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Kings/Ducks: Where do we go from here?

1/31/2011

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Anze Kopitar and Corey Perry try to lead their teams into the postseason.

The end of the All-Star break is the beginning of the stretch run for most NHL teams. The Kings and Ducks have never advanced to the playoffs in the same year, but now both are in the thick of the race with about one-third of the season remaining. Here’s a look at how these teams compare in four key areas that likely will determine their postseason fates.

The situation:

The Kings (27-22-1, 55 points) are in 11th place in the Western Conference, the caboose on a five-team train that’s separated by just a point. They made up ground by winning their last three games before the break, but it will be interesting to see how four days off the ice affects their momentum. The Kings can’t afford another tailspin like the one that occurred in November, when they lost seven of eight, or following Christmas, when they dropped 10 of 12. After 50 games last season, when the Kings went on to finish sixth in the Western Conference and advance to the playoffs for the first time since 2002, they owned a 28-19-3 record, four points better than their current standing.

The Ducks (28-20-4, 60 points) have scored three fewer goals than the Kings this season and allowed 22 more but still are six spots ahead in the Western Conference standings. The past two seasons, when they finished eighth in 2008-09 and 10th in 2009-10, the Ducks had 55 points after 52 games. Unlike the Kings, they’ve surged since the Christmas break, winning 10 of 13. What’s especially impressive about the current run is the Ducks have been without center Ryan Getzlaf, who was struck in the forehead with a puck Dec. 28 in Phoenix and sustained fractures to his nasal passages. Getzlaf led the team in assists the past three seasons and in points in two of the past three.

Advantage: Ducks.

The offense:

The Kings are about midpack in the NHL in goals-per-game average (2.8) and don’t have a player among the top 20 in goal scoring. They continue to receive their money’s worth from the second line of Ryan Smyth, Justin Williams and Jarret Stoll, however. Thanks to good health and chemistry, each is on pace to have his best season in a Kings uniform. The trio seems to be gaining momentum as well. Stoll scored six of his 14 goals in January, and Smyth had five of his team-high 19. Heading the other direction are center Anze Kopitar and right wing Dustin Brown, the team’s leading goal scorers two of the past three seasons. Kopitar had more goals in Sunday’s All-Star Game (two) than during January (one). Brown also has just one goal this month after scoring seven in December. At least they’ve experienced some hot streaks. That hasn’t been the case for third-year defenseman Drew Doughty, who has spiraled from second on the team with 59 points last season to seventh with 26 this season. Wayne Simmonds and Michal Handzus also have failed to keep pace with last season’s scoring totals.

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Teemu Selanne already has surpassed his assists total from each of the past three seasons.

The Ducks are 21st in the league in scoring (2.6 goals per game) but have averaged three goals a game since a 4-1 loss Dec. 26 against the Kings. Again, most of that stretch did not include Getzlaf, one of the best playmakers in the NHL. Corey Perry has a team-high 25 goals and is on pace for a career season scoring the puck. Even more remarkable, Perry hasn’t gone more than three consecutive games without scoring a goal this season. Seven months past his 40th birthday, Teemu Selanne continues to age with grace, putting up Kopitar-like numbers of 15 goals and 30 assists. Selanne already has surpassed his assists total from each of the past three seasons. On the back end, defenseman Lubomir Visnovsky is giving Anaheim what Doughty provided the Kings last season, big-time production from the blue line. Visnovksy has eight goals and a team-high 35 assists, his best season since he played for the Kings in 2005-06. Bobby Ryan has filled in nicely for Getzlaf as the top-line center and is on cue for a third consecutive 30-goal season. Veteran forwards Saku Koivu and Jason Blake also have shown little signs of aging this season and have provided the type of secondary scoring Los Angeles currently lacks.

Advantage: Ducks.

The defense:

The Kings have allowed the third-fewest goals in the Western Conference (124) and have one of the league’s better goaltenders in Jonathan Quick. They’ve given up more than three goals in just 12 games this season, keeping them in most contests. However, when the defense falls apart, it tends to collapse over long stretches, leading to problems elsewhere. Both slumps this season have started on the defensive end. Opponents scored 27 goals in six games just after Christmas and 15 over three games in mid-November. The opposing team has lit the lamp just 19 times in the past nine games, but the Kings won only four in that stretch. With key parts of the offense still struggling, the blueliners will continue to carry a heavy burden.

Once again, the statistics don’t match the results when it comes to the Ducks. They are 15th in the NHL in goals against and have allowed six more goals than they’ve scored this season, but they’ve managed to earn at least a point in 62 percent of their games. Much of the damage occurred in the first month of the season, when the defense allowed 41 goals in 12 games. They’ve since mixed periods of greatness with stretches of incompetence, such as earlier this month when they posted back-to-back shutouts against Columbus and San Jose, only to give up 10 goals in the next two games. The Ducks have an All-Star goalie in Jonas Hiller, who has a knack for playing just well enough to win. He’s 14th in the league in goals-against average (2.50) but No. 1 in victories (25) thanks to a league-high 46 appearances.

Advantage: Kings.

The stretch run:

After advancing to the postseason for the first time in eight years last spring and then starting this season with a franchise-best 12-3-0 record, the Kings are no longer sneaking up on opponents. They need to bring their A-game for a full 60 minutes to beat most teams in the NHL. They simply don’t have the talent or experience to win games on skill alone. How they perform during the month of February will go a long way toward determining their postseason fate, as 10 of those 13 games are on the road and only two are against teams with losing records. They’ll need a minimum of 16 points during February to stay in contention.

With a four-point lead over the ninth-place Avalanche, the return of Getzlaf on the horizon and a rather light February schedule consisting of 11 games and just one back-to-back, the Ducks are in a far better position to move up the standings, or at least hold their position over the next month. Over the final 30 games, they play just one team with a losing record, but that can be misleading, with only five teams in the NHL owning a sub-.500 record heading into February, including just one in the Western Conference. As far as experience, the Ducks have a number of players who’ve been part of playoff runs the past five seasons, one of which ended with a Stanley Cup title in 2007, so they are familiar with the stresses that go along.

Advantage: Ducks.