Wednesday night, The Ducks put together a sparkling effort against their arch rivals from LA. Though at the outset, one might have been forgiven for a sentiment something like, “If the Ducks pull this off, it’s a miracle.” After all, they were coming off three straight losses, all bad ones, including a 9-3 pounding from St. Louis this past weekend.
And they were without three key figures. Their captain, Ryan Getzlaf, was with his wife, who had given birth, reportedly by c-section, earlier. Their finnish center, Saku Koivu, was out with a reported groin injury. And their superstar goalie, Jonas Hiller, remains on IR with dizziness. In his place was Curtis McElhinney, again trying to reprise his mid-January miracle play. Of late, he’s been awful, or just short of it.
What the absences meant for Randy Carlyle was line mixing, or at least, line combos that were altogether unfamiliar. The Ducks, since acquiring Jarkko Ruutu in the middle of last week, have had a steady set of forwards, with two strong first lines, a third line that reminds one of the good old days of the Cup year and before, and a fourth line that is no slouch in the toughness department.
But Wednesday, the lines from top to bottom were unfamiliar. Ruutu, who has only three goals all year, was paired with Corey Perry and Bobby Ryan. Carlyle’s strategy? Hang out high and hope the puck got there. But Ruutu also showed some offensive strength early in the first period, getting a partial breakaway, spinning around, and deking from right to left before firing his shot from close range. Jonathan Quick got the blocker on it, a crucial early save.
By mid-period, the Ducks were up in shots, 5-0. The Kings hadn’t had much play in the opposing end, and what they did was foiled by shooting wide.
The second line was made up of Teemu Selanne, Jason Blake and Brandon McMillan. Their strategy? Throw long passes across the ice. The trouble was, the timing and speed weren’t quite there, and long passes often turned into turnovers that went back up the ice.
The third line was Todd Marchant, Dan Sexton, and Maxim Lapierre; and the fourth was George Parros and Kyle Chipchura with, Sheldon Brookbank (out of all people), listed as a defenseman. Chipchura probably wished he wasn’t out there midway through the first period, since he and Kyle Clifford of the Kings tangled while the play was going back into the LA end. He got whacked, a bunch, and they ended up hugging while he tried to get in a final shot or two. He didn’t manage to do that.
That fourth line, however, shouldn’t be discounted so quickly as just out there to throw down. In the first 10 minutes of the game, they actually got a fair amount of ice time, and they played well, holding the puck in behind the King’s net for stretches and working it back to the point. They did the same in the third period.
The Kings scored first, despite not having all that much go at the net. That was probably just what the Ducks needed, as they’ve played from ahead of late—and been bad with the lead.
The Kings got the goal back shortly after, so that with the period nearing the end, it was 1-1.
The Kings scored again, though, when Perry went in alone and missed on Quick, and the puck zoomed all the way the other direction. Justin Williams took a long shot which McElhinney allowed to bounce way out on the rebound. But Anze Kopitar was trailing the play in the slot, and he knocked it ahead and then got a stick on it to put it past the goalie who had probably not made the best adjustment, kind of freezing out too far to prevent a goal of the type that was scored.
Back to the matter of the lineup, the Ducks featured seven defensemen, as they had in the Washington and St. Louis games last week. At the time, it was noted that this strategy had not worked. The pairings never got settled down, and guys were making errant passes and playing out of position too often.
Why did they do it? Because Francois Beauchemin, lately from Toronto, had made a slow start in his new-old home. His coach had even remarked upon his lack of confidence, and so rather than nail him to the bench or put him with one person to learn to cope, Carlyle had given all the d-men a chance to play with each other to see what could work. As noted, nothing much did, and the team lost three games straight.
Wednesday night, the defense pairings were more settled with Andreas Lilja and Cam Fowler together; Beauchemin and Luca Sbisa; and Lubomir Visnovsky and Toni Lydman. They often pressed, with first Fowler, later Visnovsky, and sometimes Sbisa spending significant time up ice. At times, this worked. Sometimes, it gave the Kings chances, though they are still in a low-shot mentality, contrary to what their coach has preached all year. Their defense-first philosophy kind of goes against the grain of a team wanting shots, of course.
As the second stanza went on, the Ducks took the game over. The shots coming into the frame were 12-10 Anaheim. With about five minutes remaining the Ducks outshot the Kings, 20-14, and Perry had tied things up at 2-2.
The Ducks kept pressing. Faceoff after faceoff took place in the Kings’ end, though there were some dangerous breaks, including one where Dustin Brown sped down left wing and carried the puck to the net. He let it trail out in front of him, and it shot right through the crease, with him following. He couldn’t get a stick on it to direct it past the goalie’s foot, though even a touch would have done it.
Thankfully for the Ducks, few shots by the opponent meant little work for McElhinney. His play of late has suggested decisively that he is a born backup. He has been starting, in Hiller’s absence, only because the alternative hasn’t been viable. When Timo Pielmeier finally got in Saturday against the Blues, he looked like he belonged back in the minors. No disrespect to him—he just isn’t ready for the speed and movement of the NHL.
McElhinney did acquit himself well with about a minute left in period two, as he saw two Kings streak in on him with a couple of Ducks trailing the play. The puck went to the right wide to Wayne Simmonds, who made a quick deke as someone caught him from behind with a stick check. He still managed to pull the puck to his forehand and get off a low shot. McElhinney slid across with him and got his pad out, glove at the ready in case the puck was lifted. It went into his pad, with no rebound. It was his best save of the night and kept the game tied at 2-2
Good thing for McElhinney that he was sharp, because fans were watching the end of the bench carefully to see whether the new man in town, Ray Emery, would find himself out of his baseball cap and into his mask. Emery was recalled from Syracuse of the AHL on Wednesday, having played three games in his tuneup stint. The first, he lost, the second two he won, including the night before this one, when he backstopped the team to a 4-3 shootout win. In that game, he had stopped 34 of 37 shots and three of the four he faced in the shootout. His tenure with the Cruch netted him a 2.62 GAA and a .925 save percentage.
It wasn’t that anybody wanted to see the starter fail. That would mean that the team had let in three goals minimum, maybe four. Carlyle is notorious for a quick pull, but with the backup being Pielmeier, he had waited as long as possible to take out his starter.
With Emery there, he might be less inclined to wait, but it wasn’t necessary Wednesday night. Part of that was due to the Kings’ failings and the fact that the Ducks handled them pretty easily in all three zones.
Why? Beats me, because the game mattered more than most. And the fact that so many LA fans were there should have mattered to the Kings, too. When the yells in the crowd started, it was as much “Let’s go Kings” as the opposite. But LA never really got going. They won only because they got a few breaks the Ducks didn’t. Their third goal came after the Ducks had controlled the play early in the third. Willie Mitchell, who almost never scores, slapped one from the left side about halfway into the zone. It went straight past everyone into the far side of the net. At the end, they were outshot, 27-18.
So to summarize, it was the Ducks without three of their best guys, with a defense that is only now starting to stabilize, and with a starting goalie who has been weak of late, with no promise that the backup would be able to go in and handle things. They played well, controlled the puck, and threw a lot of shots towards Quick.
It was a Kings’ squad who was rested and riding a really great road trip, which might have been their undoing, but which they had turned into a run, including a couple of home games in front of it, of 19 out of 24 possible points. But they never really got going, often not getting the puck in deep and never at any point looking like the better team.
The question as the game ended was simple: how could the Ducks survive being decimated, outplay the Kings, and lose. And how could the Kings allow themselves to take such a turn for the worse, but still come out with the win?