There are throwback elements to the rancorous Kings-Ducks rivalry. While evolving somewhat alongside the up-tempo, faster National Hockey League, it’s still a hard, defensive, predictably low-scoring heavyweight fight that often goes the distance, and for the 15th time in the last 21 meetings, the game was decided by one goal. When primary actors such as Jeff Carter, Kyle Clifford, Ryan Getzlaf and Ryan Kesler, and in Saturday’s case, Rickard Rakell are unavailable, that hard-checking mindset is reinforced. It is not surprising that Saturday’s game was decided, 2-1, in a shootout. The circumstances called on both teams to batten down the hatches and win a narrow game by checking well, and by-and-large, both teams did. Los Angeles wasn’t great in the first five minutes, but other than the prologue and the mid-first period play in which the entire five-man unit was caught watching Corey Perry circle the net, appeared to continue to build towards the type of checking that they believe spawns possession time and more scoring chances. It became a touch too reliant on the ill-favored tendency to bomb away from the point and hope for a deflection at times, but the Kings did tip the scale in scoring chances and also generated the more dangerous looks. That’s probably what they should be doing, given the Ducks’ heavier injury load, but again, in this rivalry, and the styles of these two teams, a wounded Anaheim group is still very dangerous and more than comfortable playing in the types of low-scoring games the rivalry often produces.
It was a terrific goaltending battle between a pair of USA Hockey and NHL veterans, and would you look at that – Los Angeles and Anaheim are #1 and #3 in the league in save percentage. Jonathan Quick made highlight third period saves on Jakob Silfverberg’s redirection and Chris Wagner’s 4-on-2 rush chance to keep the Kings within striking distance, and Ryan Miller wasn’t beaten until a wave of pressure and Trevor Lewis’ low-slot box-out allowed Dustin Brown to calmly handle and shoot a loose puck past him in the 59th minute. (For the third time in the last five games, L.A. scored a six-on-five goal.) The game was decided when Miller, the NHL’s all-time leader in shootout wins, was beaten by Lewis, who scored his first career shootout goal, and Quick, who has the sixth-most shootout wins in league history, made saves on three consecutive skaters after Perry’s try, including a denial of Silfverberg, who ranks sixth amongst active players with a 48.7% success rate. The goaltending was so good that it cruelly took McFlurries away from thousands of people when Miller denied so much as a rebound on Tanner Pearson’s mid-slot wrister off the rush late in the second period.
In the most obvious observation, Boy Did The Kings Need That One. Did their collective post-game exhale knock down any walls of the dressing room? Finally winning a one-goal game, they moved to 2-6-1 in their last nine, with only two games – a 5-2 loss to Tampa Bay and a 4-0 win over Florida –decided by more than one goal. Since the Tampa game, Los Angeles actually has only a minus-three goal differential, and that excludes Saturday’s shootout winner. That’s clearly the rosy way to look at the team’s recent trends, given the puck management challenges and questionable decision-making that had seeped into the losses. But it does appear that the structural maintenance is taking shape, if we’re to lean on the output of the Winnipeg and Anaheim games and some of the Arizona game. The Kings produced the most five-on-five shot attempts out of any two-game stretch during this back-to-back, and found success when they operated with a successful defensive-first mindset that allowed them to gain their own stretches of momentum from strong checking. It might not always look pretty, and whether they’ll be able to sustain it on the road will be answered over the next week, but in a tight divisional game against an opponent with a similar mindset, it was successfully executed on Saturday night.
-Lead photo via Juan Ocampo/NHLI