Ice drama for Kings and Ducks
Where do we start? With the Kings' exhilarating comeback against the Devils in New Jersey, wrapping up a 5-0 road trip?
Or maybe with that blockbuster deal the Ducks made with Toronto? In case you missed it, goaltender Jean-Sebastien Giguere is now a member of the Toronto Maple Leafs. Vesa Toskala is the backup to Jonas Hiller, and forward Jason Blake also is a new addition to the Ducks.
Both players presumably will be in uniform for their new team Monday night, when the Ducks wrap up their road trip with a game against the Florida Panthers.
The deal had been in the works for quite some time, according to Ducks GM Bob Murray, who revealed he had spoken to the Leafs -- and his old boss Brian Burke -- earlier in the season about a possible trade. It came together over the weekend because Burke wanted to tie it in with the other big deal he pulled off with the Calgary Flames, the center piece of which was defenseman Dion Phaneuf.
"We feel we're a better team today than we were yesterday," Murray said. "That's nothing against Jiggy. We can only play one goalie and we have that goalie. We upgraded at forward and we feel we're better today. It opens up some space for next year. I can't tell you how much better I feel about having more room next year."
Murray, of course, was talking about cap space and his desire to make absolutely sure that sufficient funds are available to re-sign soon-to-be (July 1) restricted free agent Bobby Ryan, who's emerged this season as the terrific young talent (and perennial scoring threat) that he always was projected to be. Ryan leads the Ducks with 24 goals and has 43 points so far this season.
"[The deal] frees up money," Murray said, "but I didn't think we were in trouble signing Bobby anyway. Money has been put away to do that. You don't think there are going to be offer sheets, but we were prepared for that. We're in good shape when it comes to Bobby."
The more immediate question, of course, is what effect the trade will have on the Ducks' prospects for making the playoffs this season. The team currently is in 12th place in the Western Conference, just five points out of a playoff spot and with seven games remaining before the Olympics break begins Feb. 14.
After Monday night's game in Florida, the Ducks play three of their next four games at home, and all are critical conference showdowns. The Detroit Red Wings, who reside in the ninth spot, are at Honda Center on Wednesday night.
The Ducks then play Thursday-Monday home-and-home games against the Kings and wrap up their remaining pre-Olympics schedule with two games against the Edmonton Oilers and one against the Flames.
Don't want to hyperbolize here, folks, but let's face it: The Ducks' fortunes this season might well hang in the balance of what happens between Monday's game in Florida and the game on Valentine's Day against the Oilers. Fourteen points are up for grabs for the Ducks in those seven games. If they grab enough of them and get on a roll going into the break, they could be well positioned to make a serious run once the season resumes in early March. If they don't, it could be over, long before the season is over.
And nothing is more dreary or depressing than that prospect.
With the arrival of Jason Blake, there was a surplus of forwards on the team and rookie Dan Sexton was squeezed out and sent to the minors. But what an impact that kid made! Nine goals and nine assists in 28 games, and he established real chemistry with Ryan when the two players were paired with a variety of centers. The hunch here is that Sexton will be back as soon as there's an injury or any other way to get him back in the lineup. Murray confirmed as much.
"It's a tough one," he said. "We have a few too many forwards. He'll be back, and I told him so. He's going to be in the minors at this point, but he will return."
OK, so let's review for a moment, shall we?
At exactly this time two weeks ago, the Kings were just coming off a shaky performance against the Boston Bruins, escaping with two points in a shootout win, and getting ready to host the San Jose Sharks.
Coach Terry Murray was apprehensive, scolding his young team for its shaky play against Boston, pointedly reminding the players that there was no one on their team like Sidney Crosby, who could win a game for them single-handedly, and reinforcing the notion that they weren't good enough to not play as a team on both ends of the ice.
And what happens? The Sharks pummel the Kings, who barely seem to even show up for the game and who then spend the next two days talking about what they have to do to make sure the same thing doesn't happen against Buffalo. And that game against the Sabres might just be the one we all look at a few months from now as a watershed moment in the Kings' season.
It was the finale of a seven-game home stand that had gone terribly wrong. Instead of putting a string of wins together and solidifying their prospects for their first playoff spot in eight years, the Kings had won just two of the six games thus far and were plummeting in the conference standings. A win against Buffalo was critical not only as far as their need for points, but it was even more important from a psychological perspective. Their confidence and ability to believe in themselves needed a boost.
And we all remember what happened that night: The Sabres kept taking the lead. The Kings kept fighting back, overcoming adversity, a bad non-call that allowed a goal-against to stand, a video replay that negated a goal-for.
This wasn't a three-period hockey game; it was more like a three-act play, and somehow you got the feeling that if the Kings could somehow prevail, pull through, fight through the obstacles that were being thrown their way, that something more than just a win would be achieved.
The Kings, of course, won the game. Another shootout. And then they hit the road, their confidence restored, their belief in themselves intact. And they reeled off four straight wins -- against Detroit, Toronto, Columbus and Boston.
They arrived in Newark, N.J., in the wee hours of Sunday morning for a game against the Devils on Sunday night. They were exhausted. They were playing the best defensive team in the league, with Marty Brodeur, arguably the best goalie in the world, in the nets. They were down 2-1 with less than three minutes to go in regulation, and they were down a man, killing a penalty. The game seemingly was in the bag for the Devils, and that was OK. The Kings would end their trip with a perfectly respectable 4-1 record.
But then Wayne Simmonds somehow beat Brodeur with a backhand from an impossible angle that snuck into the short side -- the short side! Against Marty! -- and then, with just 27 seconds left in regulation, defenseman Drew Doughty, back-skating laterally, buying time, ripped a shot through a maze of bodies -- thank you, Ryan Smyth -- that found the back of the net.
So the Kings went 5-0 on a road trip for the first time in franchise history. And with 69 points, they vaulted into fifth place in the Western Conference. But here's the weird rub: No team in the NHL has accumulated more points on the road than the Kings, with 39. But they have only 30 points in the 25 games they've played at home so far this season. Of the 27 games remaining on the Kings' schedule this season, 16 of them are at Staples, so it's obviously time for the Kings to start playing as effectively at home as they have on the road.
And of the six games that remain prior to the Olympics break, five of them are at home, starting with the New York Rangers on Tuesday night. And be wary of that one, folks: The Rangers have been woeful of late, losing five straight games before finally getting a win Sunday night in Colorado against the Avalanche. They are a team that relies heavily -- if not exclusively -- on Marian Gaborik to score all their goals and on Henrik "The King" Lundqvist to stop them from going in.
Gaborik was ice cold before Sunday night, when he scored the 10th hat trick of his career and boosted his overall goal-scoring total to 33. But Lundqvist has missed the past two games with a stomach issue. Look for him to be back in the nets for the Rangers on Tuesday night.
Basically, the Rangers' formula for success is very simple: Hope that Gaborik scores a goal or two, and hope even more that Lundqvist stands on his head and doesn't allow more than a goal or two. When he's been able to do that, the Rangers win. Lundqvist has played 48 games so far this season for the Rangers -- who still are trying to find a reliable backup for The King -- and he's won 22.
If Lundqvist is in goal Tuesday, look for the Kings to do what many other teams have been doing so far this season -- take runs at him, after whistles, on rushes to the net, you name it. And if past is prologue, they'll do it with impunity; the Rangers have yet to show that they are willing to make anyone who dares to challenge their goalie, their franchise player, suffer the appropriate consequences.
NotesAs if you needed to be reminded, former King Sean Avery makes yet another appearance at Staples on Tuesday night, where he undoubtedly will be booed and ridiculed. But he is a great fit for the Rangers, a terrific skater, a creative playmaker, a fearless competitor and, of course, an unrelenting physical and vocal thorn in the side of anyone in an opposing uniform.
Tom Murray covers hockey for ESPNLosAngeles.com.