Ducks center Ryan Getzlaf and Kings center Trevor Lewis face off during… (Bret Hartman / Associated…)
Projected to compete for the Pacific Division and Western Conference lead, the Kings and Ducks instead are struggling for stability as they prepare for their first encounters this season, a home-and-home series that begins Wednesday at Staples Center.
The Kings, still seeking production from their bottom six forwards, have won three of their last 10 games. Their efforts have been more energetic lately but they're still erratic.
The Ducks, starved for scoring from anyone, have won one of their last eight games and two of their last 12. Defending NHL goal-scoring champion and most valuable player Corey Perry has 11 points but 35 penalty minutes in 17 games. Ryan Getzlaf (four goals, nine points) and Bobby Ryan (five goals, nine points) have fumbled to finish.
For both teams, it's a missed opportunity to grab the spotlight and win fans while the Lakers and Clippers are locked out.
"It is too bad, and we're aware of that," Ducks General Manager Bob Murray said. "I'm sure the Kings are too. And I have no worries that that team's not going to get going. There's too many good players there. They're a good hockey team. They'll get going."
The Ducks' solid 4-1-0 start faded in the face of their post-European jetlag and their shortcomings. They can't handle adversity and continually allow themselves to be goaded into bad penalties. Their defensemen are always a step late.
"We have to put some wins together now. It starts on Wednesday," defenseman Cam Fowler said. "We should be going into those two games like Stanley Cup Game 7. It's a big rivalry. Playing those guys back to back, home and home, it could get us going in the right way or it could set us back again. We have to be ready."
In almost any other situation the coaches would have reason to fear for their jobs. But the Kings' Terry Murray and the Ducks' Randy Carlyle have nothing to fear for the foreseeable future.
Kings General Manager Dean Lombardi backed Murray through the team's ups and downs last season and although both hoped for greater consistency with a supposedly deeper roster, there's no panic in the management suite. Murray gave the Kings structure and a defensive foundation when they needed it; Lombardi will let him try to take the Kings to the next step.
Bob Murray, intensely loyal to Carlyle, said the coach's job has never been in danger.
"We do this dance every year. The answer is no," Murray said. "We still have faith in him, and look at his record. Look at the second half of the year and tell me which coaches have been better since the lockout. There's a couple of them, like him, that have better records the second half of the year when it's critical."
Standing in the Ducks' somber locker room Sunday after their 3-2 loss to Minnesota, Getzlaf absolved Carlyle of blame.
"It's got to start here. That's not our coach's job," Getzlaf said. "His job is to prepare us for the game and make sure we have the tools in front of us and he's doing that. They're doing a great job in there, that's not the problem. The problem is within here. We all need to look at what we're doing and get that excitement back in the locker room."
If playing the Kings this week doesn't stir their best competitive emotions, they might never find a cure.
The Stanley Cup hangover isn't a legend. The champion Boston Bruins and runner-up Vancouver Canucks had slow starts this season but each has reversed course.
The Bruins have won five consecutive games and six of their last 10 to escape the East cellar. The Canucks, though yet to assemble a long winning streak, have won three of their last four games. General Manager Mike Gillis said the players are finally recovering from the physical and emotional toll of a long season and a seven-game loss in the final.
"I think we had that and we had a lot of injuries coming out of the playoffs," Gillis said last week. "We didn't have much of a break.
"We're starting to play a lot better now. … It looks like we're starting to come now and become more consistent."
They reached that point only after making adjustments to the team's preseason and in-season schedules.
"Guys came back in great shape, and we also gave them extra time off in training camp and we're trying to give them more time off rather than practicing them all the time and keeping practices a little bit shorter in order to try and let them get their energy back," Gillis said. "It's starting to get better now. We're getting there."