Hockey / Sports

Dallas Stars goalie Kari Lehtonen (32) sits in front of the net after giving up the game-winning goal to Anaheim Ducks center Nick Bonino (13) in overtime of Game 6 of the NHL Western Conference quarterfinals at the American Airlines Center in Dallas, Sunday, April 27, 2014. The Ducks defeated the Stars, 5-4. (Tom Fox/Dallas Morning News/MCT)

Ducks face familiar nemesis in the Kings

ANAHEIM, Calif. -- The team that no one wanted to face right off the bat in the Stanley Cup playoffs now stands smack dab in front of the Ducks to begin the second round.

And that team is just 30 miles up the road.

Let's face it, the Ducks were not going to avoid the Kings on the way to fulfilling some championship dreams. Perhaps they knew this fact months ago -- and prepared for it.

"We made a conscious effort against the Kings this year," defenseman Ben Lovejoy said. "We know that in the last few years, they've had the Ducks' number. We knew that at some point, if were to win the Stanley Cup, we're going to have to go through one of these teams.

"And we wanted to prove to them, prove to us that we could beat them on a regular basis. Home. Away. Dodger Stadium. We wanted to win every game against them, so if and when a playoff series did come, there would be doubt in their minds and we know that we can beat them."

The ever-positive Lovejoy could speak with a confident tone. The Ducks nearly did what he said, winning four of the five meetings during the regular season.

And when it comes to the first postseason series ever between the NHL's two Southern California teams, the Ducks can go into Game 1 of the Freeway Playoff on Saturday at Honda Center with the following new-found sense of belief.

They can beat the Kings.

Will they? That, of course, is a much tougher deal.

All the Kings did in becoming the fourth NHL team to erase a 3-0 deficit and win a playoff series was reinforce the fact that eliminating them has become a Herculean task since they won it all in 2012. Chicago did in 2013 and wound up hoisting the Cup.

The Ducks hadn't won the season series since 2010-11 and captured just three of the first eight matchups since Bruce Boudreau took over as coach at the end of November in 2011. Moreover, the Kings were building a psychological edge.

Too often, the Ducks found themselves outworked by the unyielding Kings. The skill was always there but it was often suffocated -- especially in games at Staples Center -- by Darryl Sutter's defense-first system.

Something had to change.

"I think when we're at our best, we're a grinding team," Lovejoy said. "We have very good skill, but our skill is much more difficult to play against when we're getting pucks deep, grinding and taking it to the net, rather than trying to make fancy speed plays through the neutral zone.

"Playing against the Kings forces us to play a game like that."

The theory is the Kings are about playing a heavy, grinding game and rarely, if ever, get away from that. The Ducks realized they had to get dirty and grind with them.

Four of the five clashes this season were one-goal affairs. The Kings won a 4-3, nine-round shootout in Martin Jones' NHL debut, but then the Ducks started capturing the close games.

In a 72-hour span in late January, the Ducks won 2-1 at home and 3-0 in the Dodger Stadium outdoor game as goalies Frederik Andersen and Jonas Hiller outdueled Jonathan Quick.

The Kings also couldn't solve Andersen in the final two meetings as the Ducks continued to play a safer, no-frills game around their goaltender, winning 2-1 on March 15 and 4-3 in a shootout April 12. Both were at Staples.

Andrew Cogliano said facing the Kings means "you need to dig in against them."

"In order to beat them, you have to play their game," said Cogliano, the Ducks' fleet winger. "If you don't play their type of game, I really don't think you have a chance. You see teams that play a run-and-gun game or play a high-offensive game against them and they're just not successful. Bottom line.

"But when you play their style, which I don't want to say it's defensive but sound defensively and create offense from that, I think they're a team you can beat."

The Ducks learned to adapt as well. Size still matters and using big, physical forwards such as Patrick Maroon, Tim Jackman and Matt Beleskey matched them up better.

It also gave them confidence that they could win tight games as well as wide-open affairs.

"This year, I think we've got the personnel that can grind with them," Boudreau said. "That's usually a big difference. I just think it was Bob (GM Bob Murray) getting the players that we needed."

The overarching storyline is the first Kings-Ducks playoff series and what it might mean for hockey in Southern California. To Ducks captain Ryan Getzlaf, that is more for fans and the media to chew on.

"For us, they're another team that we have to go through to get to our goal," Getzlaf said. "And it's going to be a tough series. We know they're a good hockey team. It'll be nice to get past them and move on."

(c)2014 The Orange County Register (Santa Ana, Calif.)

Visit The Orange County Register (Santa Ana, Calif.) at www.ocregister.com

Distributed by MCT Information Services

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DUCKS


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