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

The Kings and Ducks went in opposite directions when they skated off the ice at Crypto.com Arena on Saturday.

The Kings are heading to the playoffs for the third consecutive season, the team’s longest streak of postseason appearances in a decade. The Ducks, meanwhile, will return to the golf course after Thursday’s regular-season finale after missing the postseason for the sixth straight year, the longest drought in franchise history.

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

But the gap between the two is smaller and more jagged than it seems.

Read more: Kings beat Ducks to extend home winning streak to eight games

“It’s a tough game,” Kings president Luc Robitaille said. “You have to have a plan, you have to stick to it and you also have to have a bit of luck with injuries.”

When that luck runs out, you have the Ducks.

“You can look at any team that’s won, and they’ve gotten a little lucky,” Ducks general manager Pat Verbeek said. ‘They’ve had a bit, now they’re good. You can never take that away again. But there is always something.”

Neither Robitaille nor Verbeek attribute their fortunes solely to the successes and failures of their teams. But they don’t deny the impact either.

“If you were to say what makes you lucky, it’s more like that [Anze] Kopitar and [Drew] Doughty are still very important players on our team,” Robitaille said of the team captains and five-time All-Stars, who are both in their mid-30s. “That hasn’t happened with other teams.

“We feel we are lucky that these guys are still top players.”

Los Angeles Kings left wing Kevin Fiala, right, celebrates his goal with center Anze Kopitar.Los Angeles Kings left wing Kevin Fiala, right, celebrates his goal with center Anze Kopitar.

For Verbeek and the Ducks, the opposite was true. Forwards Trevor Zegras, Leo Carlsson and Alex Killorn and goalkeeper John Gibson have all missed significant time with injuries this season, which is a big reason why the Ducks are better than just two other teams in goals scored, goals allowed and goal difference.

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“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 goal,” said Verbeek, who took over as Ducks general manager 26 months ago. “But anyway, every team has to deal with that. It’s just a little bit clearer now because we haven’t gotten the full depth in our lineup that I’m looking for if we want to be good.”

There is of course more to it, as 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) along with the combined 86 goals and 114 assists they got from Trevor Moore, Adrian Kempe and Kevin Fiala. Veteran goaltender Cam Talbot, who is having perhaps his best season in eight years, has also been a key contributor.

The biggest turning point in the Kings season, however, 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 switch and clinched a spot in the playoffs by beating Calgary on Thursday.

Kings coach Jim Hiller instructs his players during a game against the Calgary Flames on Thursday.Kings coach Jim Hiller instructs his players during a game against the Calgary Flames on Thursday.

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

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Hiller, who has been an assistant on four NHL teams for a decade, has a reputation as more of a players’ coach than McLellan, according to many within 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, leading to McLellan’s firing, and then won five of their first six when the season resumed. They are the best in the league at home since the All-Star break at 13-2-1.

“If you don’t win, it’s tough,” Hiller said. “So try to lighten it up and bring some fresh energy, see if that helps. I think after the break the players were fresh and ready to get going again.”

Things are going so well that Robitaille and general manager Rob Blake received some criticism for not taking action at the March trade deadline, opting instead to strengthen 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 want to make a trade, you have to say, ‘Is that guy better than our guy?’

“Our guys coming back, we love the way they play. We believe in the way our guys play. And when Arvidsson came back, it turned out we were right. The same goes for 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 their last 18 games.

Ducks forward Trevor Zegras controls the puck during a 3-1 loss to the Kings Saturday at Crypto.com Arena.Ducks forward Trevor Zegras controls the puck during a 3-1 loss to the Kings Saturday at Crypto.com Arena.

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

Now comes the playoffs – at least for the Kings. If the team retains third place in the Pacific Division – it is three points ahead of Las Vegas with two games remaining, both at home – it will likely start the postseason by traveling to Edmonton to take on the Oilers for the third times in the competition. as many seasons.

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“It doesn’t matter who we play against. It will be difficult,” Robitaille said. “Every match is exciting.”

The past two years the team has not advanced past the first round, so bringing back players was a bare minimum this season. The expectation now is to advance past the first round, something the Kings haven’t done since winning their second Stanley Cup title in 2014.

However, the experience that Anderson, Moore and other Kings players have had in the playoffs over the past two seasons reminds Robitaille of the Kings’ first Stanley Cup championship team in 2012.

“The two years before that 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 play-offs. That’s the way we play now.

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

Read more: Akil Thomas scores his first NHL goal in Kings win over Sharks

It’s back to the drawing board for the Ducks. Verbeek could not say how long it will take before the photo is ready.

“That’s a very difficult question to answer,” said Verbeek, who has been a winner during his 38-year career as a player, scout and manager, lifting the Stanley Cup twice. “The reason why it’s hard to answer is because at the end of the day we have a lot of young players and you don’t know how quickly they’re going to make the adjustments to become impact players.”

“But I’m also a realist,” he added. “I believe we will have our time. It’s not quite there yet, but I expect our team will push for a spot in the playoffs next year. I’m not saying we’re going to make it. But I say we need to be involved.”

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This story originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.

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