ANAHEIM, Calif. — Two Western Conference contenders and intense rivals — both trending downward — will face each other Sunday night when the Los Angeles Kings visit the Anaheim Ducks at the Honda Center.
The Ducks lost five of seven games after positioning themselves within one point of first place in the Pacific Division on Jan. 31. As a result, Anaheim enters Sunday night’s game in third place, six points behind the division-leading San Jose Sharks and two behind the second-place Edmonton Oilers.
The Kings, two points behind the Nashville Predators and Calgary Flames in the race for the final wild-card berth, allowed 21 goals in their past five games and lost four of them.
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Los Angeles goalie Peter Budaj conceded 20 of those goals and absorbed the four defeats. Before his current funk, Budaj won 25 games, seven of them by shutout to share the NHL lead in that category with the Washington Capitals’ Braden Holtby.
Budaj, an 11-year veteran who spent the past two seasons in the AHL, replaced Jonathan Quick when the former winner of the Conn Smythe Trophy injured his groin during the season opener Oct. 12. Quick is scheduled to return next month.
“We need better goaltending to be a better team,” Kings coach Darryl Sutter told the Los Angeles Times. “There are mistakes every shift. Goaltending takes care of all that.”
Budaj’s teammates, however, would not exculpate themselves so easily.
“The majority of them are coming off our mistakes, pretty significant mistakes,” Kings center Anze Kopitar told the Times regarding the deluge of opposing goals. “That’s what’s killing us right now.”
Left winger Dwight King elaborated.
“The majority of them are just coverage plays and basic reads that usually guys are sharp on,” King told the Times. “Throughout the season most teams have little lulls with the intensity of the game and the attention to detail that needs to be in place — and we’ve wavered there.”
Anaheim has its own defensive problems to confront, especially during the second period. Opponents outscored the Ducks 63-51 during the middle period this season. The Florida Panthers continued that trend Friday night by scoring three goals in less than six minutes during a 4-1 rout in Anaheim.
“We turned the puck over too much,” Ducks left winger Andrew Cogliano said. “That was the difference. If we want to be a good team as we start getting down to the stretch run, we’ve got to limit them. We need to start tightening things up.”
During Saturday’s practice, the Ducks concentrated on achieving that goal.
“When you go through rough stretches, usually what you resort back to is defensive-zone coverage, special teams and your forecheck,” Anaheim coach Randy Carlyle said afterward. “If you’re neat and tidy in the defensive zone, it usually leads to offense on the other side of the puck, at least to more offensive-zone time.”
Center Antoine Vermette will practice with the team while appealing his 10-game suspension for slashing linesman Shandor Alphonso’s legs while waiting for a faceoff in Tuesday night’s 1-0 win against the Minnesota Wild. Vermette has won 62.4 percent of his face-offs to rank second in the league. The 34-year old had never been fined or suspended during his 13-year career before the incident.