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LOS ANGELES -- From KISS to Vin Scully, the USC marching band to Wayne Gretzky, the palm trees and South Park cartoon characters in Los Angeles Kings' jerseys to the Anaheim Ducks' 3-0 win in a jam-packed Dodger Stadium, it's hard to imagine Hollywood scripting a better start to the NHL's ambitious -- and oft-criticized -- series of regional outdoor games.
If Los Angeles is a big-event city that revels in the glitz, then the NHL proved it can play with the big boys with a lead-up to the game that simply hit all the right notes, including Gretzky's appearance to drop the puck for the ceremonial opening faceoff to a thunderous ovation.
More importantly, though, the Ducks and Kings did their part in delivering a compelling, intense game that had a little bit of everything, including a first-period penalty shot by Kings center Anze Kopitar and a stellar turn in goal by Anaheim's Jonas Hiller, who stopped 36 Kings shots, 20 in the first period.
Often when the NHL takes its game out of doors -- there are six such forays into Mother Nature's backyard this season, four in the so-called Stadium Series of games -- the game itself takes a backseat to the setting or is shot through the prism of having to compete with the elements to be successful.
It is often the thing that is most cited by the critics of the events.
But of all the outdoor games dating back to the first Heritage Classic between the Edmonton Oilers and Montreal Canadiens at Commonwealth Stadium in 2003, this might have been the fastest, most accurate depiction of a real NHL contest.
|Jonas Hiller made 36 saves in his 20th career shutout on Saturday night.|
Sure, the puck bounced a bit toward the end of each period -- the Kings' Dwight King had a glorious chance bounce over his stick at the side of the Anaheim goal late in the third period -- but there was a lot more puck movement, a lot more attempts by both teams to be creative than in any of the previous efforts, including the Jan. 1 Winter Classic in Ann Arbor between Detroit and Toronto that set attendance and ratings records.
"It was an amazing experience," said Ducks forward Saku Koivu, who played in that inaugural outdoor game in frosty Edmonton when he was captain of the Montreal Canadiens.
"Obviously these games -- they're fun to play but they're never easy to get ready [for], sometimes you forget that there's two points involved."
Koivu suggested the ice held up surprisingly well, a sentiment echoed by most of the players.
"It was better than we all thought it would be," offered Anaheim defenseman Francois Beauchemin, "better than some NHL arenas."
There is a tendency to gloss over the game portion of a night like Saturday, saying the "winners" are the game or California, and there is some truth to that. But as the players said all along even as they were enjoying a family skate Friday at the venerable old ballpark, they couldn't ever lose sight of the fact that these two points were especially important.
The bottom line for the Kings is that indoors or outdoors they can't score, as they could not capitalize on a bevy of solid chances, including Kopitar's first-period penalty shot.
"We played a lot of the time in their zone, really. They're the best team in the league for a reason. They find ways to get timely goals and we have to bear down on our chances and we have to start finding points," Kings captain Dustin Brown said.
The loss was the fourth straight for the Kings who are winless in five (0-4-1) with just eight goals scored over that time, and now need to start looking over their shoulders at the Vancouver Canucks and Phoenix Coyotes to hold on to a postseason berth, something that looked like a given just a month ago.
"We were ready to go. They just out-competed us and got a few bounces and scored some big goals and that's the whole reason we lost," Kings defenseman Drew Doughty said.
The bottom line for the Ducks?
|Matt Beleskey was planning to save his jersey and the stick he used to score in the first period.|
They are as advertised the NHL's best hockey team with 83 points and two wins over the Kings in the past four days.
Head coach Bruce Boudreau, now 2-0 on the road in outdoor games having guided the Washington Capitals to a victory over Pittsburgh at the 2011 Winter Classic at Heinz Field, continued his habit of rotating forwards in and out of his deep, dangerous lineup and was rewarded with two goals in the first 8:12 of the game. Even though the Ducks managed only 21 shots on goal, it was enough with Hiller's solid play.
"I thought the energy was fabulous. I can't even talk now because players couldn't hear me five feet from me when you're trying to tell them who is up or screaming on the ice," Boudreau said.
Speaking of Hiller, he had been less than stellar in his last outing on Tuesday in a loss to Winnipeg that broke the Ducks' franchise record home point streak. Frederik Andersen was excellent in Thursday's win at home over the Kings, but Hiller reinforced that he is 'the man' for the Ducks with his play on the big stage.
"You feel like it's a little different but definitely nothing that threw me off," Hiller said of his experience.
Maybe the 54,099 -- and who doesn't love a little Gretzky homage even in the announced attendance -- who made it to Chavez Ravine for the first-ever outdoor regular-season game in California won't remember the outcome even if the crowd was definitely pro-Kings.
For most of them, the memories of staring down onto the field and watching two state rivals go toe-to-toe in a regular-season hockey game will be the real currency of the event.
And maybe over time that's how the two teams will view the event. Certainly there will be plenty of keepsakes on both sides of the rivalry.
"I've already got my stick stashed away and my jersey. I'll be putting them away," said Ducks forward Matt Beleskey, who scored Anaheim's second goal.
He admitted that sometimes sitting on the bench he found himself trying to soak in the atmosphere.
"Just looking around at the crowd, taking it all in," he said.
Doughty found himself doing the exact same thing from the Kings' bench.
"The fans were so far away but they were loud. The view from the bench, looking out across the ice and into the stands was pretty amazing. You never see that many fans at a hockey game. It was an amazing feeling to see that. It was a great experience and something I'll always remember. I would have liked to remember it as a win," Doughty said.