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After humble beginnings, Kings and Ducks will clash in a marquee game

After humble beginnings, Kings and Ducks will clash in a marquee game
Kings left wing Dwight King tries to get out of the way of a shot on Ducks goalie Frederik Andersen in the first period of a game on Mar. 5. (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

They were losing, and most times it wasn't even close.

The optimism generated by a new season quickly vanished, replaced by gloom and a baffling inability to score goals.

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While this applies to the Ducks, whose struggles were the talk of the NHL until they dramatically reversed course after the Christmas break, the Kings also suffered from an early-season malaise that tested their resolve.

After missing the playoffs last season as defending champions, the Kings continued to struggle as they lost their first three games, scored twice in that span and allowed 12 goals, leaving fans to wonder if they'd reach the playoffs, let alone make another run at the Stanley Cup.

"The mantra was 'How are we ever going to get in?'" Kings Coach Darryl Sutter said Wednesday. "Now the teams are first and second.

"A lot of luck."

Those last four words were said with an Alberta-sized dose of sarcasm. Few can do sarcasm better than Sutter.

Six months later, Thursday night's game between the Kings and Ducks at Staples Center is very serious — not quite winner take all, in terms of the Pacific Division title, but close enough to add heat to this marquee game.

The Kings and Ducks each have 99 points. Anaheim has three games remaining in the regular season — their game in hand is the reason they're listed at the top of the division standings — including a potentially tough trip with games Saturday at Colorado and Sunday at Washington.

There are two games remaining for the Kings, who host the Ducks and then the Winnipeg Jets on Saturday. The Kings have lost their last three games against the Ducks but the teams haven't met since early March.

"It has a little bit more of a buildup than maybe it normally would," said Kings defenseman Luke Schenn. "They've probably been the best team in the NHL since Christmas on, and here we are today, pretty much neck and neck as far as points goes and kind of that sprint to the end of the season here."

The Ducks have traveled a long road since those woes in the early season, when they started 1-7-2 and did not score a goal in three of their first four games. The Ducks not only have the league's best power play, but also are atop the NHL in penalty killing.

They gave up a late goal in regulation and lost to the Jets in overtime Tuesday, an unsettling outcome after they played one of their best games of the season in Sunday's 3-1 victory over Dallas. Meanwhile, the Kings received a significant psychological boost Tuesday,whenthey were 36 seconds away from a regulation loss at Calgary before scoring an overtime victory.

"It's always big playing against a crosstown rival," Ducks defenseman Cam Fowler said. "Both teams want to obviously win the division. Any time you go up into L.A., it's going to be a hostile environment in there … extremely difficult to play in that building."

Kings left wing Milan Lucic referenced the team's first meeting against the Ducks — a 3-2 victory by the Kings at Anaheim on Jan. 17 — as a template for possible success Thursday.

"I think we can't let the emotions get the better of us," he said. "You look at the game the first time we played them and we beat them. We just went out there and played. Obviously we played with emotion. I'm not saying that we just go out there and play but, like I said, we can't get too riled up.

"We can't overthink the game too much where we're taking penalties and over-forechecking and over-backchecking, where we're allowing odd-man rushes and not breaking the puck out because we're too jittery and can't make a play. Obviously, the rivalry plays a lot into that. That's why the emotions can get a little crazy when you get into a game like that."

When with the Boston Bruins, Lucic said he often stayed up late to watch the Kings-Ducks second-round playoff series in 2014. The Kings won in seven games, and he thought the matchup lived up to the anticipation.

Now he is a full-fledged participant in the Southern California rivalry and the pursuit of a division title.

"It's bigger and better than I imagined," Lucic said. "As a competitor and as an athlete, these are the type of games that you look forward to. When the crowd's into it and loving it and such a big part of the rivalry, it makes it a lot of fun, and it kind of reminds you of why you play the game, and that fun that you had as a little kid playing hockey."

NEXT UP

DUCKS AT KINGS

When: Thursday, 7:30 p.m. PDT.

Where: Staples Center.

On the air: TV: Fox Sports West, Prime Ticket. Radio: 790.

Update: The Ducks are 11-1-2 against the Kings in their past 14 regular-season games. Neither team held a full practice Wednesday. Kings defenseman Alec Martinez (unspecified injury) has missed the last two games, and defenseman Rob Scuderi and left wing Kyle Clifford were scratched against the Flames, both said to be a coach's decision. Rookie defenseman Kevin Gravel logged nearly 14 minutes of ice time and was a plus-1 against Calgary.

Twitter: @reallisa

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