NHL: Kings and Ducks Surging in Southern California

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Los Angeles Kings center Tyler Toffoli

December 19, 2013; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Los Angeles Kings center Tyler Toffoli (73) skates into position against the San Jose Sharks during the third period at Staples Center. Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

The NHL’s two greater Los Angeles team’s have combined for just a pair of losses in the month of December, compiling a 17-1-1 record with the holidays approaching. The Anaheim Ducks and LA Kings are quickly establishing one of the NHL’s most riveting rivalries, and the Golden State neighbors’ simultaneous hot streaks have helped the City of Angels challenge Detroit as America’s true Hockeytown.

The Stanley Cup has been paraded down palm-tree lined streets by each team since 2007, and a third visit from Lord Stanley’s Hardware is looking likely with the Ducks and Kings holding onto the first and third spots in the Western Conference standings respectively.

The conference leading Ducks are winners of eight straight, but their last loss came in a shootout against the Kings on December 3 in Anaheim. Kings rookie netminder Martin Jones stonewalled the Ducks on nine shootout attempts to give LA the edge in his NHL debut.

Since snatching his first career win, Jones has reeled off seven victories to tie former Philadelphia Flyer Bob Froese as the only puck-stopper to win his first eight starts. Jones’ lights-out play has kept the Kings on track while star netminder Jonathan Quick recovers from a groin injury.

Quick has been sidelined since November 12, but Jones has made the wait for his return far less harrowing than expected. The 23-year-old has mustered a .98 goals-against average since being called up from the AHL’s Manchester Monarchs, and a trio of clean sheets against the Islanders, Canadiens and Oilers has put him into an eight way tie for the league shutout lead.

Jones isn’t the only rookie making waves out west. LA’s 21-year-old Tyler Toffoli has matched veteran teammate Jeff Carter with five December goals, and his plus-13 rating ranks second among first-year skaters behind only Anaheim’s Hampus Lindholm.

Up in Anaheim, it’s been the usual stars leading the way. Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry have teamed up for 23 points in nine December games. Both players rank among the league’s top seven point-getters, and their matching plus-18 ratings are the best among players with 40 or more points.

Perry has reemerged as an elite goal-scorer after two relatively disappointing seasons. He matched his scoring output from the shortened 2013 season by the end of November, and his seven goals since currently make him the fourth most prolific goal-scorer of 2013′s final month.

Getzlaf, meanwhile, is looking like a legitimate MVP candidate. He opened December with goals in three straight games against the Kings, Blackhawks and Blues. It’s no coincidence that those are three teams right behind Anaheim in the Western Conference.

Getzlaf was the difference in Anaheim’s statement win at Chicago on December 6, factoring on both Anaheim goals in the shootout win. The big centerman assisted on Perry’s first period strike, and he added a powerplay tally in the middle frame. Nine days later, the Blackhawks handed the LA Kings their only loss of the month.

In his most recent outing, the 28-year-old Getzlaf torched the New York Islanders to extend his team’s league-best winning streak. He completed his second hat-trick of the season with an empty-netter in the final moments of the 5-3 victory on Long Island.

Though the Kings’ six-game win streak was cut short in Chicago a week ago, Darryl Sutter‘s team has kept plowing forward with a string of impressive wins. LA’s suffocating defense has allowed just three goals in the last three games, and they’ve edged contenders San Jose and Colorado in their last two outings.

With everything quacking for the Ducks offensively and the Kings sporting the league’s stoutest defense, the quickly approaching Winter Classic in Ann Arbor no longer looks like the NHL’s premier outdoor spectacle. Instead, the January 25 meeting between LA and Anaheim at Dodger Stadium is the most promising event on the 2014 calendar.

The ballpark brawl will be preceded by the Kings’ and Duck’s second meeting of the season on January 23, meaning the two game series is set to have a major impact on the standings as the Pacific Division race heats up.

Though the Ducks late arrival on the NHL scene in 1993 has not yet allowed an abundance of history and animosity to build in Los Angeles, the so-called “Freeway Faceoff” is lining up to challenge the NHL’s best rivalries. Expect the energy at their next four regular season meetings to reach postseason levels, and cross-your fingers for a potential playoff matchup.

Chris Blanchard is a Boston, MA native and a student at Davidson College. He began writing about hockey as a Boston Bruins featured columnist for Bleacher Report in the fall of 2012. He has been covering the NHL for XN Sports since May of 2013.
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