ANAHEIM – It would have been a heck of a story.
On Saturday night, Teemu Selanne was poised to become the hero in Game 1 of the first-ever Freeway Series between southern California's two NHL teams. The long-time Anaheim Duck, who wears No. 8, had scored at 8:08 of the third period to put the home team up.
It was a script worthy of Hollywood. But the Los Angeles Kings provided a twist ending, scoring with seven seconds left and winning in overtime.
Only hours before his goal the 43-year-old Selanne, who is nearing the end of a Hall of Fame career, sat in his dressing room stall and expressed genuine excitement at the prospect of experiencing another first this late in his decorated career.
This is the first time in any sport that two teams from this area have battled in the playoffs.
"This is something that even I haven't faced before so I'm very happy that this happened, because even last year was very close, but now it's real and it's going to be another great experience in my career," Selanne said with a big smile.
The Ducks missed out on a date with the Kings last season, because they were upset in the first round of the playoffs by the Detroit Red Wings.
"I was just thinking about that the other day and it's funny that it's never happened," said Selanne. "There's something special about this."
Only days ago it appeared as if Selanne's career was headed toward an inauspicious end. He was made a healthy scratch in Game 4 of Anaheim's first-round series against the Dallas Stars. It was a bitter pill for the proud Selanne to swallow, but he has responded the right way.
"He sat out that one game in the Dallas series and I don't think he was very happy about it, which was natural," said Ducks captain Ryan Getzlaf. "That's what you want to see out of guys. You don't want him to be satisfied by that. He upped his game and he's been great ever since."
Selanne had two assists in the thrilling Game 6 come-from-behind win in Dallas. His goal in Game 1 against the Kings snapped a 13-game drought dating back to the regular season. He has put eight shots on net the last two games as his playing time has increased (more than 14 minutes in each of the last two games after posting a high of 11:31 in the Dallas series).
Even more impressive than the points has been his physical play. The 6-foot, 198-pound Selanne was last on the Ducks during the regular season with just 15 hits, but you wouldn't have known it based on the last couple of games.
"I thought the last two games he's been really good," said Anaheim head coach Bruce Boudreau. "He's found a little bit of a fountain of youth, hitting guys, which really isn't his game, but he's committed to the cause and hopefully he gets enough rest where he can do the same thing in Game 2."
It was Selanne's hit on Robyn Regehr that forced the 6-foot-3, 222-pound Los Angeles defenceman from the game in the Ducks-Kings curtain raiser.
"He hit Regehr, knocked him over and Regehr's one of the biggest guys in the league," said Ducks forward Nick Bonino. "That's what the playoffs are all about: getting out of your comfort zone, hitting guys, making physical plays and that's why teams win."
"I'm strong too, you know," Selanne quipped while flexing when asked if he was surprised he was able to knock Regehr down.
So, is Selanne getting his second wind now that he's in the second round for the first time since 2009?
"I think so," he said.
"Playoffs, you know, is more physical hockey. That's not really my style, but I can play physical too."
But even with Selanne's contribution the Ducks still ended up on the wrong end of a 3-2 overtime result in Game 1.
Boudreau said the Ducks' internal statistics showed they held the Kings to just three scoring chances during five-on-five play. "I don't know when we've ever held a team to that," he said. "We're not depressed. I'd be more depressed if we didn't play any good and we lost. I liked the way we did a lot of the things."
Corey Perry had a glorious chance to end it in overtime. With Kings goalie Jonathan Quick out of position, the 43-goal scorer in the regular season had an open net to shoot at, but was foiled by a sliding Alec Martinez, who was able to block the shot.
Needless to say, Perry had trouble sleeping Saturday night.
"Yeah, I was up for awhile. You think about what it could've been," he said.
"I've seen it a few times. I thought about it ... He made a great play."
Selanne, a veteran of 22 NHL seasons, has been around long enough to know how a team can collect itself after a disheartening defeat.
"You just can't get too high even if you win," said Selanne, who won a bronze medal with Finland during February's Sochi Olympics just one day after a crushing loss to rival Sweden in the semi-finals. "Enjoy a little bit or be down a little bit, but then just forget it and keep going. You can always learn something win or lose and just go from there."
There was a clear lesson for the Ducks in Game 1: their power play, which generated six shots while failing to score on four chances, can be much better.
"That's one area we want to fix, because all great teams they have a great power play and that can make winning so much easier. Our power play, the whole year, has been a little bit up and down," said Selanne.
Anaheim finished 22nd in power-play efficiency during the regular season converting on 16 per cent of its chances. The Ducks do have seven power-play goals in the playoffs, which is tied for the league lead, but four of the goals came during one game (Game 5 against the Stars).
"We got to generate some opportunities," said Getzlaf. "We moved the puck around pretty well, but we didn't really generate a whole lot. I think that starts with getting some shots through against a team where it's not easy to get pucks to the net. Their D do a good job blocking shots and we just got to get that mindset that we're going to take it to the net a little bit more."
And while the Ducks believe they can do a better job with the man advantage they weren't about to get down on themselves even though they have squandered home-ice advantage.
"I don't think we had a weak link [Saturday] night," said Selanne. "We deserved better than that, but it's hockey and the goals matter and we couldn't put the game away. Game 2 is a new opportunity."
There's a reason Anaheim has a healthy confidence when it comes to battling Los Angeles. The Ducks won four of the five games against the Kings in the regular season and the one loss came in a shootout.
"There's no secrets between these two teams," Selanne explained. "They're very, very close matches, tight-checking, low-scoring and whoever's going to do the little things better [will win]. It could go either way."
This is a burgeoning rivalry. Bad blood is building, but there is also a healthy respect between the clubs. The Ducks were impressed, for example, watching the Kings dig out from an 0-3 hole against the San Jose Sharks in the first round.
"It was actually fun to watch. It's remarkable, unbelievable so, you know, you got to give a lot of credit to those guys," said Selanne.
"They have a team that just keeps coming and, it was funny, even though they lost Game 3 you could see the confidence level building higher and higher and then they really started believing and they almost had another gear and the Sharks they didn't have that."
Bottom line: the Kings are more than a worthy adversary even though Anaheim finished 16 points ahead of them in the regular season standings.
"You need everyone to play 60 minutes at least at your own level and sometimes you need to over-achieve to win the game. Every team is as good as their weakest link. That's the beauty of team sports," said Selanne, outlining the recipe for success.
So the stage is set for an epic battle as a savvy veteran aims to keep his NHL career alive and help Anaheim win the first-ever Freeway Faceoff.
And if Game 1 was any indication it's going to be a special series. On Saturday, fans from both sides chanted proudly at the Honda Center. They were rewarded for their passion with a thrilling finish.
"It was unbelievable. Can't ask more than that," Selanne said when asked about the atmosphere.
"Both teams and the fans have been waiting for this matchup for a long time so let's enjoy it."