A few days ago, the Ducks were not sure if they would qualify for the playoffs and the Kings were confident that their defense and goaltending would carry them during the absence of injured forwards Justin Williams and Anze Kopitar.
In a stunning turnaround, the Ducks capped a sweep of the teams’ season-ending series with a 3-1 victory Saturday night at Staples Center, climbing to No. 4 in the Western Conference and gaining home-ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs.
The Kings, whose lone power-play goal in seven chances Saturday was their only man-advantage goal in their last seven games, can finish no higher than seventh place, a dispiriting end to a season that was supposed to cement their status as an up-and-coming league power.
They finished 46-30-6 for 98 points, three fewer than last season when they faded late and were the No. 6-seeded team in the West playoffs.
“It’s disappointing that we didn’t take control of our destiny in the last couple games,” Kings Coach Terry Murray said, the understatement of the season.
But the Ducks seized control with a late and impressive rush that was so emotional, Teemu Selanne was assessed what is believed to be the first major fighting penalty of his career after a tussle with Brad Richardson late in the third period.
“It’s unbelievable the way the season went this year,” said goaltender Dan Ellis, who stopped 43 shots in a clutch performance that stood out in a sea of clutch efforts by the Ducks.
The Ducks will open the playoffs at Honda Center against either the Nashville Predators or Chicago Blackhawks, depending on the outcome of Sunday’s game between Chicago and Detroit. If the Blackhawks earn at least one point the Kings will be eighth and will face the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Vancouver Canucks, who eliminated L.A. from the playoffs last spring in a six-game series.
If Chicago loses, the Kings will finish seventh and face the Pacific Division champion, San Jose.
For the Ducks, who missed the playoffs last season, the sweep ended a remarkable surge that followed a series of potentially devastating injuries.
When All-Star goaltender Jonas Hiller was knocked out by a case of vertigo, they turned to free agent Ray Emery, who won his first six decisions. When Emery suffered a lower-body injury they turned to Ellis, who stopped 66 of 68 shots in the two games against the Kings.
That’s what a clutch player does. And what the Kings don’t do.
“It’s a good feeling,” said Ducks winger Corey Perry, who with 50 goals this season is a lock to win the Rocket Richard trophy as the NHL’s top goal-scorer. “But we worked very hard for this.”
The NHL will release the playoff schedule Sunday night in a telecast on NHL Network. The Kings know they will be opening on the road.
“This is disappointing with a chance to clinch home ice, but those 82 games are irrelevant now come Wednesday or Thursday,” Kings captain Dustin Brown said. “Everyone’s got to hit the reset button.
“It’s a new season, whether you had a good season or a bad season. It’s a new opportunity in front of all of us.”
The Kings had plenty of opportunities to take an early lead Saturday, gaining the game’s first three power plays but whiffing badly. The Ducks scored at 13:27 of the first period on Brandon McMillan’s goal off a faceoff win — helped by Richardson’s poor defensive coverage — and made it 2-0 on Saku Koivu’s conversion of a tic-tac-toe passing play with Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry.
Francois Beauchemin made it 3-0 at 8:54 of the second period with Kevin Westgarth in the box for roughing, a stoppable shot that eluded Jonathan Quick a few seconds after Ellis had stopped Brown on a shorthanded breakaway.
The Kings, who have scored 11 goals in their last seven games, got their only goal on Ryan Smyth’s deflection of a Drew Doughty shot during a power play at 18:24 of the second period.
Not the way they wanted to end their season.
“No, not at all,” Quick said. “But you can’t fault the effort. We got a lot of pucks to the net. Ellis made some big saves for them and possibly stole the game for them.”
Quick was surprised to learn the Ducks had earned the No. 4 seeding but credited them for their perseverance.
“They battled through a lot of adversity to get to where they are,” he said. “At the end of the day that’s where we wanted to be.
“We have some work to do. We knew that going in, no matter who we were playing, home ice or not home ice. We’re going to be ready to play whenever it starts.”
But if this weekend was any indication, they won’t be playing for long.