Ducks D Shaping Up

When last we checked in, the Ducks were in the midst of a sea change on defense, not to say a minor crisis. It wasn’t just that their future Hall of Famer was gone, but that the best guy they sourced in the off-season, Toni Lydman, was out with what the club labeled an acute case of double vision.

The episode scared everyone, no one more than Lydman himself and his family, and the battery of tests that the doctors put him through in mid-September suggested, according to what local press reported, that they were looking for all kinds of serious causes. None were found, and he started the season on IR.

In his place, the club grabbed Paul Mara to go along with veterans including Andy Sutton and last-season trade-deadline acquisition Lubomir Visnovsky, and they gave a good look to a couple of youngsters, including Luca Sbisa and Cam Fowler. At the latter, they’re still looking. To date, Fowler has appeared in all six of the club’s games, and if it’s any measure of his coach’s faith in him, he has played as many as 25 minutes, and not a single game under 21 until Sunday against Phoenix (but that due to injury).

Sbisa didn’t last quite as long. He was dressed for the second and fourth of the team’s games, and played about 12 minutes on average. He then was assigned to Syracuse of the AHL.

Fowler got his first NHL goal Sunday night, about which more in a moment, but he also showed his skill and toughness. He took a puck in the second period inside his own zone, deked through the entire Coyote’s squad, including dangling around Keith Yandle in the slot, and would have been in alone on the right side of the net had Shane Doan not come across and checked him, carrying him right into the boards behind the net, face first.

Fowler was on the ice for a couple of minutes, on his knees, before a trainer got him off to the dressing room. Unfortunately for him and the Ducks, the play knocked him out of the game. But he still had that goal to remember. Afterwards, I spotted him in the dressing room, patched up with a bandage and what looked like stitches, plus a black eye. His coach said that there was no further report, that his being held out for the rest of the game was “more precautionary than anything.”

Randy Carlyle also commented that he and the coaches and management were discussing Fowler’s rush, asking themselves “You ask yourself, he beat two guys, one at our blueline and the other at their blueline. You ask should he have stopped up and read the situation a little bit instead of trying to beat the third guy? But he’s young and energetic, and he felt good doing it, and that’s the kind of skill that he displays, and we think that he can do a lot more of that.”

“He’s been an excellent young hockey player for us. The kind of move that he did before the hit, that’s the kind of ability he has, and that’s special. We’ve said it all along—he’s a special hockey player.”

Back to those in and out of the lineup—Sutton lasted all of a game before he broke his hand in a fight. Make that less than a game, since it happened after he’d played just 14 minutes in the club’s opener against Detroit. He is out until sometime in November. So that’s Mara, Visnovsky, and Fowler in, Sbisa and Sutton out. And that’s only five of the ten blueliners the club has dressed thus far in the new season.

With Sbisa’s departure and, it’s good to report, Lydman’s return, the club gets a little bit older on the blueline. Lydman is 33, he’s fairly sized at 6’1” and 210, and he’s the veteran of 661 games. In his first appearance in an Anaheim uniform, which came Friday night with the team at home to Atlanta, he scored a goal and recorded five shots and four hits. His ice time stood at 21:30, third amongst Anaheim defenders. First was Lubomir Visnovsky, who was out there for nearly half an hour. That’s specifically 29:34, though it should be noted that the game went the full five minutes of overtime. (And into the fourth frame of the shootout, wherein Anaheim lost.)

Sunday night against Phoenix in his second game, Lydman looked as ready to go as if he’d been playing since the start of camp. In the second period, to take one set of examples, he came back toward his net as a Phoenix player followed a puck into the crease, and he hammered the guy from behind, sending him sprawling over goalie Jonas Hiller.

He then turned around and regained his position in front of the net, only to block a shot off his skate. He made a quick exit for a rest, but a minute later, he was back on the ice. He backed into his zone as the Coyotes came toward him with speed, and blocked a hard shot. This allowed the Ducks to get the play started the other way, and it went behind the Phoenix net. There, Bobby Ryan passed it out to Ryan Getzlaf and he to the blueline, and Fowler floated a puck from the left side across to the long side of the net, and it went in. Lydman won’t get an assist on the play, but it was his defense, plus a little hustle from the others, that made it happen.

But it was his goal, which happened six minutes later, which had Anaheim fans themselves experiencing double vision. As Ryan and Corey Perry fooled with the puck behind the Phoenix net, Lydman snuck to the front, down low on the left side. Ryan spotted him there from behind the cage on the right side, and feathered a pass out. Lydman buried it in the half-open side of the net. Perry got the other assist on the play.

Who did this look like? For all the world, Scott Niedermayer.

Asked about the comparison after the game, he said, “He’s one of the greatest defensemen ever to play this game, so that’s great, but I think I’m a long way from being Scott Niedermayer.” He added about his goal, “I’ve done that in the past [gotten down low], but usually, when the opportunity presents itself. I don’t go looking for it.”

He described his goal: “I was down in the corner playing the puck, and on my way back I thought I’d just delay a little bit. If Bobby didn’t pass it, I would have gotten back out on the blueline, but I thought I’d stay a little while, and what a great pass, a perfect pass.” He said, “The only thing I’m thinking about is, if it comes to me, I’m not trying to one-touch it, because I just wanted to make sure I got it up in the air and over the goalie’s pads, because that’s usually the first thing that comes in front of you sliding over. I thought I’d just take it and shoot it, and it worked.”

He added, “So far, things have really clicked with Lubomir. Only two games together, and not really practicing together, but he’s a good player, he sees the ice well and makes great passes.”

Also added this week was Andreas Lilja. He is a familiar name to anyone who has watched playoff hockey over the past few years.

Lilja is 35, and he was a part-time player for the first few seasons of his career, getting into 45 games with the Kings from 2000-03. He then found his way to Florida, where he played most of two seasons. He was in Europe during the lockout year, playing in the Swedish Elite League (he is a Swede), but it was with Detroit in the five years since the “work stoppage” that he found his real place.

He played the full 82 games in 2005-06, and most of the subsequent two years. In 2006-07, he appeared in eighteen playoff games as well, scoring one goal, his only playoff tally to date.

He played in twelve post-season games in 2008, the year the Wings last won the Stanley Cup. Lilja got into 60 games the year after that, and 20 last year, yet this fall, he was not in Michigan for training camp. Rather, he found himself in California, up north, on a tryout basis in San Jose. This didn’t work out, and he was not offered a deal to play with the Sharks.

The Ducks, in need of experienced blueliners, grabbed him, as mentioned, early last week, and then it was up to the immigration lawyers to get him a work permit. That happened as the week went on, and he’s in Anaheim now. He’s perhaps bigger than one remembers, at 6’3” and 220, and he’s finding his spot as a partner to Sheldon Brookbank. That, however, may simply be a work-in, as Brookbank is, of the active blueliners on Sunday’s roster, the one who gets the least playing time. He’s averaged about sixteen minutes per game thus far, and he was -5 on the season coming into Sunday.

Lilja said Sunday that he’s glad to be playing. “You travel wherever you need to travel to play games, so [Western Conference] travel doesn’t bother me. I took a chance [going to San Jose on a tryout basis] and it didn’t work out. Now, I’ve got this opportunity, and I’m really happy for that.”

He is familiar a little with his new team. “I know a bunch of the guys from playing against them. I only know two personally from before, but it’s a great team. We have a great team. We play fast-paced hockey, and I like that. I think a lot of teams are going to get surprised.”

About his size and strength and how he uses it, he said, “I lost a lot of weight. I was 230 when I came into the league. I am not running out of position in order to nail somebody. You can’t do that anymore, because the players are too good. If you get an opportunity to hit somebody, of course you hit him.”

He describes how he plays in his own end by saying, “I try to give the puck to somebody with speed. In this league nowadays, it’s hard to skate it out, you’ve gotta be really skilled to do that, so I prefer to give it to somebody closer to the blueline to skate it out.”

Mara has also found a solid place, with the pairings looking like this as Phoenix came into town for a Sunday late-day encounter. Visnovsky is playing with Lydman; Fowler finds himself with Mara; and Lilja is with Sheldon Brookbank.

Who’s left out? Brett Festerling is back in Syracuse, and Brendan Mikkelson is now on the sidelines, having been scratched Sunday night. So that makes up the second five of the ten defensemen the Ducks have used thus far (Lilja, Brookbank, Lydman, Festerling, and Mikkelson).

Those pairings suggest that the first duo will have the speed, the second the puck-moving strength, and the third—well, that will depend upon how Lilja pans out. And if Fowler is out a game, or more, things shift around again, with the likelihood being that Mikkelson gets back into action and finds himself paired with Brookbank while Mara and Lilja give it a go.

Of his defensive squad, and particularly their offensive contributions, Carlyle said Sunday night, “They’re hockey players, and it’s nice to see the defenseman sneak in and get one back door. Toni Lydman, that’s two in two games, and, how many games did he miss? If he plays 75, he might score 75 goals.” Vintage Carlyle.

The coach went on: “Veteran guys, they’re not in a panic situation very often. They know the way the system is; they know the things they need to do. I’m sure both of them would say that they’re rusty from a game shape point of view . . . but the pressure’s on us to win, so we’re going to play the people who give us the best opportunity to win, and we feel that those guys are vital to our lineup.”

Lydman had said just before that he was a bit rusty, and that his gaps are still a bit big, but that this is because he hasn’t been in enough yet.

Of course players are only as good as their latest, game, and this bunch started out Sunday evening (the game actually began at 5pm, as is typical of these Sunday affairs in the OC) with a bucketful of errors. Fowler gave a puck away behind his own net. He also chipped one off the boards too short and saw it intercepted. Lilja made a short pass too soft up to a waiting Saku Koivu, and when he tipped it into center it was going too slowly and was gobbled up by Phoenix. Visnovsky gave one away in his own end, though he shot up the ice just after and was in front of the Phoenix net when the puck came to him for a dangerous backhand chance.

None of this particularly mattered, as the Ducks held the Coyotes to no score on ten shots while getting eight of their own. The team then took advantage of Phoenix’s own goofs, as noted, to jump out to a 2-0 lead in the second period. They were also dominant in the shot department, out-dueling the other side 14-11 in the frame. Phoenix also suffered three minor penalties, though none led to a goal.

The third period saw Phoenix get a goal back on a shot by Scottie Upshall which just made it over the line after going through Hiller. He had no chance, being screened in front as the shot came from below the left dot. In front of him was Eric Belanger, with Lydman behind him. If there was any mistake, it might have been in Lydman not clearing Belanger out of the way so that his goaltender could see the shot.

Belanger tied it at about the half-period mark, 2-2, due to a failed clear and a bunch of guys running around in the zone.

Later in the period, the Ducks got a goal back in the form of a rush up the ice started by Bobby Ryan. He passed to Getzlaf going into the Phoenix zone, and he spotted Perry coming in on the righthand side. A flat pass met Perry’s stick as the player was being tied up by a Phoenix trailer. It didn’t matter, as Perry was able to redirect the puck under Jason LaBarbara for the eventual winner. There were about five minutes left.

So the Ducks exit game six of the season having won two and gotten a point in a shootout, all in their last three games. Their forward lines, particularly the first two, are flying, and their backline? What this looks like, perhaps for the first time this season, is an NHL defense, not a cobbled-together hope-it-works kind of corps. There’s still work to do, but things are shaping up for Anaheim.

Notes

Selanne now has two goals to tie Bobby Hull on the all-time list. He’s no doubt going to do that soon, having played a whale of a game Sunday night on the way to four shots, though no goals.

The team now goes away for four games, returning on the Friday before Halloween to host the New Jersey Devils. Fans who want to see the marvel of Kovalchuk ought to make the effort to get out. There were 4,000 empty seats Sunday, if the announced numbers were accurate (they weren’t). It’s too bad—this is an entertaining team to watch.

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