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News Analysis: As Kings shift focus to another challenging playoff series, Ducks search for answers

Kings defenseman Andreas Englund celebrates with goaltender David Rittich.
Kings defenseman Andreas Englund, left, celebrates with goaltender David Rittich after a 3-1 win over the rival Ducks at Crypto.com Arena on Saturday night.
(Nicole Vasquez / NHLI via Getty Images)
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The Kings and Ducks headed in opposite directions when they skated off the ice Saturday at Crypto.com Arena.

The Kings are going to the playoffs for a third consecutive season, the team’s longest run of postseason appearances in a decade. The Ducks, meanwhile, will be heading to the golf course again after Thursday’s regular-season finale, having missed the postseason for a sixth straight season, the longest drought in franchise history.

Saturday’s 3-1 win was the Kings’ fifth in six games. For the Ducks, it was their 50th loss of the season, a first in the 30-year history of the franchise.

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But the gap between the two is narrower and more fickle than it might appear.

The Kings defeat the Ducks 3-1 in the final game of the season between the two rivals and extend their lead over Vegas in the Western Conference.

April 13, 2024

“It’s a hard game,” Kings president Luc Robitaille said. “You have to have a plan, you’ve got to stick to it, you’ve got to be a little bit lucky with injuries too.”

When that luck runs out, well, then you have the Ducks.

“You can look at any team that’s won, and they’ve had a little luck,” Ducks general manager Pat Verbeek said. “They’ve had a little, now they’re good. You can never take that away. But there’s always some sort of thing.”

Neither Robitaille nor Verbeek are crediting fortune alone for their teams’ successes and failures. But they’re not dismissing the impact either.

“If you’d say what are you lucky about, it’s more that [Anze] Kopitar and [Drew] Doughty are still really important players on our team,” Robitaille said of the team’s captains and five-time All-Stars, both of whom are in their mid-30s. “On other teams that has not happened.

“We feel we’re fortunate these guys are still premier players.”

Los Angeles Kings left wing Kevin Fiala, right, celebrates his goal with center Anze Kopitar.
Kings forward Kevin Fiala, right, celebrates with captain Anze Kopitar after scoring against the Vancouver Canucks on April 6.
(Ryan Sun / Associated Press)

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For Verbeek and the Ducks, the opposite has been true. Forwards Trevor Zegras, Leo Carlsson and Alex Killorn and goaltender John Gibson have all sat out substantial time to injury this season, which is a big reason why the Ducks are better than only two other teams in goals scored, goals allowed and goal differential.

“It’s not ideal when your best players aren’t in the lineup — and they’re not in the lineup together, which was the intended purpose,” said Verbeek, who took over as Ducks general manager 26 months ago. “But, hey, every team deals with that. It’s just a little more pronounced now because we haven’t quite gotten the complete depth in our lineup that I’m looking for when we’re going to be good.”

There’s more to it than that, of course, because the Kings also lost key players — Viktor Arvidsson, Carl Grundstrom and Mikey Anderson — to injury. But the Kings overcame that with stellar seasons from Kopitar (26 goals, 70 points) and Doughty (15 goals, 50 points) in conjunction with the combined 86 goals and 114 assists they’ve received from Trevor Moore, Adrian Kempe and Kevin Fiala. Veteran goaltender Cam Talbot, who is arguably having his best season in eight years, also has been a key contributor.

However, the biggest turning point in the Kings’ season came in early February when the team fired coach Todd McLellan and promoted longtime assistant Jim Hiller. The Kings have won 20 of 32 games since the change and clinched a playoff berth by beating Calgary on Thursday.

Kings coach Jim Hiller instructs his players during a game against the Calgary Flames on Thursday.
(Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)

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“The system’s the same, but I’m not sure it’s the same message,” Robitaille said. “We’re all grateful for what Todd has done. He put in a system that our guys believe in. Unfortunately it seemed like we needed just a different voice and Jim came in and his communication is different.”

Hiller, an assistant for 10 years with four NHL teams, has a reputation for being more of a players’ coach than McLellan, according to many around the team. However, Hiller said the biggest factor in the team’s success was the timing of his promotion. The Kings had lost 14 of 17 games heading into the All-Star break, which led to McLellan’s firing, then won five of their first six when the season resumed. They are a league-best 13-2-1 at home since the All-Star break.

“When you’re not winning, it’s heavy,” Hiller said. “So you try to lighten it and bring some fresh energy, see if that will help. I think coming out of the break the players were refreshed and ready to get going again.”

It’s going so well that Robitaille and general manager Rob Blake took some heat for not making a move at the March trade deadline, choosing instead to bolster the team with the return of Arvidsson and Anderson.

“You don’t want to make a trade just to make a trade,” Robitaille said. “If you’re going to make a trade, you have to say, ‘Is that guy better than our guy?’

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“Our guys coming back, we like the way they play. We believe in the way our guys play. And when Arvidsson came back, it showed us that we’re right. Same with Mikey Anderson.”

The rebuilding Ducks, on the other hand, were active at the deadline, acquiring three draft picks and two useful players in forward Ben Meyers and center Jan Mysak while holding on to the core of their roster. Nothing has changed since the deadline — the team is 3-13-2 in its last 18 games.

Ducks forward Trevor Zegras controls the puck during a 3-1 loss to the Kings on Saturday at Crypto.com Arena.
(Nicole Vasquez / NHLI via Getty Images)

Now comes the playoffs — for the Kings, at least. If the team holds on to the third spot in the Pacific Division — it leads Las Vegas by three points with two games to play, both at home — it probably will begin the postseason at Edmonton to meet the Oilers for the third time in as many seasons.

“It doesn’t matter who we play. It’s going to be hard,” Robitaille said. “Every game is tight.”

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The last two years, the team didn’t make it past the first round, so getting back to the players was a bare minimum this season. Getting past the first round is the expectation now, something the Kings haven’t done since winning their second Stanley Cup title in 2014.

However, the experience Anderson, Moore and other Kings players have gained over the last two seasons in the playoffs has Robitaille thinking back to the Kings’ first Stanley Cup championship team in 2012.

“The two years prior, we got [eliminated] in the first round,” he said. “And we were learning. We found a way to win all these 2-1, 3-2 games in the playoffs. That’s the way we’re playing now.

“You get in a playoff series and if you get one or two breaks, it makes it really hard for the other team to beat you. We played that style all year. We’re built more to play that playoff style.”

The Kings defeat San José 2-1 to increase their lead over the St. Louis Blues in the race for the final wild-card spot in the Western Conference.

April 4, 2024

For the Ducks, it’s back to the drawing board. As for how long it will take to finish the picture, Verbeek couldn’t say.

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“That’s a real tough question to answer,” said Verbeek, who has been a winner throughout his 38-year career as a player, scout and executive, twice hoisting the Stanley Cup. “The reason why it’s tough to answer is because at the end of the day, we’ve got a lot of young players and you don’t know how quick they’re going to make the adjustments to become impact players.”

“But I’m also being a realist,” he added. “I believe we’re going to have our time. It’s not quite yet, but I’m expecting next year to have our team pushing for a playoff spot. I’m not saying we’re going to make it. But I’m saying we should be involved.”

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