Column: Signs of progress for Ducks, Kings, but no ducking the need for more

Kings and Ducks players on the ice
Kings right wing Adrian Kempe, left, skates against Ducks defenseman Jani Hakanpaa during the third period of their game Monday at the Honda Center.
(Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)

At this stage of their ongoing transformations, the Kings and Ducks have climbed well north of rock bottom but remain a good way south of Stanley Cup contention. Being works in progress means they will sometimes produce the sublime and sometimes the ridiculous, occasionally in the same game.

The goal-starved Ducks, who recently went winless in nine games and fell near the bottom of the NHL in goals per game, have suddenly become a scoring juggernaut. Shots that hit posts or crossbars a week ago are finding the net — a turn of luck that, like most supposedly lucky occurrences in hockey, was born of hard work and fundamentals such as going to the net in order to make something, anything, happen in their favor.

While their offense has improved, they still haven’t shaken their atrocious habit of blowing leads. They couldn’t protect the two-goal cushion they held over the Kings in the third period Monday but were rescued by the soft hands and uncanny vision of rookie forward Trevor Zegras, who set up Adam Henrique for the winner against Cal Petersen in a 6-5 overtime victory at the Honda Center.


“Skilled player, yeah,” Henrique said of Zegras, who fed him a perfect pass to finish off a backdoor play three minutes into overtime.

The Kings’ offense was fueled by a hat trick from Adrian Kempe, the second three-goal game of the Swedish forward’s career and first since October 2017. No hats fell to the ice in the spectatorless arena when he pulled the Kings even at 5-5 with a nifty redirect at 17:38 of the third period, and Kempe wasn’t much inclined to celebrate afterward anyway.

“Going back to the start, I don’t think we were really on our toes. That’s something that we’ve got to clean up and be better at, especially the last couple games,” said Kempe, who has responded well since coach Todd McLellan recently asked him to step up his production. He’s gone back to being aggressive on the forecheck and trying to create turnovers.

The Ducks are currently in last place in the Western Division, however, GM Bob Murray still has confidence in coach Dallas Eakins.

March 8, 2021

“We’ve been a good team at coming from behind, but we’ve got to learn to have a good start and play with the lead as well, so that’s something we are going to focus on,” Kempe said. “I think it was a really good comeback for our team tonight, and that’s something that we have to bring with us as well for Wednesday’s game.”

McLellan lamented his players’ sloppy passing and careless defensive play, and he rejected the suggestion that a 6-5 score meant the game had been a breathlessly paced track meet. To him, it felt more like a slog through a steeplechase water pit.

“We had some dismal performances by some individuals, yet there were others who had great games, really played well,” he said. “So half the team was ready to play. The other half still isn’t ready to play. The night’s over. And that’s disappointing.


“It’s perhaps the hardest game to play when some guys are really on and other guys are really off, because it just screws everything up.”

The Kings and Ducks will play eight times during a season that will be dramatically altered because of the pandemic. Teams will only play division opponents.

Dec. 23, 2020

No one escaped McLellan’s wrath. “If you’re not playing well, you can still find a way to contribute,” he said. “You can bring energy to the bench, especially in these empty buildings. You can’t sit on the bench like a houseplant and not contribute.”

The Ducks had earned the right to feel good about themselves, a rare enough experience this season, after playing their eighth straight one-goal game and 19th in 26 this season. Rickard Rakell, who scored one goal in January and one in February, scored twice Monday and has produced back-to-back three-point performances, a catalyst in the Ducks’ 11-goal outburst over the past two games. Max Comtois earned three assists — all primary assists — to set a standard for his young career.

All six Duck goals Monday were scored by players 27 or older, relieving pressure on youngsters who aren’t ready to carry the team. “I think guys are just playing a little freely maybe, just making plays, just going out there playing hockey,” Henrique said.

They did emerge with concerns about forward Troy Terry (upper-body injury) and defenseman Josh Manson (lower-body injury), who couldn’t finish the game. Coach Dallas Eakins said after practice Tuesday that both players were considered day to day.

The Ducks and Kings meet again Wednesday at Honda Center.

Winning a tight game, even after blowing a lead, could give the Ducks a significant mood boost. They’re still more than socially distanced from a top-four spot in the West and a playoff berth, but they’ll take any progress they can claw out.

“It starts building the belief that you can get on the other side of one-goal games,” Eakins said. “And, hey, this isn’t supposed to be easy. It’s not. We’re a team in transition. We’re trying to get better for the future and win at the same time.

“The way you handle adversity by staying neutral and staying in the moment is extremely important, and I think our guys are doing a great job at it.”

Handling adversity by imitating a houseplant, apparently, isn’t the way to go.