Ducks Fly Away Winners

The Anaheim Ducks have played just a game since winning on Monday night, that being yet another win, Wednesday with the Minnesota Wild in town. They were on the upper end of a 2-1 score, not quite the blowout they had against the prior two teams they’d played, the Islanders and the Blues, both of whom had gone down 5-2. Nonetheless, looking at the Ducks lineup of games over the past two weeks shows nothing but wins and OT points stretching back to November 26th, when they lost in Dallas , 6-3.

So it was that most of their 16,301 fans on a breezy and warm Sunday late afternoon (5pm local time start) expected another W, especially with the Edmonton Oilers in town. That team was on a two-game skid, having dumped one to Boston at home and then lost to the Canucks in Vancouver. They are now on a four-game road trip that takes them through the old West, all the way from LA to Colorado. Tough sledding for a squad which stares up at the rest of the West from its position at the dead end of the Pacific. They came in with just 11 wins against 20 losses.

The question for Ducks’ fans is when they will start to take their team’s good record for granted. The squad has had more than two handfuls of injuries this year thus far, with the defense most devastated. On Sunday, Francois Beauchemin and Mathieu Perreault came back, but Souray, Silfverberg, Sbisa, and Fasth are all out from weeks to months into the future. It hasn’t mattered, as they’ve found ways to win.

So with Beauchemin and Perreault returning, would the Ducks be a different team? They would have to be, though they clearly couldn’t be much better than they had been in the weeks prior. Going out to make space, for those who keep track of such things, were Mark Fistric and Tim Jackman, whose main strength is picking fights with people who either don’t want to fight him or who get paid to do so. His record this year in 18 games with Anaheim shows him with 58 PIMs. He was, as you might have guessed, a fourth-line fixture. With Perreault having joined Selanne’s line, the second, that dropped Nick Bonino to line four, where he got twelve minutes of action along with Patrick Maroon and Kyle Palmieri. They represent an interesting fourth trio, and maybe this is just where the West is going. Nobody fights. (Beleskey will do that if provoked, but as mentioned, he’s now looked at quite otherwise as a second-liner).

The line proved useful in netting the Ducks’ first goal on the evening. The play was a lazy clear by the Oilers defense, which Bonino was able to corral at the half wall and put low into the corner. The puck was picked up by Palmieri and tossed over to Maroon. He slammed a pass quickly to the slot to where Bonino had made his way, and he put it past Bryzgalov and into the net. It was coordination of a line of the highest order, and perhaps a bit of a message to the non-performing second line to shape up their game. Forcing the under-confident Oilers into mistakes is possible. They’ve got talent, but it’s not on the defensive end of the ice, a point that is easily exploited by their opponents.

The team entered Sunday with the league’s best home record at 12-0-2, and they had pasted their visiting guests in goals, 54-25. Thus it was that people expected a similar performance against the Oilers. They didn’t get it, though they did see their squad win again. About the performance that kept them from a home loss on the year, Dustin Penner said, “We were a lot more desperate after they tied it up [at 2-2].” He said that his line had not been good early, but that they were better later, true naturally since he scored the winning goal on a cross-slot wrist shot. “We haven’t had a lot of home games,” he indicated, “so we put a lot of emphasis on them.” He finished, “We weren’t mentally sharp early on, having had a lot of days off. We obviously had a lot of help. Hiller played great, Beauch[emin]. Teemu hadn’t scored in a while, and we [also] had a great contribution from the other three lines.”

The team as a whole was weak early and better late. They were outshot by the Oilers in period one, 14-8. They had a five minute power play in period two on a hit from behind by Potter of the Oilers. They got just four shots on net, and didn’t look good though they did almost pull even in shots at that point, 16-17. But it wasn’t until the latter part of the period, when Selanne got his first goal in a couple of months, that the Ducks looked committed to playing.

That goal was not just a shot off a flight down the wing. Selanne turned the puck up in the corner and went to the front of the net. The pass came out of the corner from Perreault, and Selanne took it from his skate to his stick and shot it past Bryzgalov.

He said after, “I’ve been waiting for a long time. Obviously, it’s a big relief. [But] it’s been easier because we’ve been winning.” He carried on to say that he’s had contact with friend and former teammate Paul Kariya, who texted him on Saturday. “Go to the net. Good things happen,” Kariya said. Selanne commented, “He knows. . . . When you’re used to scoring those pretty goals, sometimes you don’t go to those ugly areas. You have to remind yourself where the goals are scored these days. From the blue paint almost. You just have to go there. That’s my goal tonight.” He said that he just tried to shoot the puck as fast as he could, but that he wasn’t thinking at the moment that his goal had come.

“Hopefully we can get a few more,” he added. He also said that one person close to the team told him that maybe going to church would work. “If it works, it isn’t funny,” he said, but of course, while laughing.

Perreault said of the goal, “I was on the forecheck. Beleskey got the puck down low and I just saw him [Teemu] going down the slot, and I gave it to him. He kicked it to himself and put it in.” He said that he thought Selanne was feeling relief after having broken the drought he’d been in.

The winning goal, Penner’s, came with just over three minutes to go. Lindholm and Getzlaf assisted on it.

Aside from game action, here are some stories that Ducks watchers are keeping an eye on:

Corey Perry is scoring goals at a tremendous pace. The team played its 35th game Sunday night. The Peterborough native came in with 21 goals, including eight since American Thanksgiving, a span of seven games. On the night, he recorded no points and just one shot of the Ducks’ eventual 34 (Edmonton ended with 25).

The defense, as mentioned earlier, has had some guys in and out of the lineup, but one who is getting more time than perhaps he might have expected is Sami Vatanen, who was playing in his 27th game. He shared the team lead amongst defensemen for goals with three, backed up by four assists. His minutes hover up around 19 some nights, with his high coming in San Jose, 21:04. He is described in local press reports as feeling like he’s having an up and down season, that comment not being restricted to the fact that he was in the minors during mid-November.

Beauchemin was a steady force in his return, logging two seconds under 20 minutes. His coach said after that he appreciated his cool play, never more than when he slowly cleared a puck down the ice with about nine seconds to go and the empty net tempting him. Icing in that circumstance, of course, is a really bad mistake.

Dustin Penner is scoring at a rapid rate. Don’t panic. The world is not ending, at least as far as I am aware. But the big man who Randy Carlyle once said was best motivated by an electric cattle prod now has appeared in 24 games. He had 9-14-23 points coming in to the contest Sunday night before getting the winning goal already mentioned. He was in fine form after the game, giving deadpan answers to the questions reporters posed to him, basically refusing to play along with the game of giving them what they wanted. He did say that his goal was on a cross-slot shot designed to take advantage of where he was on the ice, which was the high left slot.

Ryan Getzlaf, as a captain is often expected to do, is leading the team in points. He has about a 1.10 ppg streak going, which obviously puts him right at 90 when the season ends. His contribution comes in almost balanced goals and assists, too, with the numbers looking like this: 16-22-38 coming into Sunday. He had an assist, which extended his official point streak to 14 games, longest in the NHL right now and the longest since Pascal Dupuis had a similar streak in 2012’s springtime.

Other Anaheim player movement of note includes both young phenoms, Emerson Etem and Devante Smith-Pelly, having been demoted to the minors once more. The former went down Thursday after having been recalled for three games, one of which he didn’t play in. His performance December 9th against the Isles saw him get 14:20 of ice time. Smith-Pelly has been gone since the end of November. He played a cluster of fifteen games before that, and then a sixteenth surrounded by two in which he did not dress.

Also sent down in the past week, David Steckel, who was up for just four games, netting about ten minutes per contest in fourth-line duty. His NHL career to date includes more than 400 games, but just 33 goals. He was a first-round pick, by the Kings, in 2001 (30th overall).

And since we’re on that draft, here are some names and numbers for you: 12 players in that draft have played fewer games than has Steckel. Three never suited up once in the league, and of those who did, 12 have fewer goals than Steckel (four of those being goalies, that’s not unnatural). The most notable name in the group, of course, is the first pick, Kovalchuk. After him came Spezza. Other recognizable monikers are Mike Komisarek, and Mikko Koivu. Forgotten? Jason Bacashihua, a goalie. He’s not gone, though. After playing in nineteen games each of two years with the Blues, he did lots of time in the AHL and is know in the DEL.

To return to the Ducks to finish, the team plays four straight on the road now leading up to Christmas. They’re in Detroit, then new Jersey, on the Island, and in Washington. Maybe while there, they’ll get a chance to see that big tree the Obamas have. Or maybe not. The next home game is not until the 28th, after which the team plays once more on the road. Then it’s home for four straight to open the new year.

Final Note

Christmas gift extraordinaire: one of my books. The newest is Pond Hockey, a novel.

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