ANAHEIM, Calif. – Several Los Angeles Kings skated with a handful of Anaheim Ducks during the recent NHL lockout and the ensuing off-season. The players see each other at various night spots around town, and they face off a few times every regular season.
They’ll finally meet in the only place that counts when the puck drops on their second-round playoff series Saturday night.
“It’s going to be fun,” Ducks captain Ryan Getzlaf said. “It’s never happened in history, and I’m glad I was here to be a part of it. We’ve had some really good hockey games against them, some big battles. There are some good memories. We all know each other. It’s just going to be a good, hard-fought battle. There’s no surprises.”
A post-season matchup 20 years in the making also is a fitting highlight to a memorable year for hockey in sunny Southern California. The wintry game is proliferating at the youth level thanks largely to the impact of its two pro teams, whose rinks are separated by 30 miles or so, with fan bases overlapping throughout the area of 19 million people.
Anze Kopitar thinks it’s about time these teams decided Southland supremacy.
“I’m sure it’s going to be exciting for both teams and exciting for Southern California,” Los Angeles’ perennial scoring leader said. “This has been a long time coming.”
And the time and place are ideal for a memorable post-season series. These two teams have never been this good at the same time.
Los Angeles has won seven playoff series in the last three years, claiming the 2012 Stanley Cup title and reaching the Western Conference finals last summer. Anaheim has won two straight Pacific Division titles during its revitalization under coach Bruce Boudreau, and the Ducks just finished the best regular season in franchise history.
Even in a series that has featured a game interrupted by an earthquake and a joint trip to London, the teams had their most memorable meeting in January. That’s when Jonas Hiller and the Ducks shut out Los Angeles at Dodger Stadium in the NHL’s first warm-weather outdoor game.
Kings coach Darryl Sutter deployed his dry wit when asked about the biggest challenge in the series.
“We’re playing indoors,” Sutter said. “Because we heard originally the whole series was going to be played either in the Angels’ stadium or at the Dodgers. So now we found out today that there’s actually four in Honda (Center) and three at Staples (Center), so we’ve got a lot of work to do to get that figured out.”
Although they won’t see an airport in this series, the teams are sticking to road travel plans to keep themselves in a playoff mindset. The Kings plan to stay in a hotel before their games in Anaheim, and the Ducks intend to stay across the street from Los Angeles’ downtown arena before their road games.
The series is still a remarkable treat in the West, where playoff teams are often separated by time zones instead of train rides. The Kings have enjoyed a remarkable post-season draw so far, trading 45-minute plane rides to San Jose for 45-minute bus rides to Orange County.
Once the fans settle in and the games begin, the matchup is intriguing in hockey terms as well. The speedy, high-scoring Ducks contrast sharply with the Kings, who have the NHL’s best defence in front of Jonathan Quick. Boudreau hasn’t announced whether Hiller or rookie Frederik Andersen will be his goalie for Game 1.
The players might not exactly be friends—Kopitar and Getzlaf are two of the NHL’s best centres, yet they barely know each other—but they won’t need to do extensive scouting for a series they’ve been anticipating since they pulled on a jersey.
“I’ve played Getzlaf and (Corey) Perry so many times, and I’ve played with them,” said Kings defenceman Drew Doughty, who won a gold medal for Canada alongside the Ducks’ dynamic duo.
“I know exactly how they play,” Doughty added. “They’re two of the hardest players to play in the league. It doesn’t matter who’s the third guy on that line. I’ve studied how they play so many times. It just comes down to out-competing them and being a better player in every situation. It’s going to be tough for me to do, but I’ve got to do it.”