Hard, Heavy Hockey

The Anaheim Ducks romped through the West of Canada (in a kind of mini way) on the weekend, winning games in Calgary on Friday evening and Edmonton on Saturday. The score in Calgary was 6-3, and the one in Edmonton, 2-1. Meanwhile, the Detroit Red Wings were playing in the opposite end of the north-south pole that makes up today’s NHL, taking on the Dallas Stars in the second of a six-game road trip that won’t end until they’re in Music City USA on the last day of this month.

The Dallas stop was anything but what the Detroit team wanted. They got behind by a couple of goals more than once, including one time when it was 6-4 against them, but they managed to pull out a win, 7-6, that had their coach comparing the game to the good old days just post-WHA when the Jets and Oilers would race to six or seven goals. Their goalie, Jimmy Howard, yanked to preserve his sanity and to give his successor, Jonas Gustavsson, some minutes in what was assumed to be a team loss that would serve as a tuneup for his next start, called the game a beer league contest. Gustavsson ended up getting the win. Better said, Howard ended up getting no decision on his record despite letting in enough goals to do damage to his season numbers for GAA.

So with the Ducks having returned home for three games to conclude with the LA Kings on Friday of this week, it was time to move from the small time to the big time, moving on from also-ran teams in Alberta to face their former Western Conference rivals from the Motor City. Detroit is not only a historic rival but also a team which plays the same game it has for years—heavy, puck-possession oriented, organized to a T. They make short passes, and they never give up the black disk.

The Ducks, by contrast, are known for a wide-open game featuring long passes and wild flinging of the puck around the end boards in the offensive zone. If anything, they treat the puck like it’s a hot potato, nobody wanting to hold it all that long.

What did Boudreau do to counter the near-Soviet style domination the Wings typically showcase? If anything, he got considerably more aggressive in his team’s style of play.

For instance, with the game knotted at zeros and each side having a handful of shots and at least one semi-breakaway in period one, Boudreau had three guys below the dots on his forecheck. Three. That means that had the Red Wings forced the puck out past his forwards, they would have had a heck of a chance to go to the races. And they did. The Wings ended period one with 11 shots on goal, and most were not of the type that they often get, which is with four of their five players crowded down near the goal line. But the shot total didn’t matter, as none went in.

But neither did the Ducks score. True, they threw only seven shots on the net, but in terms of their forward lines, they threw everything they had at the Red Wings in the form of mixing their lines greatly.

The so-called “twins,” Perry and Getzlaf, were split up. On the top line was Getzlaf with Maroon and Palmieri. The former two are big, the latter small but fast as blazes.

The second line, then, was Perry with Etem and Rickard Rakell. The idea, one presumes, was for speed there as well, and to keep the two most dangerous weapons on the team on different lines as a way to diversify their threat.

In fact, the Ducks and Wings both changed players so many times in the first three minutes it was like each team was trying to set a record for number of times their players touched the ice. That rhythm was aided by a number of early whistles. After that, things did not settle in, but were disrupted even more by a series of penalties called on each team.

None were cheap or unnecessary calls. All were the type produced by aggressive play on the part of the forwards, which resulted in the defensive players on either side sticking their lumber between legs (Detroit, two trips) or taking stick fouls (Anaheim, a hook and a high stick).

The period ended 0-0. The Wings, by the way, had one glaring hole in their lineup—Zetterberg was punched twice in the head by Jamie Benn in front of the net in Dallas and finished the period but not the game. The coach jokingly said on Monday morning that he was in the building at morning skate time arguing with a fellow player over who would pay for dinner, but that ruse didn’t work, and the Ducks didn’t see him in the lineup, to their great surprise and joy, most likely.

It didn’t matter that he was missing, because Pavel Datsyuk more than made up for it. He was playing with his normal linemates, Tomas Tatar and Darren Helm, and between regular strength and the power play, they potted two goals.

But all was not as it seemed, as Coach Boudreau said after the game, claiming that Datsyuk was effective only when Ryan Kesler was not on the ice against him. “Kesler’s line was great all night,” he said. “There was only one shift when they didn’t play against Datsyuk all night, and Datsyuk scored. One shift. Everything else, the Kesler-Cogliano-Silfverberg line was really good. I know it sounds weird to say that we were effective against him when he got two goals,” he added.

The big time, as the Ducks should know, is filled with teams who do well on the power play, and giving Detroit a chance when they were 26% coming into the night was like handing them a goal. How about Maroon getting called for one while headed into the Detroit zone after the puck? Bad idea. Or Silfverberg getting nailed for high sticking at the Detroit blueline? Equally bad, and the Wings made the Ducks pay with chances and a goal on the first of those. This after they had scored an even-strength goal in the first four minutes of P2.

But with the game going 2-0 in the Wings’ favor, the pressure just amped up on both sides. The speed never stopped. In fact, it seemed to escalate. The aggression of both sides didn’t wane, though the Ducks were not successful in directing shots at the Red Wings’ net. In fact, in the second period, they had just two at the 17-minute mark. It’s not like they didn’t have the puck in the other zone. They did. And it’s not like they didn’t fire it towards the cage. They did that, too, getting credit, if that’s the word, for eight missed shots and nine blocked in the middle frame alone.

They did direct one more on net before the end of forty minutes. But their best chance came with just seconds to go in the period, when the Red Wings finally made a mistake and cleared the puck backwards towards their own slot, where Andrew Cogliano picked it up and went toward the net. Two guys, one from either team, were sliding towards him as he flung a shot at the net, watching it go high and wide as he tumbled to the ice with the other two.

Corsi-Fenwick or whatever you call that, it’s really not a measure of anything when the other team is as darn good at getting in the lanes and sacrificing to block the lasers directed at their goalie as these Motor City guys are.

Beauchemin commented on the shots directed but not making it to the net in period two: “They did a great job of blocking shots. We couldn’t get it through, and finally in the third, we did, and it paid off.” He continued, “We had a lot of shots directed at the net in the second, and just couldn’t find a way through, and in the third, we came out a little more aggressive, keeping pucks in the zone, working the walls and just putting pucks through. We got a couple of rebounds, and got goals.”

He had the third one. It was his third in three games, and it came in period three, after two other goals had been scored by other-than-star players. Wait a moment for that, because we’re just finishing up period two here.

The speed of the game was incredible. The old cliché about playoff hockey being great because it’s fast despite being heavy (I mean, the first part is the cliché; I’m explaining to you what playoff hockey is good on account of) was never more true than on this evening.

The Wings’ forecheck was two men strong. They were OK with allowing the Ducks to get the puck behind them if they could. The Ducks, on their part, were happy to get those chances to take the puck out wide and try to work it back to the slot. It would turn over and bang! Be down the ice once more with the Ducks trying to foil the renewed chance of the Wings.

Even writing that, I feel like an old-time reporter, someone you rely on to put the action he saw into words that would form visuals for you. I hope I’ve done it well, and in truth, I’m willing to bet that even if you saw this game on TV (or various mobile devices), you would have no idea the pace and intensity those in attendance witnessed.

As period three began, Boudreau had his two big guns back together, playing alongside Kyle Palmieri. On the line Perry had been on, Etem and Rakell, was Smith-Pelly. He later commented on that move: “I think it did [energize them] a little bit. You put the two big guns back together, our two biggest, best scorers back together, and, you know, they didn’t score, but Corey got set up by Ryan perfectly, and I think that gave them a little jump start, and I think the goal in the shootout gave them another jump start, and we’ll see how they do on Wednesday.”

Also discussing that was Cogliano, who said, “I think it gives the guys a different look. The team must adapt as well. All four lines and players were pushing, and I think we did a pretty good job.”

The Ducks pressed early and ended up scoring, then scoring again twice more to tie it. But the goals didn’t come from that reconstituted first line, Instead, they came from the third line—Cogliano, Silfverberg, and Kesler, and then from the line Perry had been on, now Maroon with Rakell and Etem. “I thought things turned when we didn’t panic being down two. We’ve learned our lesson during the season in going down two, three-nothing, and for whatever reason we’ve lost our composure and taken more penalties, tried to win the game in five minutes and end up losing big. Tonight we stuck to the game plan. We came out and started forcing them, put more pressure on them, and you get one, you start feeling good and the crowd gets into it.”

Both were the kind of hardworking, puck-possessing goals that the Ducks often get. The first came out from behind the net to the front and on a rebound, Cogliano swept the puck in.

The second Anaheim goal came off a big hit by Maroon in the corner. The puck then went to the point and was flung to the net by Stoner. Etem got the rebound for his third goal of the season. He has played much of the year in Norfolk of the AHL, this being his 30th NHL game of the season.

Anyway, Beauchemin scored to put the home team up 3-2 with about seven minutes remaining. But for the Ducks, the eventual 3-3 regulation time score had to be sobering. They haven’t played a game against a team of this caliber for a while. Their opponents before the two from the Canadian oil province were Tampa Bay (fast but not heavy), Washington (fast and reasonably heavy, but not complete like the Wings), and Carolina (come on now). Before that, it was Florida, Tampa and Washington again, and Nashville. Beauchemin commented on that: “Calgary and Edmonton are two good teams, but Detroit is one of the best in the league, and that would be a lot bigger challenge than the last two games, and I thought we responded the right way in the third.”

The Ducks did end up getting the win in a shootout, but only after letting Detroit score the third goal of their night with just four minutes left.

Are they likely to play another team like this anytime soon? Friday they will, as the Kings come to town. Will the intensity be at this pitch? Pundits and marketers who love to hype the Freeway Faceoff would like to think so, but more likely is that the Kings will be saving that game for the playoffs.

In fact, these Wings are exactly the playoff LA Kings come to life, and if the Ducks’ response to the Red Wings on Monday evening is any indication, it will be a hard series if these to get together, one that will have many ups and downs before someone finally moves on.



The Ducks goalie carousel took a turn on the weekend, when Ilya Bryzgalov was placed on waivers, which he cleared. John Gibson played Monday with Jason LaBarbera on the bench for relief duties. It is expected that Freddie Andersen will be back this week.

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My newest book is Facing Wayne Gretzky, an on-ice biography of the person many think to be the greatest hockey player ever.