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Kings continue to show maturity

February 19, 2009|HELENE ELLIOTT

The next Southern California hockey team that will make the NHL playoffs is the Kings.

Yes, the long-hapless and until recently hopeless Kings.

Not the Ducks, less than two years removed from their Stanley Cup championship but showing they need a major overhaul before they can become a force again.

The teams' role reversal probably won't come full circle this season, but it will happen.

Even though the Kings were 4-3 winners over the Ducks on Wednesday at a far-from-sold out Honda Center, showing pluck and patience after they squandered a 2-0 lead, they have too many shootout losses and not enough wins to think they can leap several spots in the tight West playoff scramble.

The Kings likely will finish a few points out of the top eight and that's not a bad fate. They're playing pressure games for the first time as a team -- many players for the first time in their NHL careers -- and they can only get better for it.

"It was probably one of the more important games in our franchise history the last five, six years," said Patrick O'Sullivan, who gave the Kings a 2-0 lead at 9 minutes 18 seconds of the first period.

These teams have passed while moving in opposite directions, the Ducks disintegrating more quickly than the Kings are maturing.

With the score 2-2 in the third period, it was the more experienced and supposedly more talented Ducks who faltered.

"I think we're finally starting to learn how to play when it gets down to that crucial time of the game," said Dustin Brown, whose hip-high deflection of a Kyle Quincey slap shot put the Kings ahead, 3-2, during a power play at 9:35 of the third period.

After Kings goalie Jonathan Quick made a right-pad save on Scott Niedermayer, the Ducks lost their cool again. Rob Niedermayer was sent off for cross-checking Kyle Calder at 13:37, and he was soon joined in the box by his brother Scott following a melee around the Kings' net.

Scott Niedermayer got minor penalties for charging and roughing but the Kings got only one penalty, against Quincey for roughing. That gave the Kings a five-on-three advantage for 1:49, and they scored on that, too, with Anze Kopitar connecting from close range.

Chris Kunitz's slap shot at 16:20 brought the Ducks within a goal but they could not take that final step that would have brought them even again, another shortcoming in a season full of such failings.

"We're disappointed," Scott Niedermayer said. "For the most part, worked hard and did a lot of things we wanted to do. And obviously had some mistakes happen and some bad decisions.

"For my part, to end up in the box like that, we're not going to win doing that."

Not against the newly confident Kings.

"I think we handled it pretty well," Quick said of the pressure. "It was a huge win."

These teams have clearly passed in the night, the Ducks on the decline and the Kings on the rise.

"Hopefully, it's guys getting more mature as the year goes on," Kings defenseman Matt Greene said. "I think earlier in the year there would have been more panic in our game but I think we've been through this enough times that guys are playing more relaxed."

The Ducks leave today for a six-game trip that starts Friday at Detroit and matches them against playoff teams at every stop.

They won't play at home again until March 6, two days after the NHL trade deadline. It's entirely possible that Chris Pronger, rumored to be coveted by a number of playoff-bound teams, will not be with them when they return.

If General Manager Bob Murray can get a useful young player who can play now and a first-round pick for Pronger he should jump at that kind of deal and accelerate a much-needed renovation of what has become an old and slow-footed team.

The Kings scored the only goal of the first period, capitalizing on their third shot on Jonas Hiller.

Calder eluded Scott Niedermayer on the left side and threw the puck in front, where Jarret Stoll was by the right post and ready to jam the puck in.

After O'Sullivan converted a rebound and the Kings appeared about to take control, they took a penalty that cost them a goal. Stoll tripped Chris Kunitz in the neutral zone to give the Ducks a power play at 10:19, and they capitalized when Teemu Selanne took a pass from Ryan Getzlaf and got off a 20-foot wrist shot.

Quick preserved the Kings' lead with just over 90 seconds left in the second period when he slid quickly to the left post to stop a 15-foot wrist shot by Bobby Ryan. He was in no way to blame on the Ducks' tying goal, scored by Getzlaf at 1:29 of the third period with the Ducks on a power play.

The Ducks' locker room was somber and nearly deserted.

"You can forget what the plan was back in September," Scott Niedermayer said. "We just have to deal with what's in front of us."

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helene.elliott@latimes.com

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Kings tonight

AT SAN JOSE

Time: 7:30.

On the air: Radio: 1150.

Where: HP Pavilion.

Records: Kings, 25-22-9; Sharks, 38-8-9.

Record vs. Sharks: 0-2-1.

Update: This game completes a back-to-back sequence for the Kings. They have played back-to-back games nine times this season and have swept only one of those sets, winning at Minnesota and at Buffalo on Jan. 20-21. They have scored only three goals in three games against the Sharks this season. San Jose has a league-best record of 24-2-3 at home.

-- Helene Elliott

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latimes.com/sports

NHL scouts

flock West

An unusually large contingent from opposing teams check out the Kings and Ducks ahead of the March 4 trade deadline.

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