The heat wave engulfing southern California finally broke Friday, temperatures moderating after inferno-like conditions had been burning up the state in the latter part of the week.
Happily for the Los Angeles Kings, their red-hot play in elimination games was in no way affected by the temperature drop.
The Kings won their sixth elimination game of the 2014 playoffs and they did it in massively impressive fashion, rolling out to a 3-0 first-period lead and then defeating the Anaheim Ducks 6-2 Friday night at the Honda Center. With the win, the Kings advanced to the Western Conference final and a rematch against the defending Stanley Cup Chicago Blackhawks, the series scheduled to open Sunday in the Windy City.
"It was definitely our best game of the series," said Kings' centre Anze Kopitar, who added two more points to extend his lead in the playoff scoring race. "We came out strong. We got after it right away. Justin got us on the board pretty quick and we rolled after that. It was a complete effort by all 18 guys that were dressed."
Anaheim's loss meant that all four No. 1 seeds – the Boston Bruins, the Pittsburgh Penguins, the Colorado Avalanche and the Ducks – were eliminated by the end of the second round. Chicago, with 107 regular-season points, now gets home-ice advantage for as long as they're alive.
Selanne played a minor role on this Ducks' team, averaging just over 12 minutes per night in the playoffs, as coach Bruce Boudreau opted to go with a younger line-up as the season moved along.
Boudreau, whose record fell to 1-5 in seventh games of series, was his usual blunt self, post-game.
"The first period was like men against boys, quite frankly," assessed Boudreau. "They were bigger, stronger, faster, and seemed more determined. We were on our heels. Everything we said we wanted not to do, we did. By the time we started playing well in the second, [Jonathan] Quick was there to make the saves when they needed them."
The game also marked the end of Teemu Selanne's storied NHL career. Selanne waited until just before the start of training camp before notifying Ducks' general manager Bob Murray that he was coming back, but this season would be it. At 43, in a career that began with a 76-goal season on behalf of the 1992-93 Winnipeg Jets, Selanne will finish with 1,457 points in 1,451 career regular season games, plus a Stanley Cup championship with the 2007 Ducks.
Selanne returned in the hopes that he could finish his career in the winner's circle again, and after Anaheim managed a 116-point regular season, it looked as if he might have a chance. But when it really truly mattered, the Ducks had no answers for the playoff pedigrees of their crosstown rivals.
"I knew it was going to be either an unbelievable big party, or a huge disappointment," said Selanne, of the loss in Game 7 to the Ducks. "There's nothing in between. This time, it was not the party. Very disappointed right now, especially the way we played in a Game 7. That's what hurt the most. We had no business there. The numbers tell everything. That's the saddest part.
"It's a funny game. We had our chances, but couldn't take advantage of them. That's how it goes. Very, very disappointing.
"We wanted to go further. We all felt that we have a chance to go to the next round, and maybe all the way. It's going to be tough to wake up tomorrow and realize it's all over."
There is also a chance that former Montreal Canadiens' captain Saku Koivu, 39, could retire after this season. Koivu sat out the Olympics this year, in the hopes of staying fresh for a deep Stanley Cup run. Koivu said he would for a few weeks to let the sting of the loss dissipate, but he too seemed to be leaning towards retirement.
For the Kings, a trio of former Philadelphia Flyers' players - Justin Williams, Jeff Carter and Mike Richards – led the way offensively, all of them scoring first-period goals against the Ducks' rookie goaltending sensation, John Gibson, who came down to earth the past two games, after opening his NHL playoff career with a pair of impressive wins.
Gibson's night ended when Anze Kopitar scored the Kings' fourth goal two minutes into the second period, at which point, Boudreau gave him the mercy hook and inserted Jonas Hiller. Hiller, a pending unrestricted free agent, was likely also playing the final few minutes of his Ducks' career. Hiller gave up the final Kings' goals - to Marian Gaborik, who scored his playoff leading ninth of the post-season, and then to Tanner Pearson.
But Gibson was hardly the only culprit on the Anaheim side, even as he was widely outplayed by Quick, who lost his shutout on Kyle Palmieri's goal with 2:58 to go in the second period and L.A. up by five.
Corey Perry scored a third-period goal for the Ducks to key a frantic late push, but in reality, his best chance to shift the momentum of the game came much earlier – when he was awarded a first-period penalty shot with the Ducks down by two early in the game. But Quick calmly poke-checked the puck off of Perry's stick as he went in on the deke and 64 seconds later, Richards' goal made it 3-0 Kings, draining the energy from the Honda Center. Home teams are now 1-5 in Game 7s this season.
Ducks' team captain Ryan Getzlaf had warned beforehand, "we can't be afraid to lose" – but in the tentative way Anaheim tip-toed out of the gates, that's exactly how it appeared. The Ducks elected to start Getzlaf against the Kopitar line and the Kings immediately responded by hemming them in for virtually the entire first shift.
It didn't get any better for the Ducks, who were lucky not to be down by five goals at the first intermission, after Slava Voynov hit the post on a late-period power-play and Gibson made a snappy save on Tyler Toffoli. The shots were 16-6 in L.A.'s favor at the end of 20 and you probably didn't need to run the Corsi numbers to figure out who had the run of the play.
"They came out and got some quick goals and never really looked back," said Getzlaf, who acknowledged that nerves played a factor in the Ducks' poor start. "Really tough emotions right now. They came out and played the way they can play. They're a good hockey team. They know what they're doing in these situations.
The Ducks clearly hadn't learned much from last year's first-round pratfall against the Detroit Red Wings, in which they played a stinker of a Game 7 and lost as well.
The Kings, by contrast, had no problem embracing the moment, as they have so many other times in recent playoffs past. Williams, Mr. Game 7, scored the pivotal opening goal and now has an eye-popping 12 points in six career Game 7s.
"I am obviously proud of those numbers," said Williams. "I am certainly not the only guy who has great numbers in Game 7. As a team collectively, we have shown that we are able to get it done. At the same time we might have two more to play this year. We are moving on and we are happy but we know it's just halfway there."
Los Angeles advanced to the Western Conference final for the third consecutive season; the next round features a match-up of the past two Stanley Cup champions. It may not resonate in the TV ratings the way the Montreal Canadiens-New York Rangers' series will, but for aficionados of the game, it should be good theatre, Chicago's free-flowing attack style against L.A.'s buttoned-down defensive approach.
L.A. lost to the Blackhawks in five last year, largely because of injuries to key players, but a healthy Drew Doughty should make it closer this time around. It'll be a challenging turnaround time – opening the next round fewer than 48 hours after finishing up the last one – but the Kings have had minimal travel thus far in the playoffs, which should help, and likely won't have to play the second game until Wednesday night, giving them some recovery time.
"When you've done special things together, you have the confidence, no matter what happens, to do that again," said Richards.
Richards actually made that comment before the game, but it was equally true afterward. On paper, through the 82-game regular season, the Kings aren't a lot different than a lot of other teams – they had 100 points, the same as Montreal. But in the playoffs, their leadership group tends to find a way.