Stop paying attention for a couple of weeks and what happens? The team that looked to be on the brink of firing its coach and declaring its latest rebuild a bust ends up challenging for the Pacific Division lead. That’s right, friends. The Anaheim Ducks are back on the attack.
Check this out: since Christmas, they have won all but four of their games. Since the All-Star break, they’ve won every game but one, with one OT win thrown in. Since that same break, they’ve scored eight more goals than the next nearest NHL team (coming into Wednesday night). This from a squad that couldn’t buy a goal in the early part of the season and who, in mid-December, were 11-14-5 and tied for last place in the entire league. Of course, that was back when at least three or four Canadian teams were figured to make the playoffs, with Montreal winning the Cup, and that now seems like it was in a prior Ice Age, so what the heck.
You might remember the question people were asking, somewhere early in December: When was the last time Getzlaf scored a defended goal? And the answer was something like, “March.” Through November, he had just one goal, and that into an empty net. That’s all forgotten now.
The team’s numbers are more than respectable: just 21st overall in goals at 2.48 per game, but 6th overall in goals against (2.38), and 9th in power play at over 20 percent while going 86.4% on the kill to be tied for second overall in the league.
And remember when they couldn’t score? Well, they now have 145 goals for. Wait. That still puts them behind everyone but Vancouver in the West. But how about those goals against? They’re at 138, which is behind only LA. So there’s the trick.
But look for those numbers to reverse, soon. In the four games prior to Buffalo on Wednesday evening, they got 6 goals once and 5 three times in a row, and in the 17 games leading into Wednesday night, they had registered an average of 4 goals a game. Four. If they could do that every night all season, they’d be on pace for even greater offense that Washington, who with their 191 goals for is over three per game, but nowhere near four.
So what’s the result? Fans in the building, for one thing. The Buffalo Sabres were in town Wednesday night to a crowd that at least decently filled the seats to start the game and registered at 16,543 when all the bodies were counted. This might have been helped by the fact that the puck dropped just past 7:30 instead of the usual 7pm. TV, one supposes, drove that.
And points. The Ducks have now played 59 games and gained 72 points points. The pace, of course, is much accelerated given their recent success.
Part of the strength of that is that Getzlaf now registers a team-high 48 points, with 8 goals and, obviously, an outrageous percentage of assists. Perry, meanwhile, is sitting on 23 goals and 41 points. But one big surprise is the 31 points from the defense by Sami Vatanen, on nine goals and 22 assists. That ninth goal, by the way, was the only one scored against Buffalo, and it was backed up by an Anaheim shutout, hence being the winner. David Perron has also registered 30 points, both here and brought over from Pittsburgh.
In terms of the work of individuals, the Ducks are doing some surprising things with their lines. Getzlaf anchors the first, which has David Perron (he had just come from Pittsburgh the last time the team was in town) and Mike Santorelli (thought he was a fourth-liner, didn’t you?). Perry is on the right wing with Rickard Rakell and Nick Ritchie (sure he was a fourth-liner, weren’t you?). Then there’s a familiar trio: Cogliano, Kesler, Silfverberg. And putting up the rear, Maroon (used to be on the first line, eh?) with Nate Thompson and Ryan Garbutt.
Did I say Buffalo? Yes, and so what brought me down the freeway was, in part, the chance to see the Eichel phenomenon in person. He was on the team’s first line, alongside Jamie McGinn and Zemgus Girgensons. His play? Meh. A bit loafy in the first period, and only noticeable by bits after that.
I asked Bruce Boudreau about him after the game, and his response was, “I just put Kesler on him, and he seems to do the job against everybody. He makes it tough for those guys to play. And he’s so good at reading the game, he’s got a very, tremendously high hockey IQ, and he can skate and he’s big and physical. He’s been playing against everybody’s top line and he’s been doing a good job against it.”
In goal behind the Sabres was Robin Lehner, and backstopping the Ducks was Frederik Andersen. For those interested in the Anaheim goaltending situation, the team’s two goalies have almost evenly split the games thus far this year, in part due to Gibson’s having been injured during part of the year. Andersen has played 33 games now, and the other guy, 26.
The game proceeded with surprisingly little action in the first period, and no scoring. With five minutes left, each team had registered six shots, none dangerous. There hadn’t been any plays of note. That changed a little when Nick Deslauriers got a wide pass going in the zone and zinged a wrister low from the right dot. Andersen swallowed it up.
Things got a bit spiced up when Kane came rink-wide to deliver a hit on Lindholm that ended up being knee-on-knee and saw the defenseman limp back to the bench. The response was a trip from Kesler which settled nothing in particular. The Ducks handily killed the penalty anyway, allowing just one, not dangerous, shot. Garbutt knocked Bogosian on his tuckus, meanwhile, while the latter was setting a pick with the puck rolling into the Buffalo zone. Even that didn’t render the game more nasty.
Period two was more Duck-like. Anaheim mixed its lines, putting Maroon with Perry and Rakell, but it was the power play that turned things. First Vatanen took what on my playground was called a “wicked slapper,” to see it saved. Then the Ducks’ Lindholm passed to Getzlaf in the slot. It looked like he should have shot, but he dropped the puck back blindly to Vatanen. He took a soft low wrister that took advantage of having Perry and Perron in front and went into the net past the double screen. It would be the only goal scored, for either side.
The Sabres had a power play of their own close to midway through the period, but the best chances on that were when the Ducks crashed their end and got two shots away.
The Ducks had another with less than ten minutes to go, and they registered four shots on goal. They kept pouring it on after that, so that at the five-minute break, they were even with Buffalo at 17 shots apiece. And even then, they were out-chancing them in ways that don’t make the scoresheet. Rakell and Perry, for instance, worked a puck into the front of the net area, but a dangle by Perry ended with the puck rolling to the net and into a crowd and no shot on goal being recorded.
It was all Anaheim as the period wound down, with first a pass out to Fowler sneaking in—he shot over the net—then later Kesler finding Perron in front.
Actually, that’s not true. The “all Anaheim” part. The Sabres got a three-on-one break with just Lindholm back. They took a shot which rebounded out to Justin Bailey, who swept the puck backhand back toward the net. The replays showed that it went off the glove of Andersen and then off the post.
Anaheim would get one more chance near the end of the period when, as was said, Kesler found Perron, who found the glass. The second frame ended with the shots at 21 Anaheim, 20 Buffalo.
The final frame saw the Ducks register eight shots to the other team’s six, but in truth, it was mostly the home team which had the play.
The exception to this was when Marcus Foligno swept in with one Ducks player chasing. He deked across the slot but lost the puck to Andersen’s toe. Brian Gionta tried for it, but the goalie managed to kick it just out. It was swept up ice and out of danger by Garbutt.
Anaheim survived two minor penalties in the period (Buffalo had one). Anaheim was dangerous shorthanded, Silfverberg getting a chance and taking a low slapper that was saved. The Sabres did nothing with their power play chances.
Near the end, Lehner tried to get out, but he was forced back with 1:30 left. Buffalo then iced the puck with about 29 seconds to go. They took their timeout before the faceoff, pulled the goalie with 14.2 seconds to play, and saw one shot, a low slapper from the point, go wide as time, and their hopes of a tie, expired.
After the game, when I followed up with Boudreau about Kesler and his defensive abilities, he forecasted the next couple of games: “He gets McDavid on Friday, and he’ll get Kopitar on Sunday.” When I asked if he was looking ahead to Sunday, he said, “No, I’m looking ahead to Friday. Sunday will come soon enough. I don’t want to be stressing already over that one.”
What a test, especially if the Kings lose Thursday and the Ducks post a win Friday. They’d be fighting to inch ahead to lead the Pacific.
Who would have guessed that on the night Santa came down the chimney?
The team plays Friday night, Edmonton, and has LA in town on Sunday afternoon. Then it’s Montreal, a game I would have been looking forward to much more had they not ended up revealing the truth: their only asset aside from their history is Cary Price right now.
There is one player on IR for the Ducks: Chris Stewart. He has a broken jaw after a fight and has been out for six games.