GLENDALE, Ariz. — Wayne Gretzky will be at Dodger Stadium on Monday when crews begin building the rink for the Jan. 25 NHL Stadium Series game between the Kings and the Anaheim Ducks, the first regular-season outdoor game at a warm-weather site.
Gretzky’s presence is fitting since his trade to the Kings 25 years ago is the single biggest reason hockey has taken a foothold in the state of California. Aside from the burgeoning youth hockey movement that has produced prospects like Thatcher Demko, one of the top goalies available in the 2014 NHL Draft, the state is now home to three of the NHL’s elite teams.
The Ducks, who visit the Coyotes on Saturday at Jobing.com Arena, sit atop the NHL standings with 71 points. The San Jose Sharks (62 points) are fifth overall in the league’s standings and the Kings (59 points) are sixth. That makes the California triangle a very difficult place to play.
"It used to be a vacation," Ducks coach Bruce Boudreau said Friday. "Back in the day when San Jose was young and Anaheim was young, teams couldn’t wait to go to California. I don’t think they’re feeling that much right now."
Ducks at Coyotes
When: Saturday, 6 p.m.
Where: Jobing.com Arena, Glendale
TV: FOX Sports Arizona Plus
Records: Anaheim 33-8-5; Phoenix 21-13-9
Outlook: Anaheim has the most points (71) in the NHL and owns a 20-point lead over Phoenix in the Pacific Division. The Ducks have won five in a row and are 15-8-3 on the road. Coach Bruce Boudreau said Friday that F Dustin Penner (upper body) could return to the lineup against the Coyotes. The Coyotes have not defeated a team in current playoff position since beating Colorado on Dec. 10.
Boudreau’s Ducks have been the pace-setters in the NHL for much of the season. Anaheim has won five in a row and is 15-1-1 since the start of December.
But the most remarkable thing about the Ducks might be that they’ve managed to remain near the top of the standings the entire season despite the fact that earlier this year, their penalty-killing unit was ranked among the league’s bottom five, their power play was dead last, they had lost more man-games to injury than any other team and they had played more road games than any other team (Anaheim has already made three East Coast swings).
"Its not the amount of people that were hurt, it was the amount of good people that you had still in the room that wouldn’t let you lose," Boudreau said. "The road games just became a mission of some sort. We played so many of them, and the best things was they were one right after another. It made it a little easier. There wasn’t any time to think about anything but hockey."
Depth and balance have clearly been one of Anaheim’s greatest attributes. Fourth-line forward Nick Bonino has 13 goals; third-line forward Andrew Cogliano has 14.
But the Ducks are also getting an MVP-caliber season from captain Ryan Getzlaf, who leads the team in assists (30) and points (52) and is fourth overall in the NHL in points behind Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby, Chicago’s Patrick Kane and the New York Islanders’ John Tavares.
"When your team is doing well, individuals do better, and that’s kind of always been our focus," said Getzlaf, who signed an eight-year, $66 million deal in the offseason. "I haven’t changed a whole lot other than (pucks) are going in the net.
"I had that one season (2011-12) where I had an off-year, and it was a tough year for me. I learned a lot of different things. I learned how to deal with my family life and my kids and separate the two, between coming to the rink and still being a good dad at home. I think that enabled me to come in this year with one focus."
Anaheim seems destined to win the Pacific Division for a second consecutive season. The Ducks own a nine-point lead over second-place San Jose and will enjoy a home-heavy schedule over the second half of the season. They still haven’t lost in regulation at the Honda Center (18-0-2).
But the Ducks learned the hard way how little regular-season accomplishments mean when they fell in seven games to the seventh-seeded Detroit Red Wings in the first round of last spring’s Stanley Cup playoffs.
"We haven’t done anything yet," Getzlaf said. "We’ve put up some good numbers and our record’s been good but nobody does anything halfway through the season. That’s not where you win anything.
"We’re just going to keep building our team so that, going into those playoffs, we know how to play properly."