There’s a big difference between “Nothing to see here” and “Did you see that?”, as proved by the Anaheim Ducks over the past few weeks. The team has emerged as a real player despite the feeling of practically everyone in hockey that they would be mired in rebuild-tis for the year.
Their first shocker was a win against the Boston Bruins, who are defying everyone’s expectations with their start. Nobody thought the Ducks could take them down. It happened. Then there was a string of games leading up to Vegas being in Anaheim on Sunday. More surprises, including wins versus Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, and Arizona, and then Vegas. In that game, Anaheim was outplayed in the early going. It looked like they would revert to form and fold in on themselves. No way. They came back on four third-period goals to take the game, 4-2.
Why is this team which finished last in the league last year suddenly looking like they hold some surprises for the West? Well, before answering that, let’s remind ourselves that this is just a two-week stretch, not a playoff run. Things could go back to the way they were expected to be and this flurry be forgotten in no time.
Or could they? This team is a lot stronger than many are crediting, even now. Partly this is because they are actually playing defense this year. Even Trevor Zegras, who has found himself stapled to the bench a couple of nights for not playing two ways. That’s the doing of new coach Greg Cronin, a Boston-sounding old-school hockey guy with a slightly manic look exacerbated by a pair of oversized eyeglasses.
The team defense is complemented by actual defense players all but unrecognizable compared to last year, but strong and skilled nonetheless. This includes, until Jamie Drysdale gets back from injury, only one player who was with the team last year, Cam Fowler. The others are Jackson LaCombe, Pavel Mintyukov, Ilya Lyubushkin, Urho Vaakanainen, and Radko Gudas. That’s respectively, two Americans, two Russians, a Finn, and a Czech.
Gudas is about what was expected, strong and tough and not afraid to throw a big hit. LaCombe and Mintyukov are kids, 22 and 19 years old respectively, with just over a couple of dozen NHL games between them. Lyubushkin and Vaakanainen are moderately experienced, with 290 and 75 career games played. Probably nobody west of the California state line knows anything about these four (Fowler and Gudas excepted). And very few could spell their names if called upon to do so. They, and the team, are hoping that will change.
Aside from that, individual players are shining on offense. This is in part due to the various situations at center. Zegras has been moved to the wing with 2023 draftee Leo Carlsson playing center between him and Troy Terry. Wait—that’s two guys who have played center over the last couple of years now flanking a rookie. Terry is producing the most of the trio, with 5-5-10 points coming into Tuesday evening. Carlsson has three goals, and Zegras is not producing yet, with just 1-1-2 in the team’s first 12 games.
There’s more to say about this year’s Ducks, but why use it all up at once? The Ducks play again Friday, and then on Sunday. It will be nice to still have something to talk about on those days. Stay tuned.
In the meantime, here’s a quick hit on the Pittsburgh game Tuesday night. The game began with an early penalty on the Pens, which they survived. Towards the middle of the first, play opened up, and Pittsburgh recorded the first goal of the game. That was a squibber that went in from right out front. Radim Zohorna scored it from the third line right wing position. It was not added to until the third period.In between, the second was a mildly forceful offensive effort, mostly by the Penguins. Jon Gibson stood tall against them. With around five minutes gone, Pittsburgh had a two-on-one. They ended up taking the puck straight down center, a wrister saved. Gibson then survived more pressure. About mid-period, Rickard Rakell and Malkin rushed the Ducks’ end and forced Gibson to make a great save. His final rescue of the period came when Pittsburgh passed the puck right to left across the zone and saw Rakell shoot a sweeping one-timer. Gibson got over with a splits save that landed him on the seat of his pants.
The period was about to end when the Ducks’ Henrique brushed past Jarry at the edge of the crease and jolted his neck. The puck ended up being saved by the goalie, on his knees in a sideways posture. He left the game with 1:36 left. Backup Magnus Hellberg, a 6’6”, 220-pound monster, took over. It was later reported thatJarry’s mask had been displaced, and he had been hit by a shot in the side of the face. He did not return.
This didn’t faze Pittsburgh, which had two more chances, a wraparound by Jake Guentzel and a wrister from the point taken by Bryan Rust. Gibson held them out.
The shots ending period two were 25-21 for Pittsburgh. By the end of the game, they were 36-32. If it sounds like the Pens took over the game, that’s not exactly true.
The third period was largely played in the Pens’ end, though the Ducks didn’t generate any really gasp-worthy chances. The Penguins appeared to go up 2-0 with about a minute to go, but that goal was reviewed and ruled offside. This gave Anaheim hope, another miracle in their imaginations. But with 19.5 seconds remaining, Crosby flipped a puck on net with Gibson out. It took one bounce on its way to the back of the cage, and ended the game, 2-0.
After, the Ducks’ Sam Carrick, Cam Fowler, and Coach Cronin all expressed some regret at the loss. Cronin said it best when he described how his team came out for the first period: “I told them afterwards we just played hockey. When we’re on our game, we’re hunting pucks and getting some offensive zone time.” He followed this by complimenting Pittsburgh for playing a good game.
When asked whether he had some relief that the pressure of the team’s six-game winning streak was over, he explained: “I’d rather have the streak and have the distraction [of it], but you know they’re going to end at some point.” He praised the crowd for their energy on a Tuesday night, and ended with, “It was an awkward game. You could feel it. There wasn’t a lot of rhythm to the game . . . . It was kind of a strange game.
The Ducks have a snazzy, redesigned press box, including the elimination of glass walls that flank the main seating areas on either side. Those seats will now give a much closer and better feeling of the game.
The Penguins play LA up the freeway on Thursday night, while the Ducks await a Friday night contest against the Flyers and then San Jose on Sunday.