The Ducks’ 2-1 overtime victory over the Kings on Friday at Honda Center was a playoff preview, as meaningful a game as the two teams have ever played during the regular season.
They pushed each other in the way long-time rivals do, triggering snarls and shoves while drawing on physical and emotional reserves they might not have known they had. Each player was inspired to make an extra effort in puck battles, on faceoff, and in diving in front of dangerous shots, because each one knew that if he didn’t do that, someone on the other team surely would.
The superstars played like superstars and the third- and fourth-line players asserted themselves at crucial moments, all of them driven by the knowledge that one mistake or missed scoring chance could be the difference between winning the game, or dropping into a perilous position in the scramble for a Western Conference playoff berth with only a week left.
“It’s a playoff game, right? Anytime there’s big stake in anything, I think the intensity goes up,” Kings coach John Stevens said. “They’ve got a good hockey team. They check well. They don’t give up a lot. They certainly don’t give up much on the rush, and they’re pretty solid in all positions. It’s a good, hard-fought battle.”
The Ducks’ triumph, sealed when Rickard Rakell stickhandled his way to point-blank range and beat Kings goaltender Jonathan Quick 4 minutes and 41 seconds into overtime, was their first complete-game effort in a long time. They felt they had left points on the table during a recent trip in which they gained five of eight points and they blamed mental fatigue for mistakes that cost them wins.
After a few days’ reflection and a gut check they came up with a performance on Friday that was as thorough as any they’ve had lately, and it was reassuring to them that they could do it when they so urgently needed that kind of effort.
“We haven’t done that too often,” said Ducks winger Nick Ritchie, who tied the score at 1-1 in the second period when he converted the rebound of a shot by Francois Beauchemin. “It was a big win and we played pretty well tonight.”
It’s the kind of performance the Ducks hope will become a blueprint for them the rest of the season.
Friday’s game might be the closest one of them gets to postseason play, and that’s too bad. One of them will make the playoffs as the third place team in the Pacific Division, and the Kings hold that spot for the moment with 94 points. The Ducks, on another wild night in the West scramble, landed in the first wild-card spot with 93 points and hold a game in hand on the Kings. The Ducks have four games left and the Kings have three.
“We’ll take the point,” Kings captain Anze Kopitar said, “but we can’t be satisfied with just a point.”
The Kings, playing on the second night in a row, got the early edge on Drew Doughty’s goal at 6:01 of the first period. Given a free path to the net when Ducks forwards Ryan Kesler and Andrew Cogliano collided, Doughty took a shot from the right side that went off the arm of Ducks goaltender John Gibson and into the net.
Dustin Brown, who did the difficult work by winning the puck behind the net, and Kopitar, who relayed the puck to Doughty, were credited with the assists. With that point Kopitar reached 90 this season, the first Kings player to hit 90 since Wayne Gretzky had 130 in the 1993-94 season.
For a while, it seemed that might be the only goal. Ducks center Ryan Getzlaf set up linemate Corey Perry for three or four prime scoring chances but Perry couldn’t finish. Quick, who had shut out Calgary in his previous start on Monday, stopped 16 shots in the first period and the Ducks didn’t beat him until their 25th shot, when third-line winger Ondrej Kase dug the puck out and got it to Beauchemin, whose long shot was stopped by Quick. The rebound stayed in front and Ritchie batted it in to bring the score to 1-1.
The crowd rode waves of emotion, with the many Kings fans who found their way to Anaheim cheering for their team and Ducks fans responding in kind. It left every fan and player wanting more and wanting to see the two teams in the playoffs and, maybe, see them meet again there.
Follow Helene Elliott on Twitter @helenenothelen