One game may not make a career, but if that game happens to take place in the Stanley Cup playoffs, it can certainly put a shine on a dusty reputation. For Marian Gaborik, that it was the opener of the NHL's inaugural post-season Battle of California. The 32-year-old trade-deadline acquisition scored the tying goal with seven seconds left in the third period and potted the winner in overtime as the Kings wrested home-freeway-exit advantage from the Ducks with a 3-2 victory in Game 1.
Gaborik's resume made him both a likely and unlikely hero for L.A. On the one hand, the three-time 40-goal scorer and seven-time 30-goal man is among the game's elite snipers and has been for most of his career. The flip side has been his occasional postseason disappearing acts, especially in recent seasons. With the Rangers, Gaborik was expected to be the go-to scorer, and he seemed better suited to be a complementary puzzle piece, as he has been in Los Angeles. The Kings have Anze Kopitar, Jeff Carter, Drew Doughty and a great goalie in Jonathan Quick to fill the marquee. On Saturday, with the Kings down a defenseman and a goal, he took his place among L.A.'s biggest stars.
The Ducks were one clearing pass away from a victory, but with both teams scrambling, L.A.'s Mike Richards threw a shot at net in the closing seconds. Ducks goalie Jonas Hiller got a stick on it before the puck popped into the air and defenseman Bryan Allen played neither it nor player as Gaborik swatted it out of the air and into the goal to tie the score in the closing seconds of regulation. The Slovakian veteran then cashed the winner with 7:53 left to play in overtime. Doughty joined the rush, advancing to the left half-wall to keep the puck in with a soft chip. Kopitar snatched it and sent a hard pass into the slot where Gaborik tipped the puck off Hiller and into the net.
Overall, the Kings found a way to make the most of fewer resources. The Ducks may have found a slight hole in Quick's game. And Southern California hockey fans certainly found a reason to get to the games on time in what could be a very competitive series.
Here are some early observations:
• The Ducks did a good job of using Quick's aggression against him wen scoring their two goals. With his team trailing 1-0, Anaheim captain Ryan Getzlaf sped past L.A. defenseman Jake Muzzin on his right side and coaxed Quick out of his net. Getzlaf cut a sharp corner and slid a pass into the slot between Quick and the net. Matt Beleskey was there to convert from the doorstep with the goalie out of position as he committed to a shot from Getzlaf that never came. The Ducks are definitely aware of Quick's penchant for challenging shooters: In the second period, Perry skated in on the net minder's glove side and waited a tick before shooting and dinging a shot high off the near post. Quick goes down on his knees quite a lot -- for that matter, so does Anaheim's Jonas Hiller – and the Ducks may have noticed the success that San Jose had earlier in the previous round when the Sharks tried shooting high.
• The Ducks later took a 2-1 lead on a goal by ageless wonder Teemu Selanne – is his age 43 or 23? – as Patrick Maroon rushed the puck into the L.A. zone and was cut off by Matt Greene, who essentially stopped Maroon in his tracks. The Ducks forward managed to pass to Selanne, who made a slick move from forehand to backhand, avoided an aggressive poke check from Quick and beat him between the pads with 12 minutes to play.
• The Kings did well to survive the loss of experienced backliners. Willie Mitchell, the 37-year-old stay-at-home defenseman, sustained an undisclosed lower-body injury in the series against San Jose and did not take the bus to Anaheim. Robyn Regehr, another veteran with more than a thousand games on his resume, sat out the last half of the game after taking the worst of a corner collision with Anaheim forward Devante Smith-Pelly. So, down a blueliner, the Kings went into their prevent defense. But it took them 17 minutes, 29 seconds before they registered another shot on goal against Hiller, a goalie who has struggled or been benched for much of the last month. But this is the type of hockey that coach Darryl Sutter's team is prepared to play in the playoffs. Wait, dump, chase, keep foes away from the middle and look for the counter-attack.
That put even more heat on Doughty, L.A.'s stud on the backline, who didn't have much room to move all game. Some teams like to keep pucks away from their opponent's best defenseman, but others will deliberately dump the puck into his corner, especially early in a series, in order to make him work a lot in his defensive zone and ultimately wear him down with thumping bodychecks. Not to drag the old Broad Street Bullies into this, but Fred Shero's Flyers used to do that in every series against everyone from Bobby Orr to Brad Park to Larry Robinson to a young Denis Potvin. The Ducks definitely are eyeing Doughty, giving themselves chances to hit him by shooting the puck into his corner. Doughty's shifts were kept fairly short, but he still amassed 45 of them and played 33 minutes by game's end. Regehr skated only 3:32 in six shifts.
• Give the Ducks' defense credit for keeping their slot clean for most of the night. Before Gaborik's winner, there were very few rebounds available for L.A.'s forwards. Hiller was good at preventing them and the Kings didn't go to the net very effectively, mostly due to Anaheim's sturdy, attentive blueliners. Expect Hiller to man the net for Game 2 after his strong showing in his first start since April 6th.
• This series marked the first meeting between the two Southern California teams and an anomaly in L.A. sports history. The Angels and Dodgers have never met in a World Series. The Rams and Raiders did not play in a Super Bowl while both teams were in the area. Including their prior lives in Buffalo and San Diego, the Clippers have never faced the Lakers in the playoffs. While it may have been a freeway-snarl series, the crowd was very vocal in the third period, yelling "Beat L.A." So it's official: residents of Anaheim insist they are not Angelenos. • The warm Southern California weather had an impact on the game. Temperatures reached 85 degrees outside and, air conditioning notwithstanding, that created heat inside the building and snow on the ice that prevented the players from handling the puck well. Both teams dumped it in and out a lot especially towards the ends of periods when ice conditions were at their worst. It also created the type of game that the Kings play very well.