Mishmash Defense

The Ducks have three issues on defense. Cam Fowler is out. Simon Despres is just back from concussion, skating but not playing yet. And Stoner is back, but he’s been off for three games with a lower body injury. Not that the team has done poorly for these circumstances. They were 5-1-1 in the last seven games coming into their Sunday night contest with the Red Wings.

Lots of Wings fans were in attendance, too, and they made their presence felt as period two wound down and their team put on a push. At the time, it was 1-1, and the Wings were shortly to go on the power play. About a minute of this expired before the period did, with no result in the Wings’ favor.

Maybe their lack of scoring could be put down to lack of shot production, with their total standing at 15 through two, to 18 for the Ducks. But more likely, it was the play of John Gibson in the Anaheim net. His numbers through his first 17 games included a 1.82 GAA. He has played 18 of the last 20 Anaheim games now, taking over when Frederik Andersen was sick back in late November. And he was good on this night.

Gibson was named the NHL rookie of the month in December, and he was credited in the local press this week by his teammate Stoner as a netminder with “poise.” In fact, Stoner went so far as to compare his coolness with that of Carey Price, whose merits need no explanation.

Gibson himself is Mr. Cool, at least off the ice. He’s famous for saying little in his press interviews. If you get a minute out of him, it’s a lot.

What’s out front of him these days, given the aforementioned moving parts that are the Anaheim defense, is a mixture that’s constantly changing. Take that second period against the Red Wings. The Ducks used the following combinations: Bieksa and Vatanen. Stoner and Josh Manson. The Bieksa pair again. Then Manson and Hampus Lindholm. The Bieksa pairing again. Then Stoner and Shea Theodore, playing in his seventh NHL game. Then Lindholm and Vatanen. Then Stoner and Vatanen. The only consistent thing there: Bieksa with Vatanen.

But when it was power play time, who appeared? Theodore and Vatanen. Then after they rested, Lindholm appeared with Theodore. Say it this way: you never knew what you were going to get when the next pair jumped on.

The Ducks were able to maintain the advantage in play over the Red Wings regardless, and able to disregard the raucous noise of a building at least 30 percent full of Wings fans amongst the sellout. Anaheim steadily pulled away in shots as period three went on, with the halfway mark showing them at 25 to the Wings’ 19. Meanwhile, the defensive mishmash featured Bieksa/Vatanen more and more, with Manson/Lindholm also often seen.

What makes no sense is that Theodore, who didn’t seem to be much on the ice (and who would have been paired with Stoner if he was, by process of elimination,) recorded 21:19 minutes on the night by the end of the third, with the defensive leader being Vatanen and the low man, by a long shot, Stoner. He played just over 14 minutes.

The team made Biesksa available after the game, and while he didn’t speak particularly about the defense, he did comment on the team’s overall play. “We played a really good game. It was a pretty even game I thought. We had chances to score; they had chances to score. But at the end of the day, we put one in the net. Most nights, that’s not going to be good enough.” The problem wasn’t their one. It was Detroit’s two, with the second scored late and on a mistake. Hold on for a moment and I’ll return to that.

Bieska said that the opposite goalie, Petr Mrazek, was good, but that he also had good luck. (He was, by the way, named thid star of the game.)  “There were a couple of shots that hit him that he didn’t really know. It was one of those nights where I think we were doing the right thing, but the puck didn’t go in the net for us.” He said further that the team is happy with how they’re playing. At this halfway point, they are more consistent than before. “We’re close to putting it together. We’re still in the race right now. We’re playing some good hockey. We just need to get some wins.”

So Cal hockey a night prior to this had featured the Kings and Blues playing to a 1-1 tie followed by a long shootout. Boring hockey it was, with each team locking up on defense and few chances offered. The Ducks might play a 1-1 game on any given night as well, but they do it with more flair. They fling the puck in faster, chase it harder, and generally take more chances. Even if nothing gets by the other goalie, it’s interesting to watch, if at times a little bit frightening.

The two teams coming in had much different goal differential numbers. The Red Wings had scored 102 goals and given up 105. The Ducks had scored 75 and given up 95. These awful numbers were would put them at the bottom of any other division except the Metropolitan, where Columbus sits at a woeful -31. But in the Pacific, the Anaheim team came into the night sitting just one point out of the playoffs in fourth, behind Vancouver. They exited it right where they had been, because the game was lost with just over four minutes to play on a dead giveaway by Ryan Getzlaf.

He was headed back across his blueline to corral a puck when Dylan Larkin tied him up and stole the puck. He then passed it to Riley Sheahan, who went in on net to score.

That’s what it looked like, but it’s not the whole story. The goal was a series of mistakes, two by defensemen Stoner and Theodore followed by that by Getzlaf and then, to cap it off, Gibson. Here’s more detail:

Stoner failed to hold the puck in at the Detroit blueline. Then Larkin chased down Theodore at the Ducks’ blueline and forced him to make a weak clear. Then Getzlaf tried to corral it instead of tipping it up behind him. That led to the puck entering the Ducks’ zone and Sheanan shoving Getzlaf off the puck. Larkin picked it up and passed it back to Sheahan, who redirected it into the net. Gibson, on the play, seemed to be heading to his left, but then he flopped and tried to get back a bit right, and in that split second that he went down, the puck was under his five-hole. Summarize it like this: mistake, mistake, good play, mistake, good play, mistake.

Getzlaf said after, “The puck got away from me a little bit. I need to make a better play, simple as that. I thought [Sheahan] was coming on this side, so I tried to protect it a bit. When I did, it got away from me and ended up in the back of the net.”

Sheahan was honest about the goal: It just came on a broken play . . . . I don’t think the goalie was really ready for it.”

The Ducks needed these two points, or at least the one that they appeared like they would get as the game wound down. They ended up with nothing, but they’re at least keeping a good face about it.

Their coach, Bruce Boudreau, called what they’re in right now a “playoff race” (true, but as has been noted here and in prior stories, only by virtue of the Pacific being so bad. In any other conference, the Ducks would be 7th (Atlantic), eighth (Metropolitan) or tied for 7th (Central).)

He was also generally upbeat about how things had gone during the night. “We were trying, trying to get pucks to the net so you have second chances. Hagelin had a couple. Cogliano had a couple going to the net. Horcoff had a couple. It’s just, you know, Thompson hits the crossbar. Corey [Perry] hits the post; Getzlaf hits the post. We’re gonna go back to the drawing board and we’re going to work our butts off for the next game, but that’s what happens.”

He said further that he doesn’t like to think about third place. “When you do that, you almost make it, and then you end up fourth.” But he said, “We’re a much better team [than early on]. Much more cohesive. I think we play a better team game all around than we did in the first two weeks, and I think we’re in a lot better shape.”

But he also cited the team’s goal scoring average, which is still at less than two per game, as their trouble. “The margin of error is very slim when you’re averaging less than two goals a game for. I mean, we had opportunities to score, but we just didn’t finish. I thought for sure that game would be taken into overtime.”

Boudreau further said that Getzlaf is just having one of those years. “In other years, he could make these mistakes and nothing would happen. It just seems like this year, there’s that dark cloud, and when he makes a mistake, no matter how well he’s played during the course of the game, it seems to cost us.”

“It’s a good thing we have two days before the next game, because in a playoff race, like this, the losses are tough.” He ended by citing the pushback that his team had when scored upon. “We’re trying to be way more defiant. I think if we would have had three or four minutes, we would have tied it.”

Would have maybe, but it should have been 1-1 down the buzzer. The Ducks won’t remember that, though, if they’re scrambling to get into the post-season weeks from now, when a point might make all the difference.

Ducks Notes

The team now plays Ottawa at home Wednesday and Dallas Friday.

Corey Perry was unavailable for media after the game because he was having extensive work on his mouth after taking a late high stick.

Even if you’re a Ducks fan, you gotta know about Wayne Gretzky. Read about him in my book, Facing Wayne Gretzky. Or read about a hockey everyman in Growing Up Hockey. Then let me know @growinguphockey. Thanks!