By Allan Muir
You can blame the infamous Southern California rush hour traffic for the late-arriving crowd at the Honda Center Friday night.
It's a little tougher to explain why the Anaheim Ducks didn't show up on time.
By the time they found their legs late in the second period, the Los Angeles Kings had already buried them in a five-goal hole on their way to a series-clinching 6-2 Game 7 win.
Justin Williams netted his sixth career Game 7 goal and Jonathan Quick added to his big-game resume with a strong 25-save performance as the Kings improved to 6-0 in elimination games this spring.
The victory sets up a rematch of last season's Western Conference Final with the Chicago Blackhawks. That series gets underway Sunday afternoon in Chicago.
The Hawks better not put too much stock in having home ice, though. Tonight's win was L.A.'s third in four games at the Honda Center, proving they know how to handle themselves on the road. And while they're still without Robyn Regehr and Willie Mitchell on the back end, they're a healthier and more focused team than the one that meekly bowed out in five games last spring.
Some observations from tonight's game and some thoughts looking ahead:
• How did the Kings advance? They got big games from their best players.
The offense allowed Quick plenty of breathing room but the keeper came up big when he had to. With the Kings holding a 2-0 lead late in the first, he thwarted a Corey Perry penalty shot with an aggressive poke check. Then, moments after Perry scored to close the gap to 5-2 early in the third, he stopped a point blank one-timer from Ryan Getzlaf. There was an opportunity in both cases for the Ducks to build momentum and he slammed the door shut.
Williams opened the scoring 4:30 into the first and added an assist on Tanner Pearson's exclamation point to build on his "Mr. Game 7" rep. He's now 6-6-12 in six career Game 7s. Amazing how quietly he's created one of the most amazing legacies in the game's history.
Doughty was held to a single assist, but this could go down as one of the finest games of his career. He played almost 29 minutes of flawless hockey, dominating physically in his own end and displaying puck poise that triggered the Kings' offense. Anze Kopitar's point totals might have him in the early lead for the Conn Smythe, but Doughty has been the more impactful player for Los Angeles.
• We'll have a full Western Conference Final preview Saturday, but in the meantime we can tell you this: don't read too much into Chicago's 3-0 regular-season record against the Kings. Two of those wins came while Quick injured and two came with Antti Raanta subbing for Corey Crawford.
The speed and depth of the Hawks would seem to give them the advantage on paper, but the resilience of Kings can't be overlooked. "We believe in this room and that's the most important thing, trusting each other," Kopitar said. "When you throw a little urgency on top of it, we're playing pretty good hockey."
• You can bet Perry and Getzlaf will be roasted (or whatever passes for taking heat in SoCal) after tonight's game. Someone has to bear the blame for this debacle, and it's likely to fall on the team's veteran leaders.
Is that fair, though? After all, they attempted 20 (!) shots between them and landed 10 on net. Of those, at least six were high-octane chances, including Perry's pair of breakaway chances and two glorious opportunities for Getzlaf from the hash marks. There was dangerous chemistry and no lack of effort from the two all night and, with a bit of puck luck (and some lesser goaltending from Quick), they could have had a couple each. Perry did manage to beat Quick once when the game already was out of hand, which emphasizes his willingness to battle to the end. That might not stave off the critics...but it should.
Kings-Ducks Game 7 recap | Box score | Highlights
• Cue Susanna Hoffs singing "Hero Takes A Fall." Rookie goaltender John Gibson was lit up for four goals on just 18 shots (that's a .778 save percentage right there) and lasted all of 22 minutes before being yanked from his first career Game 7.
He didn't get a lot of help from his defense, but he didn't look particularly sharp while coughing up the rebound that Mike Richards buried 15:12 into the first, or guessing wrong on Kopitar's tally that sent him to the showers just 2:02 into the second. It all made for a rough end to his debut season, but did nothing to diminish his standing as the best goaltending prospect in the game.
He probably doesn't want to hear it now, but this might actually help Gibson by lowering expectations heading into next season. He still might end up being Ken Dryden, but he deserves a chance to grow his game at something less than a messianic pace.
• The knock on Bruce Boudreau coming into this series was that he'd never led a team past the second round of the playoffs. Failing again with arguably the best collection of talent he'd ever been given is another ugly blotch on his record. Say what you want about losing in seven games to such a deep, talented opponent but the coach has to take the blame for this team coming out so flat in the first. Add in the fact that this is the second year in a row that his Ducks blew a 3-2 series lead to a lower seed and then lost Game 7 at home, and you have to think that Gabby is down to his final strike next season.
• Ultimately, the Ducks were undone by the same fatal flaw as the Boston Bruins: a heavy reliance on rookies on the back end. Hampus Lindholm and Sami Vatanen had stretches of outstanding play in this series, but like Torey Krug and Matt Bartkowski in Boston, they withered under the spotlight in Game 7. Whether it was the pressure of a winnier-take-all game or simply inexperience that got to them, they were exploited time and again by Los Angeles' heavier, more powerful forwards. Jeff Carter doesn't score his goal if he's up against Francois Beauchemin or Ben Lovejoy, but with only Lindholm between him and the net he easily overpowered the rookie to the outside. It was a man-against-boy moment, and there were just too many of those tonight for the Ducks to survive.
• Very few players get the storybook ending they deserve (count your lucky stars, Ray Bourque and Lanny MacDonald), but that didn't make it any easier to watch the career of Teemu Selanne end with such a thud. There was no rousing victory for the Finnish Flash, no final goal to rally the troops. Just another night where, sadly, he looked every bit of his 43 years. But if his performance wasn't memorable, the roaring tribute from the Honda Center crowd certainly was. So was the respectful admiration of the Kings, who paused at their blueline and tapped their sticks for nearly a minute in tribute as he delayed his final departure from the ice.
"It was unbelievable class," Selanne said. "This is what hockey’s all about. That meant a lot. It felt great"
Few players have combined on-ice grace and off-ice generosity the way he did over his 21-season NHL career. If he couldn't got out a winner in Anaheim, here's hoping Selanne is serious about playing one final season for his former club Jokerit -- and that they go on a run for the ages in their first season competing in the KHL.
• Broadcast highs and lows: Less than a minute after Perry's failed penalty shot, TSN's Ray Ferraro correctly identified that his stick had been broken in the act of blocking Doughty's point shot, not by his slash. That's some seriously insightful work.
NBCSN didn't report this until the first intermission, but that was hardly their biggest faux pas of the night. That would be their decision to focus only briefly on Selanne as he went through his final handshake line. What they did show -- a couple of very genuine, heartfelt interactions with Kings players -- made for some beautiful TV. Hard to believe the director didn't have enough sense to let that moment play out for all it was worth.
Speaking of that handshake line, here's hoping the league had Selanne mic'd up tonight. Sharing those sentiments would be the perfect epitaph for a memorable career.