Center Mike Ribeiro (#63) of the Nashville Predators gets ready to take a face-off

Lesser Lights Dominate for Ducks

The Ducks played Nashville late Sunday afternoon to determine which team would pull ahead of the other in what had been earlier in the day a four-way tie for the top spot in the NHL. The other two clubs knotted at 93 were the Rangers and Montreal, neither of whom played on Sunday. (The evening would end with one more club on 93, St. Louis, having won against Dallas.) Each of the Preds and Ducks was coming off a 2-1 win. For the Ducks, away Friday in Minnesota, and for the Predators, Saturday night in Los Angeles. The outcome of the game, obviously, was going to leave one team king of the league, for the moment.

Storylines coming in for Anaheim were several, and each ended up playing into the big story of the game, so here’s a rundown.

1. If the Ducks end up stretching it out and winning the President’s trophy, will their coach be happy? “Not one iota,” or at least, he said those words this week in response to a media member’s question about whether he cares about the honor. He went on to say that he’d won it in Washington and that it hadn’t done him a bit of good. But here’s the best insight, as he said it to the LA Times: “[T]hree days after you win it, no one cares because the playoffs start.” Good point.

After the game, which the Ducks won 4-2 after trailing 2-0, he said this about his team’s performance looking forward. “I used to have a coach who said it’s not like a faucet—you can’t turn it on and off whenever you want. If you take your foot off the pedal, you might not be able to find that pedal again, so you’ve gotta start playing the right way all the time. . . . It looks like we’ve been struggling, but we’ve won nine of our last 13, and the games that we’ve won, our goals against is under two, so that’s’ what we want. I think we’re in the right direction, and we’ve got to keep it going.”

On the matter of the President’s trophy, team Captain Ryan Getzlaf also weighed in: “We want to just stay at an even keel here, play the whole game the right way. I think it’s important [to be first] come playoff time. But it’s about the process. But if we go out and win ten games in a row and get on a high, I’ll take that any day and finish first, playing the right way and getting the wins when we can.” He said about the trophy in particular, “this year we’re going to find out [if it’s a curse]. You’ve got six teams that could win the President’s trophy. I don’t think that happens very often.”

2. Would Matt Beleskey quickly find his form? Beleskey recently missed a dozen games due to a shoulder injury. Coming back, he played 14:20 versus the Wild, and recorded three shots and five hits. The next closest player in the hits category was Nate Thompson, with four, and nobody else on the team had more than two. In fact, it wasn’t all that physical a game as measured that way, with just 22 for the Ducks and 14 for the Wild.

Beleskey finds himself with 21 goals and 30 points in his 57 games entering Sunday, surely a bit of a surprise to his coach. His place in the lineup finds him on the first line, with Getzlaf and Perry, and his place there is just what it was before he was out. He bangs and crashes, gets to the corner, and feeds the puck out where it needs to be.

He was a bit off on his timing on a one-timer that came to him out of the corner in period one, not quite adjusting enough to get a shot away. The double-clutch ended up costing him the wrister, with the puck getting grabbed off his stick as he went to shoot it. But in addition, he was busy checking, poke-checking, and shoulder-checking in the Nashville zone, no sign of worry about the shoulder apparent. He also ran Taylor Beck from behind in front of the Anaheim net as the whistle blew, knocking him over. Same old rough-tough Beleskey as the one who got hurt those weeks ago. And for all that, he got moved off the line. More in a moment.

With Beleskey back, incidentally, someone had to sit. That person on Friday was Patrick Maroon, partly, perhaps, due to the fact that the Wild weren’t expected to put up much of a roughneck game (which they didn’t). But interesting in that regard is that right off the bat, ten seconds in, there was a fight, with Clayton Stoner engaging Chris Stewart. Reportedly, Boudreau at first thought that it was Beleskey tussling, which he wasn’t comfortable with. Stoner got into it, he later said, because Stewart had challenged him in order to get his team riled up. Both sides were energized, apparently, by the scrap. As said earlier, Maroon was back for the Nashville game. More on below, but here’s a clue: he ended up taking over from Beleskey on the top line.

3. How would the new guys do? One was James Wiskniewski, a defenseman with size and toughness, character and all that, but someone who doesn’t always remember to actually play defense in his own zone. The Ducks, of course, know all about the man, since he’s been in Anaheim before. Here’s a quick few impressions based on his play on Sunday evening:

Wisniewski, never short on confidence, can be counted on to skate the puck out of his own zone often, rather than passing it. This is not a liability, because it allows his forwards, who recognize that they don’t have to hang inside the blueline, to be at center by the time he gets to his blueline.

Wisniewski was paired on the evening with Cam Fowler, obviously a compliment to his talent, and creating an amazingly mobile pairing. Fowler himself is not fearful to skate the puck, often in the past using the end-to-end rush. He’s not so prone to do that now as he was a year or two ago, but it’s still not unheard of.

In the second period, Wisniewski was seen battling with a Nashville player in front of the net. He got knocked down, but two seconds later, he had picked up the puck and skated it out of his zone. Later in the frame, he pinched down in the Nashville zone and kept a puck in—somewhat luckily, off his foot—and then on the same play was back in front of his own net delivering a cross check to the back of a Nashville player, one that he got away with.

In the third, Wisniewski played with danger. He got a good slapshot on net on a power play, but on a subsequent play, he danced along the blueline with the puck with Mike Fisher right on him. He got away with it, but a quick flick of Fisher’s wrist, and it would have been down the ice on goal and possibly a tie game. At this point, the Ducks had scored three unanswered goals to get to 3-2.

Another newcomer is Tomas Fleischmann, who finds himself on the left wing of the Ducks’ second line, centered by Ryan Kesler. Since he’s been with the Ducks (six games before Sunday), he has pitched in with just one goal and one assist, but he said in the papers this week that he’s looking forward to the chemistry developing with Kesler.

His play on Sunday, well, it wasn’t. In making room for everyone, someone must be left out each night, and on Sunday, that someone was Fleischmann. So much for alchemy.

In his place was Patrick Maroon, whose presence on the Kesler line makes them formidable in terms of size and toughness. Two of them (obviously the two not named “Silfverberg”) will drop the gloves with near-to-no provocation. Maroon also gives size and a presence in the corners. But at least early on on Sunday, he was trying to do too much, and got caught up-ice on the right side when he needed to be getting back. His being slow to get back and onto his side of the ice meant that when Nashville turned the puck over to the Ducks in the Anaheim end, there was nobody for the defenseman to outlet to. But on the positive side, this line was responsible for mucking in the corner for the puck in period one versus Nashville, and their efforts at keeping the play alive allowed them to draw a penalty against Nashville.

In period two, Maroon found himself part of a grand line-mixing experiment by Coach Boudreau. He was with Getzlaf and Perry for much of the period. Why did the coach shift things around so much? “It’s my job to look at how the game is going, and . . . see who’s playing well and who’s not playing well, If I see one guy not going and we’re losing, and another guy on another line is going well and maybe his partners aren’t going well, I’m gonna switch to try to see if I can’t get them going. It’s not something you want to do, because when we’re winning, you never do it. We just roll four lines. But when we’re losing, you got to do something, or you’re going to get the same losing results.”

The results were a monster night for Maroon, who ended with two assists (on goals one and three). He was successful because he stayed on the boards, took the puck behind the net, and crashed and cycled. He then was able to feed it to his skilled (new) linemates. After the game, IH talked to him about his play, starting with how he found out he was moving up the lineup. “The coach is trying to get things going, trying to get the guys going, and then I figure it out. When I find out I’m playing up there, I’ve got to just keep going hard. If things go well, I just keep going and keep playing hard.” OK, so that got to cliché and repetition at the end, but you get the point. Anyway, he had to rush some sticks over to Getzlaf for autographing, so that was the end.

“I had been getting away from protecting pucks. I wasn’t playing good at all,” he had earlier said in response to a question about whether being a healthy scratch had been a good thing.

Yet another new player is Jiri Sekac, who came in from Montreal for Smith-Pelly, and he has found a home on the fourth line. He’s getting about 12 or 13 minutes a game, but it’s perhaps notable that those have gone down over the past few nights, including just seven on Friday evening. His production totaled to three assists in nine games before Sunday.

He was on the fourth line with Thompson and Etem, and they crashed and banged and created a chance in period one. In P2, with Boudreau seeking offense, it was Etem and Sekac with Rackell, because Thompson found himself moved up to play with Cogliano and Silfverberg (on a line, in other words, which had one guy from each of lines two, three, and four from the start of the evening). Later on, in period three, Thompson would score what would eventually be the winning goal, from Silfverberg and Lindholm with Cogliano on the line as the other forward.

And the final newbie (at least on this list; there’s also Korbinian Holzer, who has not played since he came over from the Leafs’ organization. Or disorganization, if you prefer) to the Ducks is Simon Despres, another D-man.

How’d Mr. Despres do? He was paired with Clayton Stoner on defense, what might be called the Ducks’ third pairing. Again, one game doesn’t tell the tale, but here are is one notable scene from his evening against Nashville. In period one, he got beaten for a loose puck at the Nashville blueline, with the Preds player taking off down the ice, Sekac hooking away. He wasn’t called, nor for knocking the player to his knees from behind. Odd in that almost every time such a play happens, the defender ends up sitting.

4. And one more thing to look at—Jakob Silfverberg and his scoring. He got a goal on Friday evening, his 11th of the year, and the 31st of his career in 169 games. His points total is now 75 in those games, so roughly half a point a game. His total for this year is right on average, 33 in 69 games, but he told local reporters this week that he is feeling more confident and believes further scoring is in his future. He is showing that by holding onto the puck, dishing it to the front effectively on that Kesler line.

Sunday, he was not able to put one in the net, though he did get the primary assist on the Thompson goal. This after the Ducks recorded just three shots in period two after opening with ten. Those three, by the way, came after the middle of the period. They got their four goals in P3 on the strength of 15 shots. Nashville answered with just four.

Ducks Notes

Scratched on Sunday evening were Korbinian Holzer and Fleischmann. Attendance announced was 17,295, a late-arriving crowd despite the 5pm start and the absence of traffic on the freeways.

The team plays again on Wednesday night, against the Kings.

My newest book, Facing Wayne Gretzky, is reviewed in The Hockey News, cover date of March 9th. Please check out the book.