The Freeway Faceoff Series might be hockey nirvana in Southern California but it’s pure mayhem on the ice.
Last season, the Ducks foiled the Kings in the season series and on the big stage in the Stadium Series game at Dodger Stadium, but it was the Kings who bested them in Game 7 of the Western Conference Semifinals. With the champs back at the Honda Center for the first meaningful game since that game 7, the tides were supposed to have turned. Los Angeles was the ultimate victor last season, the last team left standing.
Yet again, the victor goes to the spoils. Or maybe in this case, the spoilsports.
"It was entertaining, I’ll give you that," said Ducks’ captain Ryan Getzlaf. "Our guys played really well tonight. We had some ups and downs throughout the game, but I felt we played well all night long."
A five-goal output is typically good enough to win most regular season hockey games, but even with two of Anaheim’s best players out with the mumps – yes, the mumps – the Ducks were physical, skilled and resilient. Three times, the Ducks went down by two goals and were down by two with only nine minutes left.
"We never quit," said head coach Bruce Boudreau. "It was one of those games where, with two minutes to go, I was thinking that if we don’t get two points, that’s a shame. I thought we played so hard. They kept coming against a tough team, we kept coming back, got a good tip at the end to tie it up."
The Kings won the Stanley Cup with a physical style of play and depth up the middle. Though aesthetically, Anaheim plays a far different game – high-scoring and free-skating – the additions they’ve made to the team since the playoffs have mimicked their Freeway rivals’ recipe for success.
"We're playing the right way, just not for a full 60. We let them back in and the rest is history." — Kesler
The Ducks developed defensemen like Sami Vatanen and Cam Fowler while adding Clayton Stoner. The addition of Ryan Kesler gives Anaheim two of the best centermen in the league. Kesler had three points and the winning shootout goal while Getzlaf made a play only he could make when he got his stick on a hot spinner from Devante Smith-Pelly to redirect it into the net at lightning speed.
In a sense, the Ducks beat the Kings at their own game.
"They’re a much better team than us," said Kings’ head coach Darryl Sutter. "I don’t think we had much energy and much focus."
The Kings shortened their bench and Sutter chided a few for not matching Anaheim’s physicality. The Ducks threw 49 shots at goaltender Jonathan Quick, a gaudy number by most standards but against a team that won two Stanley Cups on a defensive foundation, it looks even greater.
"That’s the best game we’ve played in a long time," Getzlaf said. "We had some bounces that didn’t go our way but when you get 50 shots on the LA Kings you’re doing something right."
For now, it’s Anaheim with the upperhand and the Kings will get another shot Saturday night in their own barn. But the Ducks, the best team in the league with 25 points, isn’t the same team they were in May, and the Kings are no doubt feeling every one of those changes.
"This was the kind of game where you get one, you give one up. But the positive is that it’s a sign of a good character win by a good character team," Kesler said. "We could have easily given up when the score was 3-1 or 4-2 but guys stayed positive on the bench and kept fighting."