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Strange playoff race has Ducks, Cam Fowler scrambling

February 23, 2011 |  2:33 pm

Fowler_400 The Kings and Ducks each moved up a rung in the Western conference standings by not playing Tuesday, another strange day in a bizarre playoff scramble that shows every sign of going to the last day of the regular season.

As of Wednesday morning, before they faced each other at Anaheim, the Kings ranked eighth and the Ducks ninth, respectively. Each had 68 points—as did Chicago and Dallas—but the Kings had played fewer games, 59 to the other teams’ 60. The first tiebreaker is fewest games to achieve that point total (better winning percentage) and the second tiebreaker was changed this season to become number of wins excluding shootout wins.

“It’s abnormal. Specifically when you have 22 games left for it to be this tight,” Ducks Coach Randy Carlyle said. “But I guess the parity of the salary cap, the evening out of the skill throughout the league, the strength of the teams that are in the Western Conference, that’s what we’re presented with and we have to win our share of games.”

Though he said it’s impossible not to notice the closeness of the standings he tries to avoid paying too much attention and urges players to do the same.

“You can’t get too emotionally high or too emotionally low with one win or one loss. Stay on the even keel. Focus on the process of what we’ve established before that has given us a chance of success and strictly focus on that,” he said of the instructions he gives to players.

“Don’t focus on anything other than what you can control. Your work ethic, your discipline, your team mind set, your execution level—all those things are things we’ve tried to put to the forefront versus over the specific results on a day to day basis.”

They didn’t get the results they sought in the previous three games, losing all three by a combined 21-10. That was enough to drop them from being within a win of leading the Pacific division to being out of a playoff position.

“We’re specifically very disappointed in our last three efforts from a standpoint of the number of goals we’ve given up and we have to correct that and we have to correct it in a hurry,” Carlyle said.

Another alarming statistic from that losing streak is the -8 defensive rating compiled by defenseman Cam Fowler. The 19-year-old rookie has had an impressive season but he’s also approaching his 55th game, matching the total he played in juniors last season for Windsor of the Ontario Hockey League.

The most games he has played in a season was 60, for the U.S. National Team Development program in the 2007-08 season, but that involved less traveling, an easier schedule and didn’t require him to play against opponents who are twice his age and bulkier than his listed stature of 6-foot-1 and 196 pounds.

Carlyle said he’s not sure if the number of games in the NHL season have been a problem for Fowler, whose average ice time of 22 minutes and 30 seconds per game trails only veterans Lubomir Visnovsky (24:56) and Toni Lydman (22:52).

“I think he’s definitely played a lot more hockey than he’s accustomed to playing,” Carlyle said. “I don’t know if it’s more games but we’re asking a 19-year-old defenseman to play huge minutes, to play 22 to 25 minutes a night, play one anchor on the power play and play up against some of the top lines in the league. So we understand that we’re putting him in some situations that are testing.

“And it seems like Cam has had two or three speed bumps along the way where he’s had two or three games where he hasn’t been as aggressive as we’d like or he hasn’t done some of the things that we’ve been accustomed to him doing but he’s always been able to rally back. He’s a guy that enjoys playing the game and when you see him in some of the situations, if you review the video you see he makes a lot more strong plays or good plays than he does bad plays.”

According to the Kings, enforcer Kevin Westgarth will be in the lineup in place of Alexei Ponikarovsky, creating the possibility of another fight between Princeton alumni. Westgarth and Ducks enforcer George Parros attended Princeton, though they didn't let their school ties prevent them from fighting in an exhibition game. This will be the last of 10 straight road games for the Kings, who are 5-1-3 on an odyssey forced on them by the Grammys and the NBA All-Star Game.

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--Helene Elliott

Photo: Cam Fowler, left, celebrates a goal with Lubomir Visnovsky. Credit: Todd Korol / Reuters