Forward Rickard Rakell has become a catalyst in the Ducks' remarkable rebound from the depths of the NHL standings to the top of the Pacific division by using his hands, not his fists. So the 22-year-old Swede seemed embarrassed Saturday to confirm that his tussle with Kings forward Kris Versteeg was his first-ever fight, though Rakell's effective uppercuts suggested he had been down that pugilistic road before.
"I'm usually a pretty nice guy," Rakell said.
Nice guys, as the cliche goes, finish last. But the Ducks overtook the Kings for first place Saturday thanks in part to the spark Rakell provided in that fight, as well as the offense he provided in the Ducks' 3-2 victory over the goal-starved Kings at Staples Center.
"That's the position we want to be in," Rakell said after the Ducks extended their winning streak to a club-record 11 games and their overall post-Christmas success to 25-4-2. "We're not satisfied for being there right now. We just want to keep going and keep this momentum."
Rakell helped energize his teammates when he agreed to take on Versteeg amid a cluster of fights that broke out at 6:58 of the first period. Both combatants got five-minute fighting penalties. Versteeg played only two more shifts late in the period and didn't return for the rest of the game because of what a club spokesman termed an upper-body injury.
Rakell, who had only 14 penalty minutes in his previous 60 games this season, said he didn't worry about getting hurt in the fight. "You just try to stick up for your teammates," he said. "It all happened so fast. I didn't really think too much."
His teammates thought it was selfless — and just what they needed. "I thought he did great. He's a strong kid and we saw that," said winger Jakob Silfverberg, who earned credit for the eventual game-winner when he inadvertently deflected a nasty shot by Rakell past Kings goaltender Jonathan Quick at 2:24 of the third period, during a Ducks power play.
"He hung in there good and I thought he came out on top after the fight. He got the bench all fired up, so it was a great fight for us. I'm sure he's pretty happy with it, too."
Rakell's willingness to accept a challenge from the older, more experienced Versteeg was more than just an eruption of emotion between two rivals who will meet once more during the regular season and could cross paths again in the playoffs. It was symbolic of how the Ducks have been willing to take on new roles and shift their thinking, retrenching to play a defensive mode that has given them new life. The Ducks have outscored their opponents, 41-21, during their winning streak, excluding a shootout goal. The Kings, sputtering offensively without winger Marian Gaborik, have been outscored, 18-17, in their last 10 games.
"We're comfortable playing with the lead," Ducks Coach Bruce Boudreau said after earning his 400th career victory. "We seem to be able to, so far to this point, shut a lot of teams down. And if you want to win in the playoffs you've got to be able to do that. If we feel we can do it and we'll do it, better for us."
In other words, they're doing what the Kings once did so well. "That's how they won the Cup and that's how Chicago won the Cup. There's no secret," Boudreau said. "Offense is great but defense wins."
For left wing David Perron, who deftly redirected a shot by Cam Fowler past Quick for the Ducks' second goal at 15:57 of the second period, it's difficult to imagine that a team that's now so efficient and successful once was so hapless.
"I'm just glad I didn't experience it," said Perron, who made his Ducks debut Jan. 17 after being acquired from Pittsburgh for Carl Hagelin. "All I've said since I got here is that I'm really impressed. When I got here, we were three or four points out of the playoffs and I'm really impressed with how much they did a good job to get back into this thing. And now we just keep on coming."
Rakell can appreciate how far the Ducks have come since the dark days early this season. "The team is coming together and we have four lines that play solid hockey," he said. "It must be tough to match up against us."
Almost as tough as it is to top him in a fight. "I can venture a guess that he's not going to do it for a while," Boudreau said. "I think that'll be a story that he'll be phoning home about."
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