The Kings and Ducks have passed the midway point in their seasons and the Southland rivals are in contention for the playoffs. But will they be among the 16 teams competing for the Stanley Cup come May? Neither team has qualified for the postseason since 2018.
In the latest NHL roundtable, Times columnist (and Hockey Hall of Fame honoree) Helene Elliott was joined by Times hockey editor Hans Tesselaar and Times staffers Jim Barrero (a Kings season-seat holder) and Nick Leyva (a longtime Ducks fan) to discuss the Kings’ and Ducks’ chances, as well as other hot-button issues in the league.
The Pacific Division standings show the Ducks in second place and the Kings in third, meaning they’d meet in the first round if the playoffs started today. So it’s time to buy tickets for another postseason Freeway Faceoff, yes?
Barrero: Wouldn’t that be something. As much as I’d love to see that happen, my gut tells me one of those teams will either bow out of the playoffs or end up in a wild-card spot. A major factor will be how Calgary does when it makes up all those postponed games. I didn’t think this earlier, but I’m betting on both SoCal teams making it.
Leyva: As I said earlier this season, I don’t think anyone will catch Vegas at this point. They are a team getting healthier and they have yet to activate Jack Eichel. No one in this division can match their talent up the middle. Having said that the Ducks and Kings will have to keep pace, but I don’t see another team making a serious charge. Perhaps Calgary.
Elliott: So difficult to predict the standings, with Calgary having SEVEN games in hand on the Ducks and SIX on the Kings entering Wednesday’s games, and the Oilers also having a bunch of games in hand because of the postponement of so many games in Canada. The Flames and Oilers won’t win all of those games but they could pick up enough points to move things around. As for our local puck purveyors, I can see one or both sneaking in as a wild card.
Tesselaar: As Kenny Mayne used to say on “SportsCenter” — and I’m paraphrasing here: “If the playoffs started today, that would be weird.” On a serious note, I can see both teams staying in the race, but if I had to pick one of the two to make it, I’d say the Ducks. The Kings’ lack of scoring may be too much to overcome. And their special teams have been, to put it mildly, terrible. You can’t consistently win playing that way.
During the broadcast of the Kings-Rangers game on Monday, Alex Faust pointed out that in 26 of the Kings’ 42 games, the teams were within a goal of each other with five minutes remaining. (It’s now 27 of 43). What does this tell us?
Elliott: I think it tells us there are a few very good teams in the league, a few very bad teams, and a huge group in the middle. Games between those middle-tier teams could go either way almost any night. Going back to your prediction, Hans, I think the Kings have been showing more balanced scoring lately, especially with Adrian Kempe back. The Ducks’ defense scares me most nights.
Leyva: That’s a good point, it tells me the Kings won’t win a lot of one-goal games in the second half. That’s the big improvement for the Ducks, an ability to generate a lot more shots and scoring chances, compared to the last few seasons anyway.
Barrero: It was Jim Healy who used to say, “Bad teams lose close games.” No, I’m not saying the Kings are a bad team since they’ve won about as often as they’ve lost, but it goes back to what Hans said. The Kings just lack enough scoring to create any real separation on most nights. That said, I don’t think this is the year to go out and get a scorer. Let it ride and wait till next year.
Tesselaar: Helene, I think you hit it head on. There are a lot of teams in the middle and the question is can the locals find their way to the top of that group.
Elliott: Agree with your assessment, Jim Barrero. I think the potential for a long playoff run is greater for the Kings next season, though it never hurts to get in and at least let the young players get a feel for the pressure of playoff hockey.
The Ducks went 2-7-1 after Christmas, but are 2-0-1 in their last three, including an impressive 5-1 victory over Tampa Bay last week. Anaheim has had to deal with several players missing games while in COVID-19 protocols. They appear to be close to full strength again. Should we expect the wins to follow?
Elliott: Coach Dallas Eakins was in protocol, too. … The Ducks’ defense inspires little confidence.
Tesselaar: It makes a huge difference to have Troy Terry, Cam Fowler, Trevor Zegras and the like back in the lineup. In their last three games, the Ducks have 13 goals. And Terry returned for the game against the Boston Bruins and had the game-winning goal.
Elliott: Also, have to say watching Zegras and Terry is a lot of fun. Two foundational players that the Ducks must build around.
Barrero: I agree with Helene about the defense, but the Ducks have proven to be able to score, especially when their young stars are healthy. You mix that with a hot John Gibson in goal, and perhaps that’s enough to cover up some of the defensive blemishes — at least on some nights.
Leyva: I don’t see why they won’t. The Tampa Bay game was fantastic, especially shutting down an offense like the Lightning have. I said to myself, well, that’s a nice win but let’s see how this road trip starts out. Then they pretty much put the clamps on the Bruins. We’ll see how the rest of the trip goes. How about Gibson mixing it up in Boston? Don’t push him around!
Let’s switch gears and talk about the rest of the league. The Lightning have a legitimate shot at a third straight Stanley Cup championship. Colorado might be the best team right now. Would it surprise anyone if they met in the Final?
Elliott: Florida might have something to say in the East. I picked them to beat Tampa Bay last season (forgetting that Nikita Kucherov had been hidden away on injured reserve and miraculously healed in time to return when the salary cap was no longer in effect). So I should be cautious there, but the Panthers have been playing very well. I wonder how far the New York Rangers can go. I’d guess a round or two, and then really make a Cup run next season.
Barrero: I’d be just fine with that matchup (anything that means Vegas isn’t in there … kidding … kind of). Though it annoyed me as a kid, I like the notion of dynasties, so it would be kind of cool to see the Lightning win it for a third straight time. That said, Colorado seems to be the team on the verge the past few years, and the Avs would be deserving after having done the requisite dues paying. Sounds like a great series.
Leyva: I would say either Tampa Bay or Carolina. The Hurricanes play a very disciplined style of hockey which makes them tough, plus Frederik Andersen has been great. In the West, I don’t see a team beating Colorado four times in a seven-game series. That offense just comes at you in waves and they are relentless. Darcy Kuemper is solid but keep an eye on Pavel Francouz, one of the league’s better backups.
Tesselaar: It would be a surprise if only because the Stanley Cup Final rarely delivers a matchup of top-seeded teams in each conference. Having said that, someone I’m sure will email me to say I don’t know what I’m talking about.
Helene mentioned the Rangers and while a majority of L.A. fans would never want to see any New York team succeed, there is something magical to playoff hockey at Madison Square Garden. Just look at how engaged the fans were for the Kings game on Monday. Do you think the league is secretly hoping the Rangers make a long run?
Elliott: I think the league would salivate over a Rangers run because it would engage the New York TV market and help boost ratings. Anything that happens in New York is, by geography, magnified to a greater degree than anywhere else. Except, in the NHL’s case, Toronto.
Leyva: Definitely, every commissioner in every league is hoping for an L.A.-New York matchup in any championship series. More eyes glued to the television. Here’s where I mention Chris Kreider’s fantastic season for the Rangers, and not just because I drafted him for my fantasy team!
Barrero: I would guess anything “New York” would make the league happy, but … I consider myself among the “majority” in this town who don’t need to see that. I do agree with my colleagues that I am always for more eyeballs on hockey, so I will grudgingly admit that would be a benefit. Excuse me, while I go rinse the bad taste from my mouth after having said that. (Smiling emoji)
Tesselaar: Oh sure, Nick, it’s all about you, isn’t it?
Ok, we’ve discussed the good. Now the bad.What in the name of Bobby Clarke is going on in Philadelphia? The Flyers have lost 13 in a row and are winless in 2022. Their next game, by the way, is Saturday against the Kings in Philly.
Elliott: How in the name of Bernie Parent have they not been able to find consistently good goaltending since the Ron Hextall era?
Barrero: Admittedly, I don’t follow the East teams as closely, so I was shocked when I saw the Flyers’ losing streak had reached these epic proportions. As for the Kings having a chance to extend that dubious run of play, wouldn’t it just like them to play to the level of competition? A 10 a.m. Pacific start has potential for some Kings sleepwalking too.
Leyva: I think that will be the free spot on the bingo card for the Kings. The Flyers’ offense is not there at all, I thought their goaltending would at least steal one, but Carter Hart has struggled too. Then they go out and try to rebuild the blue line with Ryan Ellis and Rasmus Ristolainen and that has been a disaster as well. Lot of dough and years tied up there.
Tesselaar: I’m sure the Flyers’ faithful are handling this season well. The Kings have ended long winning streaks of several teams this season. Just sayin’.
If everything had worked out as planned, NHL players would be on their way to China right now for the Olympics. But that’s not happening because of COVID. How disappointed are you that the world’s best players won’t be competing for gold?
Elliott: Having covered the five men’s Olympic hockey tournaments in which NHL players have participated — and then covering 2018 without NHL players — I have to say the quality of competition suffers a lot without them. And it’s not as if countries are sending teams of young kids, which would create an opportunity for another “miracle on ice.” The teams are going to have some youngsters but lots of retreads, too. And Slava Voynov will again be allowed to play. Ugh.
Leyva: I think it’s very disappointing, but it was also a very smart move. It would have been ridiculous to send the league’s best players to a place where the Omicron (or whatever variant they have in Beijing now) is raging like wildfire. I’ll still watch the hockey but not with great interest, that’s for sure.
Barrero: Definitely disappointed. It’s just so much better in this sport when you know the names of the competitors. That said, it’s the Olympics, where unknowns come out of nowhere to become household names (though I’d argue that happens more in individual sports; the 1980 men’s hockey team being an exception). Still, I’ll be excited to see what Kings prospect Brock Faber can do for the U.S. team on defense, and I’ll have my eye on Brendan Brisson, a Manhattan Beach native, on offense.
Elliott: And Ducks prospect Mason McTavish (no relation to Craig MacTavish).
Barrero: And even former King Nick Shore!
Leyva: Ducks fans will be watching Mason McTavish! We got a little taste, but we want more!
Tesselaar: I’m still waiting for the U.S. to get another shot at Canada for the gold after the classic 2010 final that was decided by Sidney Crosby’s overtime goal. Maybe in four years.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.