The Anaheim Ducks and Los Angeles Kings will play Game 7 of their second-round Stanley Cup playoff series Thursday night for Southern California hockey bragging rights and the right to play the defending champion Chicago Blackhawks in the Western Conference finals.
The Ducks held a 3-2 series lead going into Wednesday night’s Game 6 at Staples Center, but they couldn’t eliminate the resilient Kings, who improved to 5-0 this postseason when facing elimination.
Since winning the Stanley Cup in 2012, L.A. has played in two Game 7s and is 2-0, while Anaheim has played in only one Game 7 (they lost it to the Detroit Red Wings in the first round in 2013) over the last five years.
What can we expect Friday night in Anaheim? Check out our Kings-Ducks preview below.
Friday at 9 p.m. ET on NBC Sports Network
Top storyline: Special teams will be the difference
Power-play success has been a critical factor in this series, especially for the Ducks. After struggling with the man advantage during the regular season (ranked 22nd in the NHL), Anaheim has dominated on the power play for most of the playoffs, converting at a 25.5 percent rate (second-best among remaining teams). The Ducks are 3-1 in Round 2 when they score a power-play goal, compared to 0-2 when they don’t. Their streak of four consecutive games with a power-play goal ended Wednesday when they were 0-for-5 in a 2-1 defeat.
The Kings’ penalty kill is operating at a 83 percent success rate, which is below expectations for a team with an elite goaltender and a physical group of defensemen and forwards. Los Angeles has to put pressure on the points and force power-play quarterbacks, such as Ducks D-men Hampus Lindholm and Sami Vatanen, to pass the puck instead of firing a powerful shot on goal. The Kings defensemen also need to do a better job of clearing Ducks forwards, usually Corey Perry and Pat Maroon, from the front of the net.
Whichever team wins the special teams battle will advance to the next round. These teams have combined for an average of six power plays per game this series, so there likely will be plenty of opportunities to grab momentum with a special-teams goal.
Goalie matchup: John Gibson (ANA) vs. Jonathan Quick (LAK)
Gibson entered the series in Game 4 and posted back-to-back victories, including a shutout in Game 4, to add to a rapidly growing legend. At just 20 years old, the 2013 World Junior Championships MVP is incredibly poised and has very polished fundamentals. His positioning is sound, and he’s capable of making highlight-reel saves with his lateral quickness and reliable glove hand. After a Game 6 loss in which he gave up just two goals — one of them being a softie, however — Gibson has a .946 save percentage and a 1.69 goals against average through three playoff games.
So far, Gibson has outplayed former Conn Smythe Trophy winner Jonathan Quick, who has posted a .914 save percentage and a 3.30 GAA in Round 2. Quick was much better in Game 6 when he allowed only one goal and made 21 saves, including several stellar stops on the penalty kill. For the Kings to win Game 7, they must receive a tremendous performance from Quick because they don’t have the offensive firepower or depth to win a high-scoring game against the Ducks.
Sidenote: Someone get Gibson an Angels hat ASAP.
The kid John Gibson appears none too nervous on eve of Game 7.... http://t.co/Up4yTwkU4t—
Pierre LeBrun (@Real_ESPNLeBrun) May 15, 2014
Prediction: Ducks win 3-1
The Ducks will have the advantage with the last line change as the home team, allowing head coach Bruce Boudreau to play the matchup game against the Kings’ top duo of Anze Kopitar and Marian Gaborik. Anaheim has struggled to score goals at even strength, which could be an issue if the referees swallow their whistles in Game 7, but that hasn’t been the case in the four previous Game 7s of the playoffs so far.
The one thing Anaheim lacks is experience, and eliminating a resilient Los Angeles team with many players who have Stanley Cup rings won’t be easy. But with home ice, better special teams and a goalie who doesn’t let pressure affect his performance, the Ducks will advance to the conference finals.