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Ducks awaken their playoff hopes

HELENE ELLIOTT ON THE NHL

Anaheim GM Bob Murray sees signs of chemistry on a team that has four straight wins and a custom of arising in the season's second half.

January 12, 2010|Helene Elliott

A week ago the Ducks were 12 points out of the last West playoff spot and seemed headed toward being broken up and plundered by contending teams.

A rare locker-room speech from General Manager Bob Murray and a season-best four-game winning streak have lifted them within six points of eighth place. Suddenly, the playoffs are no longer impossible for the Ducks, who are following their pattern of awakening in the second half of the season.

Murray said he never considered firing Coach Randy Carlyle and wasn't close to conceding the season before this reversal, saying trades are difficult to swing under the salary cap and too much time remains before the March 3 trade deadline. He downplayed the impact of his talk as "overrated" and said he believed players would recognize the urgency of the situation.

"Put them in a room and you kind of wait for things to jell. Sometimes it takes awhile," Murray said Monday. "Injuries are a factor, and we have a whole bunch of new guys who are getting used to the coach.

"You're starting to see a few things that show a little team chemistry. [Nashville's] Shea Weber is getting a one-timer at the point and guys are going down to block the shot. The little things are starting to happen. So you never know."

Last season the Ducks erased a five-point deficit in March to make the playoffs, ending with a 10-2-1 surge that put them in eighth place with 91 points. That total might not be enough this season, and even the slightest of stumbles could restore their double-digit deficit.

But there are reasons to believe Murray's faith wasn't misplaced.

The Ducks are now winning games because of their goaltending: Jonas Hiller compiled a 1.50 goals-against average and .954 save percentage in beating Detroit, St. Louis, Nashville and Chicago, the latter two in back-to-back road games. Saku Koivu has eight points in his last eight games. Teemu Selanne has a goal in each of the two games he has played since returning from hand surgery.

If they can sustain this, they could overtake Nashville, Phoenix or Colorado. And the Kings, who play host to the Ducks on Thursday at Staples Center, will have to work harder to stay in the top eight.

"There's no easy way to play this game and I think at times people in this group try to play the game the easy way," Murray said. "But we're starting to drive the net. We're starting to block shots. We've started to put our body on the line a little more than we have before.

"We're playing much harder in the tougher areas right now and we're getting the goaltending."

Will it be enough?

"We've climbed this hill before so I believe we can do it again," Murray said. "It's going to be as tough as any time we ever did it."

Kings and Ilya Kovalchuk?

The Kings need a pure scorer who could make a difference in the one-goal games they've recently lost and solidify their playoff ambitions.

Atlanta left wing Ilya Kovalchuk, a two-time 50-goal scorer who can become a free agent July 1, has a $6.4-million salary cap hit that would be prorated according to the number of games left in the season. The Kings have the cap space to handle that and the assets to send to Atlanta in a trade.

But there are some hitches. The Kings don't want him as a rent-a-player and they're likely to go ahead only if they get permission to talk to him and get assurances he would sign with them long term. Even then it could be dicey, because Kovalchuk is said to want at least $10 million a year for 10 years. In his favor is that he's 26 and more likely to be productive late in that deal than most players who have gotten lifetime contracts.

If Kovalchuk would commit to the Kings long term and if the Kings wouldn't have to strip their farm system, acquiring him would be a great move. He's a game-breaker, and trading for him would send a message to the rest of the team that management is willing to spend to reach the next level.

That is, if management really intends to do that.

Slap shots

The Johnstown Chiefs, whose rink served as the backdrop for the Charlestown Chiefs of the Paul Newman film "Slap Shot," are getting a coach with an interesting pedigree.

Neil Smith, general manager of the New York Rangers when they ended a 54-year Stanley Cup famine in 1994, and recently a scout for the Ducks, co-owns the ECHL team. When the Chiefs foundered under coach Jeff Flanagan, Smith decided it made business sense for him to coach on an interim basis. The team is affiliated with the Minnesota Wild. "I've always seen myself more like a Reggie Dunlop [Newman's film role] than a Scotty Bowman, anyway," Smith said by phone.

helene.elliott@latimes.com

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How they rate

Helene Elliott ranks and comments on the NHL's teams, from No. 1 to No. 30.

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