It was only 5½ years ago that the Kings and the Ducks played an epic second-round playoff series that the Kings rallied to win in a seventh game at Honda Center, gaining an emotional boost that propelled them toward their second Stanley Cup championship in three seasons. Times have been lean for both teams since then, strangely synchronized in their mediocrity as both missed the playoffs last spring completely on lack of merit.
Neither team held a playoff position when they met in Anaheim on Monday for the first time this season, a 4-2 victory by the Ducks in a subdued renewal of their once-fierce rivalry. Not until late in the second period, when the Ducks were protecting a one-goal lead against an energetic push by the Kings, did fans work up enough emotion to start chants for their respective teams, and the crowd looked far smaller than the announced total of 15,434.
The game wasn’t as tense or as dramatic or as skillful as those playoff encounters, but these are different times and different teams. Still, echoes of the rivalry remained.
“We treated it like it’s a normal NHL game. You want to win but there’s a little something there. There’s pride,” Ducks goaltender Ryan Miller said after earning his first win since Oct. 26.
The Kings, who fell to 2-10-1 on the road this season, outshot the Ducks by 19-6 in the second period but, as happened too often this season, couldn’t finish. “It seems to me we don’t bring the same energy on the road as we do at home. We take a lot of jabs, we get knocked down. We slowly pick ourselves up off the mat, then it’s too late,” coach Todd McLellan said. “Can’t play that way. We’ve got some things we need to address and adjust to. I don’t know why it’s happening, but we certainly have to look at it.”
After receiving the game in the second period instead of taking the initiative, the Ducks showed resolve by playing a stronger third period. “I think it’s not an ideal period for us. We weren’t doing a very good job in the neutral zone,” Miller said. “I thought we hung together pretty well. Definitely on our heels a bit. The third period was a good reaction.”
The only goal of the third period was the clincher, scored into an empty net by fourth-line center Derek Grant with 38 seconds left. The Ducks’ fourth line was their best weapon, with Grant scoring twice and Carter Rowney scoring once. The kids the Ducks had anticipated would be able to shoulder the scoring load haven’t been producing, so it was left to the low-profile fourth line to save the day — and not for the first time. Grant, Rowney and Nicolas Deslauriers stepped into the void and did their job well at both ends of the ice.
“They’re to be trusted, that’s for sure,” Ducks coach Dallas Eakins said. “They just do everything that’s asked of them. They play a very, very simple game and I think playing a simple game has a great advantage. And again, tonight, those guys leading the way was very important to our success.”
It was just another night’s work of grinding and scoring for Grant, who now has eight goals.
“As a team when you’re struggling to score goals you’re going to take them from anywhere,” Grant said, “and it’s something that for our team to be successful we need all four lines to chip in at different times and we did that tonight. I thought as a group we played well in the third with the lead and we were able to come out on top.”
The Ducks scored first, at 5:14 of the first period, when Grant swatted a rebound past Kings goalie Jack Campbell. The Ducks, who entered the game ranked next to last in the NHL in power-play efficiency, scored a rare man-advantage goal to take a 2-0 lead at 9:47, a play highlighted by Jakob Silfverberg’s one-timer from the left circle.
The Kings cut their deficit to 2-1 at 6:01 of the second period, when defenseman Kurtis MacDermid, who was a healthy scratch in the Kings’ previous game, took a shot from the left point that bounced before it got past Miller. The Ducks responded quickly, when Rowney finished off a slick pass from Hampus Lindholm for a 3-1 lead at 6:57 of the second period. But Kings winger Nikolai Prokhorkin made a dazzling move to score his fourth goal this season, going to his backhand and deking Miller out of position at 11:42 of the second period. Miller, who had been told he’d probably start even before No. 1 goalie John Gibson became too ill to dress for the game, faced 36 shots total.
It’s easy to understand why Kings-Ducks games have become a tough sell at the box office. Both teams have had to revamp their rosters to adapt to the leaguewide trend toward youth and speed, and both have a new coach this season. Both have been showing up and competing most nights but haven’t been able to do that every night, as elite teams do. They’ve offered occasional glimpses of how good they might be someday, but neither has been consistent enough to think a return to the playoffs is likely this season. They’re still figuring out who they want to be when they grow up and how they’re going to get there, a process that often has been painful to watch for both teams.
The Ducks’ winning formula on Monday consisted of gritting their teeth during that second period and grinding on every shift. It wasn’t pretty, but it worked. “These type of games, those are the fun ones to play,” Grant said.
“These type” might be the kind that gets the Ducks to the next step in their effort to return to contention.