Is this the most important week of the Ducks’ season? It’s likely that others will loom larger, especially as playoff time comes close, but this week in mid-November has to rank as one huge key to how this team does this year.
Consider this: coming into Friday night, they were on a six-game winless streak. They had just 13 points, and they were playing Vancouver, who, despite their struggles, were ahead of the Anaheim team by four, with 17. They needed to beat the Canucks. For one period, nobody scored. In the second, the Ducks poured in four goals, including two on the power play.
They almost gave it all back in period three, sitting idly by while the Canucks scored three times on 22 shots. Anaheim, in turn, put just two pucks on net. You read that right.
They held on, barely and without having the puck in the Canucks’ end at all in period three. In the end, it was of no matter—they won, closing to within two points of the team while remaining well back in the West.
Which brings us to Sunday, when the Wild came to town. The Ducks, had they been paying any attention to the media at all (as in, IH), would have known that this team was going to come in fired up. Their coach, while an extremely polite man, was about as angry as a nest of disturbed hornets after his team dumped their Saturday night contest in LA, going behind 5-0 before clawing back a couple of goals. He said, repeatedly, that his team simply hadn’t shown up for the game, and indicated that things had better be different twenty hours in the future.
They were. Minnesota came out in Anaheim determined, not insanely overreacting, but steadily putting their foot on the gas, and on the necks of the Ducks.
Turnovers, for one thing, were forced by the visiting team early, and while they took one penalty in the first few minutes and watched as the Ducks worked the puck around their zone and through their slot, they didn’t give up a goal. Coach Yeo said after, “You look at our first goal. A guy battles behind the net, takes the puck down low, and puts it in the blue paint,” as a way of describing the mentality which characterized his team. That battler, by the way, was Nick Johnson, and the goalscorer Kyle Brodziak. The tally came with just about six minutes gone.
Even before that, the Wild did not sit passively by. Early, Darroll Powe took a puck away from a Ducks’ player at the Anaheim blueline, burst toward the net, and got off a shot. It was kind of off-speed, but it nearly fooled Jonas Hiller as a result. Powe was also in on the team’s first goal, getting the primary assist.
That goal was textbook hard work, to repeat a term I used of their opponents, the Kings, last night. Not pretty, but the result of a guy, Johnson, digging the puck out from behind the Anaheim net and going hard to the front, into a crowd. The puck got kind of lost in the bodies, but Powe got a touch on it and out it popped to the stick of Brodziak, who slammed it past Hiller.
They scored again when Matt Cullen burst around Toni Lydman at the Anaheim blueline, passed off to Cal Clutterbuck, who was covered by a reaching Luca Sbisa. Or uncovered, as the case was. Clutterbuck passed it back to Cullen, who rifled a wrister past Hiller. It was the team’s 14th shot on the night, against five for the Ducks. None on Anaheim’s part had been dangerous.
They did it once more with less than a minute to go in the first. It was another hardworking goal, forced on a turnover in front of the Ducks’ bench. The puck came out of a crowd to Pierre-Marc Bouchard, who passed it across to Justin Falk, who slapped a fluttering puck that went between Hiller’s arm and body. The replay showed that the lane to the net was clear. Translation: Hiller should have stopped it, and not doing so cost him his playing time for the rest of the game.
The second period started out with Dan Ellis in net. After, the coach said, “I just felt that one goal [the third] went through Jonas, went through his arm, and I don’t know if it was as much Jonas, or the team that was in front of him. We just, at times, were finding ways for those goals to get across the line. I think we all share in that responsibility.”
When asked whether his team should be better given that there are a lot of veterans, particularly amongst the elite forwards, Carlyle said, “That’s even more frustrating, and Jonas Hiller’s in there [that group]. Toni Lydman is in there. We’re leaning on those people to play to a higher level. As an organization and a coaching staff, we’re not dumping on those guys, it’s just that our results are driven by the core of our group. . . . We have to find a way to motivate, stimulate, and get this group to play at a higher level that what it’s at now. That’s what’s frustrating for everybody.”
What’s got to change? Hall of Fame writer Helene Elliott subtly hinted at the question of Carlyle’s tenure, I think, when she said, “Do you feel as a coach that you’re still able to get your message across, that guys are getting what you’re saying?”
“Some days,” Carlyle started out, “it looks like that, like they do understand. Other days it doesn’t. That’s the frustrating part. It’s our responsibility as a coaching staff to stimulate, to get players to be game ready. Obviously we have to take a share of the responsibility that we didn’t do a good enough job [tonight].”
Now there’s a subtle dance for you. Elliott asks the question more by implication that directly (“he was fired because he couldn’t get through to his players anymore” being the headline in the air). Carlyle shifts the pronouns from “I” to “we.” Hmm.
Earlier Ryan Getzlaf had flatly denied that the coach wasn’t getting through to the team, saying that the guys in the room needed to step up, that it was no lack of preparation or attitude that was the cause of the coach.
When queried as to why his team had come out so slowly, Carlyle asserted, “The desperation that we show in the latter parts of the hockey games is what we require for the entire sixty minutes.”
When asked what he planned to do with, or to, the team to get them going, he replied, “I think that your time on the [practice] ice and their time on the ice is more productive [if you] work on defensive zone coverage, your specialty teams, and . . . your execution level. Those are the three things that I practice and focus on after situations like this.”
Will he have meetings? “The NHL is full of meetings. We meet every day, win or lose, it’s always meetings. There’s different kinds of meetings and there’s different times. We’ve talked and we’ve discussed, and we’ve shown video, and we basically have said to ourselves that we’re going to continue to try to drive home the message that what we’re doing situation A, B, or C, or D or E, some nights we’re doing it sixty, seventy percent of the time, and what’s required is that you do it one hundred percent of the time, and that’s where we have to get to.”
What happens as the week continues is that Anaheim faces LA twice, once Wednesday at Staples and then Thursday in Anaheim. By the end of the span, they will have had the chance for eight points against Western Conference opponents, a swing that could tell the difference between playing catchup for a couple of months or feeling like they’re more comfortably in charge of their own destiny.
The Ducks expect Lubomir Visnovsky to be out for about four weeks with a broken finger.
On a non-NHL note, the Courtice atom team beat their archrival Orono Saturday, with Daniel Reimer gaining two assists and taking what he termed a good penalty. “I had to trip the guy to stop him from scoring, Uncle Bean.” I heard it straight from the source.
Brian’s new book, My Country Is Hockey, is out this coming week. Visit Inside Hockey for more details.