It’s about the] two points, for sure,” said left wing Milan Lucic. “It’s an opportunity for us to win the division, which the Kings haven’t done much in their lifetime. It’s only happened once. It’d be a huge accomplishment for this group.”
“When you start the season, the goal is to clinch a playoff spot and to win your division,” added Lucic. “Right now, we’re in that fight to win that division. I think looking at Game 81 for us, [you] couldn’t get any bigger of a game against any better of an opponent. If we win that game in regulation, we’re in control of our own destiny and winning the division.”
“[It’s about the] two points,” said defenseman Luke Schenn. “We haven’t done well against the Ducks this year—not as well as we’d like, so that’s something we’d like to get back on track, and it’s a big divisional game. We need the two points right now. It’s a big game for us to get points in the standings. We’re that close, with two games remaining. They’ve got three [games left], so it’s a big game for both teams.”
Schenn noted that both teams also want to send a message to the other, but added that the goal is bigger than tonight’s game.
“Both teams want to leave a lasting impression,” he said. “If everything goes according to plan, we could run into each other down the road in the playoffs. Saying that, it’s not everything, as far as [it being] a make-or-break game. We’ve got big goals in mind, and tomorrow is just another step in that direction for both teams.”
As Schenn mentioned, the Kings have not done well against the Ducks this season, with just one win in their four games this season.
“I think we can’t let the emotions get the better of us,” Lucic emphasized. “I think you look at the game—the first time we played them—we beat them. We just went out there and played. Obviously, we played with emotion. I’m not saying that we just go out there and play, but like I said, we can’t get too riled up.”
“We can’t overthink the game too much where we’re taking penalties and over-forechecking and over-backchecking, where we’re allowing odd man rushes and not breaking the puck out because we’re too jittery and can’t make a play,” added Lucic. “It’s just [about] being in control of them and going out there and playing within the game, within the system and playing to your strengths.”
Schenn indicated that the Ducks present a huge challenge, and that the Kings will have to be at their best.
“They’ve got a combination of a lot of skill, but they got a lot of size,” he noted. “They’re one of the bigger teams up front. They have a lot of guys with skill around the net, guys who can make plays off the rush, some speed, good shooters, and they’re power play is good, too. It’s going to be a great challenge for us.”
“It’s always exciting, where the standings are at,” he added. “It’s the final couple of games of the season and first place is on the line. It’s got a little bit more build-up than it normally would, with the two best teams in the NHL since Christmas, and here we are today, neck-and-neck, as far as points go. Both teams are fighting for home ice and that division lead. It’s going to be a real good challenge for us. They’re a great team, and they’re playing well right now.”
But with just three wins in the nine games since they clinched a playoff berth on March 19, the Kings have staggered towards the post-season, with uncharacteristic defensive breakdowns standing out like the proverbial sore thumb in those games.
“I think we can still play better, for sure,” Schenn said, referring to his team’s 5-4 overtime win at Calgary on April 5. “It was nice to get the two points. It was a grind, more than anything. It was one of the prettiest games, but we’ll take the win. It gives guys a little bit of confidence.”
“We realize that we haven’t been as sharp as we’ve needed to be in this little stretch since we clinched a [playoff] spot,” Schenn added. “But the good news is that we’re still in a good position here, and coming off a win, guys are feeling better about themselves.”
To illustrate where their problems lie, over their last nine games, the Kings have allowed an average of 3.89 goals per game, more than 1.50 goals per game more than their 2.35 goals per game season average.
To further illustrate, the worst defensive team in the National Hockey League, the Calgary Flames, are allowing 3.16 goals per game this season.
Chalk up the drastically higher number of goals allowed to breakdowns in the defensive zone.
“We need to clean things up, defensively,” said Lucic. “Giving up four [goals] a game is unacceptable heading into the playoffs.”
“We haven’t had that 60 minute effort as of late,” added Lucic. “You can’t just flip a switch and expect it to happen once the playoffs start, so we need to clean that up.”
Head coach Darryl Sutter indicated that injuries and their heavy schedule of late has taken its toll, forcing him to move players into roles they’re not used to, contributing to the defensive breakdowns.
“Injuries and schedule affect getting into playoff mode,” he said. “You see guys get used a lot differently if [a team] secures a playoff spot. After that, it’s up to the individual, if he’s healthy, to get his game in order. It’s not a dramatic change in system. We’re not going to take the playbook back and say, ‘do this differently.’”
Schenn indicated that playing a top team like the Ducks could be just what the Kings need to get them back to top form.
“Coming into the home stretch, you’re [often] playing teams that are out of the playoffs, playing a little more loose, and have some young guys in the lineup without a lot of pressure on them,” Schenn observed. “Those games can be a little more challenging than games against tougher teams because [those] teams aren’t afraid of trying things they normally wouldn’t.”
“You always want to wrap it up against a top team,” Schenn added. “Whether it’s mentality or not, when you play teams who are out of the playoffs, there are games like that. It’s a different mentality, a different challenge.”
“This is a game where [you have] two big, skilled, physical teams going at it. There’s a lot on the line, as far as points [are concerned], standings-wise. These are the games you look forward to, and I think we’re all excited for the challenge.”
Stick tap to Curtis Zupke (@curtiszupke on Twitter) for his contributions to this story.
LEAD PHOTO: Los Angeles Kings left wing Milan Lucic. Photo: David Sheehan/CaliShooterOne Photography
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