One small play in a flow of dozens that happen in every game told Ducks coach Randy Carlyle where his team’s collective mind-set was, and that it wasn’t in a good place.
It occurred during the second period of a game on their recent four-city trip. They were executing a controlled breakout, a play they routinely practice, a play that’s dependent on timing and knowing where to go. “I guarantee you, every player in that room knows what the controlled breakout is,” he said.
But then one player — Carlyle wouldn’t identify him but said it was a prominent player and not one who gets few minutes — went to the wrong spot. Nothing good came of it. “That’s where you say to yourself, ‘Why did that happen?’ Those are the flashpoints that you use to describe there’s something not right, there’s something going on,” Carlyle said on Thursday after the Ducks practiced in advance of a potential make-or-break game against the Kings on Friday at Honda Center.
With both the Kings and the Ducks chasing a playoff berth and the schedule dwindling, the winner on Friday figures to have the upper hand in the season’s final week. Someone will get the automatic berth for finishing third in the Pacific Division, so one of them is all but sure to get in. The outcome of Friday’s game — the first of four straight at home for the Ducks — could go a long way toward determining if one of them or both will have something to play for after the regular season ends on April 7.
The Kings, who had an excellent start this season but fell back to the pack, have struggled to put two wins together the past few weeks. They’ve inched forward and then slid back, getting shut out by New Jersey but scoring seven times against a good, playoff-contending Colorado team three games later. Jeff Carter’s return from injury has given them scoring options and strength up the middle, and the acquisition of defenseman Dion Phaneuf has worked out well, but their depth on defense will be tested for at least a few games by the absence of Jake Muzzin, who suffered an upper-body injury on Monday.
“We respect the Kings. They’re a big, heavy hockey club. But they’re in the same position we’re in. They’re fighting for their playoff life, as we are,” Carlyle said. “They’ve had inconsistencies as we have in our season. So again we’re back on an almost level playing field, very close, and here we are with five games left in the season and you would never have thought that.”
The Ducks, though depleted by injuries early this season, managed to stay within reach of the playoff contenders. They should have soared when they got healthy but instead have bounced between third in the Pacific and being narrowly in — or out of — a playoff spot. They’re 5-4-1 in their last 10 games and were lucky to go 2-1-1 on a trip that ended with a dud of a 4-1 loss to the lake cottage-bound Vancouver Canucks.
“I think we’re lucky to salvage the points that we did. I don’t think we played good hockey in any respect, to be honest,” left wing Andrew Cogliano said. “We had a couple good periods in there but to get five out of eight I think we were pretty lucky.”
The Kings and the Ducks often bring out the best in each other when they meet. Given their precarious situations, both could benefit from the emotional boost their rivalry usually provides.
“Given the start that we had and the injuries and everything I’m glad we’re still in this position. Frustrated a little bit with the way that we’ve been playing as of lately, more than the position that we’re in,” Ducks captain Ryan Getzlaf said. “Most of it’s mental. You have to mentally be able to control the grind of a season, and you’re at the time of year where we’re grinding.
“We definitely know we can play. We’ve proven that at different times and different scenarios and games that we needed to have and compete in them, all those kind of things. The opportunity is there. It’s about mentally being ready every day that we come to the rink.”
Carlyle also cited mental fatigue as a factor in the Ducks’ woes and that’s valid to an extent, but the best teams find ways to overcome that. The Ducks’ core players have been through many late-season playoff pushes and they should be able to handle the emotional and physical toll of these last, frantic days.