By Kyle Shohara
Expect nothing short of playoff-style hockey tonight as the top-two teams in the Pacific Division square off inside Honda Center. It’s the third installment of the Freeway Faceoff, and one that has two all-important points up for grabs. The Ducks, riding a season-high seven-game winning streak, host the rival LA Kings, who come into town winners of four straight after blanking the Buffalo Sabres last night, 2-0, at Staples Center.
It’ll be John Gibson vs. Jonathan Quick – a familiar matchup that dates back to the 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs Second Round when the former went 2-2 in the seven-game series vs. LA. Gibson is 3-1-0 in four career regular season games vs. the Kings, with a 2.25 goals-against average and .913 save percentage. The 22-year-old has been in net for the first two meetings this season (1-1), which includes a 4-2 victory at Staples Center on Feb. 4.
“Freddie [Andersen] had a week off and played two great games, and we'll see how Gibby goes,” said Ducks head coach Bruce Boudreau. “I anticipate him being really good, as well. When you have two good ones, it's hard for the coach to make a mistake.”
Overall, Gibson enters the game with a 14-8-2 mark in 26 appearances this season, and ranks third among NHL goaltenders in GAA (2.10) and tied for fourth in shutouts (4). Among rookies, Gibson leads in GAA and shutouts, and ranks second in wins and third in SV% (.917).
Anaheim’s meteoric rise up the standings erased what was once a 16-point deficit down to four. The Ducks own the NHL’s top overall record (21-4-2, .815 points percentage) since Christmas, have gone 14-1-1 in the last 16 games, 8-0-0 in their last eight games vs. the Pacific and 12-1-1 in the last 14 intra-division contests. They’ve distanced themselves from the fourth-place Vancouver Canucks by a 14-point margin and currently have a four-point lead on the third-place San Jose Sharks.
In addition to their seven-game winning streak, the Ducks have earned points in nine straight (8-0-1), the former marking the longest active streak in the NHL. The winning streak marks the club's longest since Dec. 1-13, 2014 (7-0-0), while the point streak is its longest since Nov. 29-Dec. 28, 2013 (13 games, 11-0-2).
With four points separating these two clubs, and the Ducks currently holding a game in-hand on the Kings, Boudreau says both teams will rise to the occasion.
“Now is the first time it actually takes on a little bit more meaning in the standings,” said Boudreau. “It should ramp things up a bit. Both teams will be at their best. It should be a great game.”
Anaheim’s shutdown center Ryan Kesler has effectively stymied the top-two selections of the 2016 NHL Draft over the past two games. First, it was Jack Eichel (second overall), who went scoreless on Wednesday. Then, it was Connor McDavid, who, save for a few looks throughout the game, was held off the scoresheet on Friday.
But his assignment tonight will be a different beast altogether. Kesler will likely go up against Anze Kopitar, one of the best two-way centers in the NHL. The 28-year-old veteran leads the Kings in scoring with 18-34--52 points in 60 games, and ranks second only to Tyler Toffoli (+26) in plus-minus (+22).
Kopitar has 1-3--4 points in the first two games of the season series, and has 22-34--56 points in 52 career games against Anaheim.
“He’s a good player on a skilled lineup that plays physical,” said Kesler. “They’re similar to us in that way. Very close, hard-checking, physical games. It’s a battle of wills out there. There are still a lot of games left and a lot of room to move up and down [in the standings]. It’s a big two points for both teams.”