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Column: It’s on you, Kings. You’re L.A.’s only spring playoff hope

Ducks goaltender John Gibson stops a shot.
Ducks goalie John Gibson stops a shot Tuesday night as Kings center Phillip Danault (24) looks on at Honda Center. The Kings won 2-1 and bolstered their chances to reach the playoffs.
(Marcio Jose Sanchez / Associated Press)
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The Lakers imploded under the weight of a roster that was well past its shelf life, finishing a miserable 11th in the NBA’s 10-team play-in race. The Clippers, given two chances to earn a playoff berth though a generous play-in format, blew double-digit leads in the fourth quarter against Minnesota and New Orleans and were left to again hope next year will be the big year they’ve never had.

The Ducks collapsed after a strong start, changed general managers and became sellers at the NHL trade deadline on the way to missing the Stanley Cup playoffs for the fourth straight season and extending their tedious rebuild.

All of which leaves the Kings as the only local winter sports team with a chance to reach the playoffs this spring. They improved their chances Tuesday night, riding a spectacular, 29-save performance by Jonathan Quick to a 2-1 victory over the Ducks at Anaheim.

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“It’s a cool thing. L.A.’s obviously a great sports city. There’s so many teams,” said Minnesota-born center Blake Lizotte, who joked that he was proud that his Timberwolves helped eliminate the Clippers but sad that Los Angeles lost a playoff team.

“It’s cool to be in L.A. and be one of the sports teams here. I think the city rallies around any team that’s close to the playoffs or in the playoffs, so hopefully we can just push through and get in there.”

The Kings enter the final two weeks of the season looking to clinch their first playoff spot since 2018. Can the Ducks be the team that helps keep them out?

The Kings have won a single playoff game in two postseason appearances since they skated off the ice in 2014 with their second Cup title in three seasons. After gradually infusing youth and skill into what had become a creaky lineup, they’re in position to experience postseason play for the first time since 2017-18, when they were swept by eventual West champion Vegas. Six players remain from that last playoff series: defenseman Drew Doughty (who recently underwent season-ending wrist surgery), forwards Anze Kopitar, Alex Iafallo, Dustin Brown and Adrian Kempe, and Quick.

The Kings aren’t yet a Cup contender, a point reinforced by their 9-3 demolition at the hands of the league-leading Colorado Avalanche last week. Their power play and penalty killing rank in the bottom third of the NHL and must improve for them climb back toward the top. Injuries forced them to go with a young defense that was vulnerable and not very big, and it cost them.

But they’ve clearly made significant progress this season in terms of depth. Recently, the return of some previously injured skill players has provided the potential for better-balanced production up front and allowed them to put less pressure on those young defensemen.

They’re calm in close games, a major asset. “If we expect to play in a couple weeks from now, we have to be comfortable. Especially this time of year those games are more frequent,” Quick said.

His voice didn’t show any emotion, but he’s happy to play meaningful games again. “It’s fun. Unfortunately, it’s been a few years for us,” he said. “Try and enjoy it and take advantage of the opportunity we have here.”

Said coach Todd McLellan of Quick after Tuesday’s win: “Looks like he’s done it before.” McLellan had his own success when he won a challenge that overturned an initial no-goal call on Phillip Danault’s rebound 32 seconds into the third period. “He feels real good in the net right now,” McLellan said of Quick. “We feel good with him in the net.”

McLellan has said his team has been playing playoff hockey the last month. It’s time for the Kings to experience the real thing and enjoy their moment in the spotlight as L.A.’s only winter sports playoff entry.

“It’s an honor that we’re pleased we’re involved in,” McLellan said the other day. “Our desire as an organization for the three years I’ve been here and I know earlier than that, when they put the plan in place, [is] to play games that — cliché — meant something and have the opportunity to evaluate the whole organization in those games. And we continue to do that with 10 days left in the season.”

Kings left wing Alex Iafallo controls the puck next to Ducks defenseman Simon Benoit.
Kings left wing Alex Iafallo (19) controls the puck as Ducks defenseman Simon Benoit (86) skates in Tuesday night at Honda Center.
(Marcio Jose Sanchez / Associated Press)

Kings President Luc Robitaille said in September that the Kings had turned the page of their rebuild and it was time for them to begin trending upward, which he defined as qualifying for postseason play. They’ve given themselves that chance, which is more than their co-tenants at Crypto.com Arena and biggest rival in Anaheim can say.

“Last summer, we said we wanted to compete to get into the playoffs at this time of the year. We thought it was really important, and we’re exactly there,” Robitaille said Tuesday. “That’s what we said we wanted to do.

“To get in is what the goal is, and then see where everything slots. You never know what can happen once you get in, but that was the goal that we set as an organization, to take the next step.”

The Kings are third in the Pacific Division and are five points ahead of Vegas and Vancouver, which lost in a shootout Tuesday night. The top three teams in each division will earn playoff berths; the two teams with the next-best records in each conference will get wild-card spots. Nashville and Dallas, both from the Central Division, hold the West wild-card spots, so the Kings’ best chance is to hold on to third place.

This isn’t the year the Kings will win the Cup again, but simply reaching the playoffs would be a triumph because their young players will learn so much by immersion. “I actually think even now, the last few weeks, is a great experience for everyone. Just to get that different feeling of every game matters, every mistake matters, every play matters. It’s been really good the last few weeks,” Robitaille said.

Phillip Danault and Dustin Brown scored to help lift the Kings to an important 2-1 win over the Columbus Blue Jackets.

“Then you get to the playoffs and it seems to be an entire other level. We all know the first round in the NHL is some of the best sporting events to watch. I think to live that, to be part of that, you can’t write about it. You can talk about it. You only really learn about it when you live it.”

It’s time for them to live it and keep the winter sports season going.

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