Straying from youth hockey to the NHL for a moment

I had the opportunity to watch all three of California’s NHL teams in person during a four-day span recently, and I came away with the following impressions.

The Anaheim Ducks will have long road back to the playoffs. Duh, they’ve lost 16 of 18 games and can’t hold a lead.

I watched them give up four goals in the first nine minutes of the third period to Chicago and snatch a 6-5 defeat from what once was a 4-1 lead. And I don’t blame Jonas Hiller for the Blackhawks’ outburst, though he could have stopped a few of the goals in the third-period blitz. The Ducks’ d-zone coverage was willy nilly (to put it mildly) all game, and particularly so in the third.

But the Ducks’ problems extend beyond a leaky defense, which clearly misses Lubomir Visnovsky. If the top two lines don’t score, the Ducks don’t score.  23 games into the season no forward not named Selanne-Perry-Getzlaf-Koivu-Ryan has more than nine points.

But the top line of Ryan Getzlaf-Corey Perry-Bobby Ryan is a combined minus-29, so for all the offense they provide (45 points, including 21 goals) they give up a lot more. One forward you can’t fault is Teemu Selanne, who not only leads the team in points (22), but is just minus-3, a Selke Trophy candidate compared to his top-line brethren.

Rumors of a Ryan trade are flooding the Internet, and he’s an easy target given he has just 11 points in 23 games and a minus-6. But do you really want to trade a player of Ryan’s ability so early in his career? If they could pry Shea Weber or Ryan Suter from Nashville, OK. But unless you’re talking a franchise defenseman, forget it.

Frankly, the Ducks take a lot of undisciplined penalties (they spend 14 and half minutes per game in the box, in the bottom six in the league) and seem to complain to the refs a lot … in addition to not always seeming prepared. Those factors point to the coach, but I remain convinced Randy Carlyle won’t be going anywhere. The ownership still remembers 2007.

Monday, I watched the Kings shut out the Sharks at Staples Center.

The Kings played aggressively from the start and it paid off with some gritty goals. They also built a fairly substantial shot advantage, which few teams do to the Sharks.

But then the Kings seemed to get conservative and back roared the puck-possessing Sharks. In the end, goaltender Jonathan Quick was the difference, and he had to be. Once the Sharks gained control of the puck, they started to get power plays, and Quick was brilliant, often stopping second and third chances.

I expect both to be playoff teams, and it wouldn’t surprise me if both won a round, but I also saw some warning signs for both teams.

The Sharks were a bit careless with the puck, particularly on the blue line. Dan Boyle and Brett Burns are extremely talented players, but both had multiple give-aways. But both demonstrated how their puck-moving abilities also can spark San Jose’s transition game.

The Kings seem deeper than in years past, but they’re still missing a creative offensive player or two. Yes, Mike Richards helps their offense (and defense), but I still saw Anze Kopitar getting ganged up on. Simon Gagne is still a very good player, but injuries clearly have robbed him of something over the years.

When the Kings play aggressively, but don’t warm the penalty box seat, they’re tough to deal with. Sustaining that appeared problematic.

The difference, the Kings’ lockdown style could work in the playoffs if they can manufacture timely goals and stay out of the penalty box. I had the sense watching the Sharks that I’ve seen this before, which means a very good regular season and who knows after that.

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Game 3 – Sharks-Ducks

ANAHEIM – That Game 3 of the Western Conference Quarterfinal between the San Jose Sharks and Anaheim Ducks on Tuesday night was as intense of a game as I’ve seen in person in quite some time wasn’t a surprise.

What did surprise me were two things – both goaltenders left a lot of loose change in the slot and the Ducks’ penalty killing, which had been money to this point in the series, was not as effective.

San Jose’s first three goals came from defensemen, including two from Dan Boyle, and Rob Blake, who scored the Sharks’ first goal, hit captain Patrick Marleau with a touch pass on a power-play for the winner midway through the third period of the Sharks’ 4-3 win.

Three times the Sharks took leads in the first two periods, and three times the Ducks caught them. In the end, the chase got the better of Anaheim.

“They seemed to jump out of the gate earlier on us (than in Games 1 and 2),” Ducks coach Randy Carlyle said afterward. “It seemed like we were battling back all night.”

Sharks coach Todd McLellan was pleased with his team’s start.

“That was our best first period, not only in the playoffs, but in a long time,” he said.

After being outshot by a 2-1 ratio during the first 30 minutes, the Ducks took control during the latter half of the second period and tied the score at 3 when Chris Pronger picked off Joe Pavelski‘s errant clearing pass between the circles and fired the puck inside the right post.

Marleau’s goal and a spirited Sharks effort late in the third sealed the outcome.

“We took a penalty in the middle of the period and it cost us,” Carlyle said. “We didn’t play to the level we did the two previous games.”

Other observations: Wonder why so many seats were left unfilled in all three levels of Honda Center? Econony? Apathy? Angels playing across the street? … The George Parros-Douglas Murray bout was a keeper. Parros was responding to a hard but legal blindside hit Murray had administered to Teemu Selanne a few shifts earlier in the first period. This was a fight out of passion, not for show, and the NHL would be wise to let these interactions go. It energized the building and both teams. … The Sharks held a huge shot advantage in the first period, but were outhit and dominated in the faceoff circle. When the Ducks narrowed the shot gap, the Sharks evened out the hit and faceoff departments. … Members of the media and scouts from other teams were out in droves Tuesday night. Hard for me to believe there are that many outlets covering the series. … A funny sight: several Ducks prospects (the Black Aces) who are in town to practice with the team during the playoffs as well as the club’s scratches sat together in the arena on Tuesday night. Wonder if the fans around them had any idea who the group of young men was.

How will the West be won?

If you’re a fan of any of California’s three NHL teams, this will be a very interesting week for you, especially on Wednesday and Thursday.

On Wednesday night, the Anaheim Ducks play host to the LA Kings at Honda Center in game with, I’m not making this up, huge playoff implications. The Ducks have a tenuous hold on the eighth seed in the tightly packed Western Conference, while their neighbors from the near-north are just five points behind. In total, there are 11 teams within 10 points of each other in places 5 through 15 in the conference.

The next night, the Kings travel north to play the top-seeded Sharks, who have struggled this month, having lost three in a row and going 4-2-4 in their past 10. Yes, that’s 12 points in 10 games, but after the Sharks’ torrid start to the season, that’s a bit of a lull.

A quick look at each of the three teams.

Anaheim might be in the most difficult position for a few reasons. First, it has played 58 games – more than any team in the West at this point – so it has fewer points left on the table. The Kings have four games in hand. The Ducks are showing signs of wearing down, too, in my opinion. They’re a veteran team that has been hammered by injuries (D Kent Huskins and Francois Beauchemin and C Samuel Pahlsson are the biggies at the moment), and they continue to take a lot of penalties so players such as Scott and Rob Niedermayer and Chris Pronger are expending a lot of energy on the PK. The Ducks have “two No. 1 goaltenders” (Coach Randy Carlyle’s words, which I agree with), but they’re not getting the game-saving type of goaltending they need a lot of nights. Will the Ducks make the playoffs? I really think it’s a toss-up given how tough the West is and that they’re staring a huge road trip in the face after they play the Kings.

San Jose has been great thus far, there is no other way to put it even with its recent “slump”. The Sharks have a one-point lead on Detroit but have three games in hand on the Red Wings. After a long trip, they also will enjoy an even mix of home and road games down the stretch. The Sharks literally were unbeatable at home until about a month ago. The offseason moves to add Ds Rob Blake, Dan Boyle and Brad Lukowich were nothing short of brilliant, as was the hiring of Todd McClellan as coach (though I thought Ron Wilson also did a very, very good job). The Sharks are No. 2 in goals and first in goals against in the West, and they have gotten excellent goaltending from Evgeni Nabokov. The Sharks will either finish first or second in the West and are a solid Cup contender.

The most interesting team to me has been the Kings. And if Terry Murray isn’t coach of the year, then it better go to the annually overlooked Barry Trotz of Nashville. The Kings have gone from one of the most porous teams to one of the stingiest with one of the league’s youngest rosters. At 7-2-1 in their past 10 games, they are the hottest of the three California teams, and their recent 7-1 road trip was a real eye opener. It also coincided with the return of D Jack Johnson.

I spoke with Kings D Peter Harrold about a month ago, and he told me a long trip like that could either help the team gain momentum or sink its season. Clearly the former has happened. I see two things potentially working against LA’s bid for the playoffs – only nine home games (eight after Monday) and 17 road games to close the season – and inexperienced goaltending. However, as the recent trip and the play of rookie Jonathan Quick have demonstrated, these Kings are full of surprises. If LA’s best players (Dustin Brown, Anze Kopitar, Patrick O’Sullivan and Alexander Frolov) score consistently and the defense continues its play, the Kings could reach the playoffs.

No combination of Kings-Ducks, Kings-Sharks, Ducks-Sharks or all three have ever made the playoffs in the same season. That has the potential to change in 2008-09.