SoCal, NHL Need Ducks, Kings To Turn Up Heat

Their homes are only 30.5 miles removed, but they may as well be 30.5 time zones apart. They should be bitter division rivals, except they act more like third cousins. It’s as if Cliff Barnes and J.R. Ewing live in the same neighborhood, barely know it and don’t really care.

Isn’t it time for the Anaheim Ducks and the Los Angeles Kings to draw a line in the sand finally? I mean, we’re not talkin’ about the Syracuse Bulldogs and the Charlestown Chiefs here. These are savvy teams that have the potential for extended playoff runs. No other market in the league claims two teams that both won Stanley Cups in the last seven years, yet theirs is the most dormant rivalry in hockey if not all of professional sports.

“There has been zero rivalry,” said Kings head coach Darryl Sutter, a hockey lifer who knows one when he sees one.

That’s what happens when two teams spend 21 seasons in the Pacific Division yet never meet in the playoffs. Ever. Not once.

“Our guys skate together in the summer,” said Sutter, an old school Canadian who hates when that happens. “The rivalry might be a fan rivalry, but there certainly hasn’t been one between the players.”

That has to change, and for the good of the NHL, it has to change soon.

Can’t happen in La La Land, we’ve been told for years. The weather is too nice, the people are too out there to get pucks crazy. Oh, yeah? Conservative estimates have more than 1 million die-hard hockey fans in the SoCal market. If the Ducks-Kings rival ever warms up, who knows what it can do for the sport there.

The doubters should have been at the Staples Center the other night, when the Ducks and Kings gave us a glimpse of what a Freeway Face-off could be like in the future. From the first puck drop, there was venom in the air. Ducks stud forward Corey Perry and Kings defenseman Robyn Regehr were in each other’s grill from start to finish. At one point, Kings sniper Jeff Carter and Ducks tough guy Francois Beauchemin jousted for almost half the length of the ice. There were enough yo mamas to make Denis Leary blush.

“A good hockey game,” Ducks captain Ryan Getzlaf told reporters afterward. “It was back and forth — a little chippy here and there — and those are the types of games we need to get used to down the stretch.”

SoCal sports fans, too.

The Kings appeared to tie the score late in the game, bu the referees weren’t so sure. After a lengthy review, it was ruled that Marian Gaborik had interfered with the goaltender in the crease area. The home team screamed that a Ducks defender had made him do it, but the goal was waved off anyway. Laid-back Kings fans threw cups, water bottles, hats, shirts, pennants – pretty much everything except their old Charlie Simmer posters onto the ice. Lucky that the referee dropped the puck finally, because surfboards were next.

“They called it that I touched the goalie before the puck went in, but I don’t know,” shrugged Gaborik, hardly known for his physical play.

“Gaborik (was) trying to get out of the way of the goalie,” Sutter said.

But blustery Bruce Boudreau thought Gaborik should have been made to attend a Lakers game, the infraction was so blatant.

“I mean, he ran right into our goalie,” said Boudreau, the Ducks little big bossman. “I’ve seen so many lot lesser incidents called for penalties, so I was surprised they didn’t get a penalty. But we knew automatically that there was no way that was going to count.”

See how much fun this could be?

We’ve seen traces of bad blood between these teams before. In a game three years ago, Ducks nice guy Teemu Selanne tried to fend off a check with an elbow. Kings defenseman Jack Johnson responded with a dangerous two-hander along the boards. Selanne fights only slightly more than the Dalai Lama, but when Brad Richardson mugged him from behind seconds later, even he had enough. Landed an overhand right, too.

The problem is, conference rivals face each other only four times in the regular season. That’s not enough time to build an intense dislike for one another. Games in November and December are readily forgotten in February and March. Not so in the postseason, when the intensity level ramps up every other night in a best-of-seven series. For theirs to become a black-and-orange rivalry, these teams need to hurt each other where it hurts most – in the playoffs.

There’s no better time for that to happen than the present. As long as the Lakers are in remission – and it may be for years, not months – the Clippers won’t have a playmate. (Did I really write that?) The Angels and the Dodgers can’t play meaningful games against each other until the World Series, and that has never happened, either. That means the Ducks and Kings can have the stage to themselves for as many as two weeks.

It coulda happened four years ago, when the Ducks and the Kings were on the verge of postseason berths in the same season for the first time ever. In the final days of the regular season, the Kings overcame a 4-1 deficit to eliminate the Ducks from the playoffs. They were on a collision course last spring, only to have the Ducks gag on three one-game leads against the Detroit Red Wings in round one.

This time the hockey gods have their Ducks lined up in a row already. It would take an earthquake-like collapse for the Kings not to join them in the postseason. Unfortunately, they couldn’t meet in the conference finals — the revised playoff format won’t allow it — but I doubt anyone would complain if it happened in the early rounds. Hey, even Oliva and Schwarzenegger had to start somewhere, right?

As Ducks television analyst Brian Hayward put it, “If these teams meet in the playoffs, whether it’s in the first round or the second round, it’s going to be a treat, folks.”

California hot even.