ANAHEIM, Calif. — Sure, you’re tempted to ask the easy question—can the Ducks make the playoffs? Sure they can. Ask the hard question: can the Ducks compete? They got partway to answering that on Thursday night versus the Winnipeg Jets.
So how would they make it? Colorado could slump. The Kings are essentially tied with Anaheim. Dallas might get off its current tear. Anaheim needs to do some winning themselves and have just three teams falter—and I just told you who they are—to make the post-season.
But would there be any point if they couldn’t compete, if all it meant was a quick trip in and out and a few extra bucks from first-round tickets sold?
With that in mind, here’s a quick pre-All-Star break guide to what the Anaheim team has to do to get to the show and do something once they’re there.
First, the goaltending has to be great almost all the time, not some of the time. John Gibson has been the workhorse so far, appearing in 39 games. He sparkles most of the time, but his Goals Against is not always what it ought to be, possibly because of how the team plays in front of him. (Read: no defense.) He often keeps the other side to a couple of goals, but seven times he has allowed four or more goals. His GAA ranks him nearly 40th in the league. Better if you count only goalies with significant numbers of games played, but still.
His backup, Ryan Miller, is considerably better in the numbers category. He’s within the top dozen in GAA. Versus Winnipeg, he showed the reason to have a strong number two man. With Gibson hurt, Miller came in with six-plus minutes left, didn’t face a shot in regulation or OT, and got a win. This because he studies the tendencies of opposing shooters, as he said after:
“Stepping into a game, you want to come through. The boys did a good job in regulation and overtime. The shootout is a different animal. You just have to be familiar with the shooters, and that’s something I do anyways. Try and pay attention. Fortunately the reads went my way tonight.”
The results were 4-3 for Anaheim. You likely already know that.
Second, the stars need to shoot the puck and play as if scoring were the point of the game. The Ducks did that versus the Jets, threatening over and over again. They had recorded ten shots on goal before the first period was a dozen minutes old. And these were quality chances. In games past, even in wins, they occasionally have resorted to one too many passes. That’s the Kings’ game. It shouldn’t be Anaheim’s.
Corey Perry should be counted amongst these elite players, though he currently lives on the fourth line. The other night against the Rangers, he had a breakaway in which he skated so slowly it was painful to watch. (You wonder if he’s hurt.) He shot low. The goalie made the save.
But against Winnipeg, he cut from the blueline diagonally across the slot, got the puck, did an inside-out deke, and ended up putting it in Connor Hellebuyck’s pads. He then was thrown across a defenseman’s body and hit the boards behind the net. That’s not good, but that’s what he has to play like. Fearless. And fast.
Here’s the opposite example: Rickard Rakell moved the puck through the entire Jets team on the power play. Down the slot he proceeded, deking two guys flat out of their skates. He got near the net, and passed backwards to Henrique, who was so far from the net that not only a Ducks player but also a Jets defender was in the way. The puck flew harmlessly into that crowd.
Go to the net, dummies. And shoot at the open spots.
Third, the second-tier needs to act like they’re first-tier players. Thursday night versus the Jets, Adam Henrique started the game doing just that. Playing on a line with Ritchie and Silfverberg, he found himself on the ice rather with the first liners Kase and Rakell in the early going. Patrik Laine, who had just scored the game’s first goal to put Winterpeg ahead by one, played lazy with the puck at his own blue line.
Henrique swooped in, skating twice as fast as Laine, and stole it. He went to the net, Laine hooking and the referee’s arm up for a delayed penalty, and shot the puck high, fluttery, and right into the top far side corner. 1-1. And the game was nowhere near half a period gone.
This was his fifth point in the last five games. Four of those have been goals.
Henrique shot the puck on the Ducks’ second goal, stretching his points accumulation to six in five games. He and Ritchie combined to get the puck out from behind the Winnipeg net, and Henrique shot it. It hit Ritchie’s pants and fooled the goalie.
He later got the shootout goal, the only one in five rounds. He did it by flying down the ice and deking to his backhand, shooting high into the net over the goalie’s glove. It was the only shot of the ones taken in the shootout to be fast and hard. Everyone else, on both sides, had ambled down the ice and put the puck directly into goalie’s pads or gloves. The exception was Laine, who just, as Miller said, “didn’t finish”—he jammed the puck into Miller’s skate, and it stayed out.
Henrique’s happy being a part of this squad. “I feel good. Really ever since I’ve been here I’ve felt great about my game. I feel like I’m creating opportunities. Confident with the puck all over the ice. And things just seem to come as of late, too. I’ve been able to build some chemistry with some guys now, playing with a couple of guys for a few games in a row, which certainly helps.”
Fourth, the Ducks need to play their game. Here are three examples of recent games and whether they’ve been doing that: Against the Sharks on Sunday, the Ducks played a short game. Little passes. No risk. It was a disaster. The San Jose team beat them up one side and down the other, the score being 6-2 in the visitors’ favor. The Ducks weren’t in the game at any point. Against the Rangers on Tuesday, the same thing, except that New York was as bad as Anaheim and thus couldn’t mount a serious challenge.
The Rangers ended up on the losing end, 6-3, and obviously you don’t take too much criticism and apply it to a win, but the Ducks basically played pond hockey with them, no structure. Just run and gun and see who gets past the other goalie more. But that’s not going to win many playoff games.
And finally, against Winnipeg. This was the Ducks’ game. It’s fun to watch, because they’ve got their butts hanging out the open car window the whole time. What does that mean? That it’s a high-stakes game they play. They fly. That’s not a pun. They’re fast. They get behind the defense. They throw the puck around as if they’re the only ones out there.
Most of the time, it works. All of the time, it’s entertaining. They don’t know how to play well any other way. Think of it this way—if the Kings’ coaches came in and taught them their game, Anaheim would be lost (and their fans bamboozled at how much the game had slowed down).
Fifth, they have to stay out of the penalty box. That’s a lesson they just can’t get through their thickly helmeted heads, apparently. Nick Ritchie took a roughing call at the mid-point of period one. This isn’t just dangerous on its face, or because Winnipeg’s power play is second best in the NHL, firing at a one-of-four rate coming into the night. It disrupted the flow of a game that the Ducks were dominating. The shots were 7-3 in their favor, but almost every one was a great chance. Ritchie took the crowd out of it, too. And don’t tell me about the energy derived from a good kill. Coach Carlyle would rather not have that energy.
The Jets took a penalty of their own. These were each killed. But then the Ducks, in the form of Getzlaf, took another. In the attacking zone, for tripping. Completely unnecessary. They killed that off, too, but working hard to prove that your 11th-ranked PK is still that good is not a winning strategy. Their power play is not going to get it done, either. It’s 23rd in the league, at 17.3%.
Carlyle commented after the game: “It’s alarming when you score a goal and then allow the opposition back into it by allowing a goal on the next shift. Those are the things that make you feel not that happy within the game, but . . . (the Jets) are big, they’re strong, and they can skate.” He added, “I think we can do a lot more, specifically on the power play. I didn’t think the power play gave us much tonight as far as, other than frustration. Those are the things that are inside the game that probably prevented us from winning the game outright, because we probably had enough power play opportunities.”
The Anaheim team has the talent. They just have to figure out how to deploy it while cutting down on the penalties. The playoffs will thus have a point, and the exit might not be immediate.
Patrick Eaves, on IR with Guillain-Barre Syndrome, dropped the ceremonial puck to begin the game. The crowd received hats with integrated bushy beards. The hats said “Eaves.” Pretty cool giveaway. I’m sending mine to Ontario to my nephew. It’s perfect for him—he’s probably too young to be able to grow a good beard, and it’s cold there, so a hat will be good.
Your favorite war buff might like my new book, Mixing Memory and Desire: Why Literature Can’t Forget the Great War. Tell your college or local librarian, please. Hit me up for information on twitter @growinguphockey.