The Kings/Ducks games are always exciting. Though the teams haven’t really been ranked near each other for long in the standings and they’ve never made the playoffs in the same year, the Kings/Ducks rivalry has always been strong. FSN has been calling the series the Freeway Face-Off for the last couple years (one of my least favorites of the titles selected, but apparently enough fans liked it) and this year they have it sponsored by Subway. Being only a little over 30 miles apart (and 39 minutes according to Yahoo! Maps, though I can’t imagine getting from one to another in under an hour), it’s only natural that the rivalry between the Kings and the Ducks would be strong (especially since many Ducks fans were Kings fans initially and changed when the Ducks arrived in Orange County).
Like all games within the division (and even in the conference for teams fighting for a playoff spot), last night’s game was a 4 point game for both teams. They could control a bit of their fate and the fate of someone else within their division. Many of us thought the Kings would lose the game when Wayne Simmonds’ penalty (and the subsequent Anaheim power play goal) seemed to change the momentum of the game in the Ducks’ favor. The Kings had a two goal lead twice in the game, but gave that lead up at the end of the first and second periods.
The Kings’ top line has been having problems since Smyth got injured. Kopitar (leading the NHL in scoring at the time of Smyth’s injury in Florida) has only had one point this season with Smyth out of the lineup. Perhaps it’s the adjustment to Frolov’s style of play. But maybe Smyth deserves as much credit as he was getting for Kopitar’s elevated play this season. I really thought Kopitar was getting the raw end of the deal as everyone who talked about him being first in NHL scoring seemed to concentrate on his newest line mate. Since those of us out here saw first hand how Anze Kopitar improved his game and adjusted to the attention he’s been getting as other teams focus on the Kings’ top scorer, many of us thought Kopi wasn’t getting enough credit for his own success. I’d still like to see Kopitar prove the cynics wrong, but each game he goes without a goal or an assist has to put more pressure on him. It’s a tough situation for any athlete and I know Kopitar will fight through it. Kings fans are hoping he’ll do that soon.
Fortunately, for the Kings, Simmonds, Handzus, & Parse seem to have clicked. Their line has done very well lately. Simmonds’ goal streak ended last night, but their line still scored. Other than Simmonds’ penalty, which was clearly a horrible penalty to take at a bad time, their line looked impressive offensively and defensively.
When asked about his team being ahead of the Ducks in the standings, Terry Murray pointed out that it’s only December. He has a good point, since the standings will definitely change a lot before the playoffs start in April. I’m sure if you print the standings today many teams currently in playoff positions will not make the playoffs and visa versa. So, why do I frown when the Ducks (who have played 32% of their games this season) say the same thing? It’s easier to fall than it is to improve.
Think about when you were in school. If you started off with a really bad grade in the first test, you’d have to struggle to get really high grades the rest of the semester to save your grade. It’s always more difficult to climb out of a hole than it is to get a losing streak and fall down in the standings. There are many reasons for this, but one of the most important ones for hockey is that you need the teams above you to do poorly at the same time you do well. Since you can only control your own team and not all the teams ahead of you (with the exceptions of the games you play against them), it’s very difficult to get out of a hole.
I was discussing the Ducks’ situation with someone in the press box last night who argued that it’s still early. He argued that 70% is still passing in the NHL and that (unlike the MLB) half the teams (plus one) make it into the playoffs. This is definitely true, but in order to get a solid C at this point, the Ducks would have to win almost all of their remaining games. Even the best teams couldn’t win 50 of their remaining 56 games (which would only be 90%). It’s difficult to achieve and though everyone pays attention to how the teams do in March and April more, the games played in October and November count just as much as the games played at the end of the season.
I understand not worrying about standings early in the season and not feeling secure if you’re solidly in playoff contention in December. Terry Murray has said he doesn’t look at the standings until the Christmas break (about halfway through the season). However, I don’t think I’ll ever figure out why teams aren’t worried if they’re at the bottom consistently early in the season. If you’re not looking at the standings, they’re still losing a lot more games than they’re winning. The Ducks are 10-12-4 in their 26 games. That’s not even at .500 by the current standards where you consider a overtime or shootout loss not counting against you in that situation. The Ducks have lost 62% of their games this season (though they got points in 15% of their losses, they still lost them). In a class without a curve that would be a low D. How is that possibly acceptable for a team that made the second round of the playoffs last season?
The structure of the Ducks has changed drastically. They’ve gotten rid of most of their grit that has been the backbone of the Ducks’ playing style for years. However, they have so much talent on their team. They have two of the top ten scorers in the NHL, but they’re struggling to stay above last place in the western conference and are solidly in last place (7 points behind the next two teams) of their division.
Ducks fans are clearly frustrated and are not attending the games. I’m sure part of this is due to the economic climate, but the Ducks haven’t sold out a game since their home opener and even then there were many empty seats.
Many thought this season would be the first time the Kings and Ducks both made it to the playoffs at the same time. Perhaps then the idea of a series name of some sort would make more sense (the Freeway Face-Off takes place from December – April, it’s not exactly like the Subway Series or Freeway Series of baseball, which happen in the World Series and are major events.
The rest of the games between the Kings and the Ducks will be played next calendar year (two in the last month of the season) and no matter how the teams are doing when they face off again in a month and a half, the games are sure to be intense. Southern California hockey fans should not be disappointed with the rivalry even if their team isn’t the one making it to the playoffs this year.