The Anaheim Ducks were up by six goals from last year through their first six games of the year. They looked to push this advantage playing their third game of the year against the Winnipeg Jets in Anaheim on Tuesday night. It would be the first of two games at home after having played four on the road in the prior week, to a road record of 1-2-1. That’s not fantastic. But the Ducks are facing only tough opponents early, playing what coach Dallas Eakins described as “heavy” teams.
Their overall strategy has been overhauled by Eakins and his three new assistant coaches. The strategy has been to activate the defense in order to generate goals, and that’s working. The Ducks came into the game with their defense scoring 29.4% of the team’s goals, a league-leading stat. They got one more goal, from Josh Manson, from the backline, and now 17 points have come from the blueline this year.
This has had the side effect of taking the pressure off their goalies, who now don’t have to plan on letting in no more than a single goal in order to assure a win.
But gaining offense from the defense has the opposite effect at times of allowing the opponents to score more. Hence scores like giving up six goals to Edmonton, five to Winnipeg, and now, on this night, four more to Winnipeg.
Yup, that’s right. If you turned off your TV with three minutes to go and the Ducks up 3-2, you didn’t see anything, because the Jets got two goals within nineteen seconds, starting with the tying goal at 18:40 of the third and culminating in a closing goal being scored with just over a minute to go to seal the win for the visitors.
What happened? Two faceoff wins by Andrew Copp off the left dot, and swift plays to the net that beat John Gibson. This after Trevor Zegras scored a goal that would appear to have won it when he made it 3-2 with his first of the year at just past the eight-minute mark of the third period. That one was a beauty.
Zegras came flying off the bench down the slot, got a blind back pass out of the corner from Sonny Milano, and buried a classic wrister. Milano’s assist added to his goal on the night, his first of the year and the one that tied the game 1-1 early in period two after there had been no scoring in the first frame.
So the Ducks were ahead, and in control, as they had been for much of the night. Then came the last bit.
The collapse at the end notwithstanding, some excellent control and speed came from a team that was supposed to be awful, since their strategy of bringing up their youngsters didn’t seem to translate into scoring.
But what you’re seeing now is actually the fruition of that plan, with exciting youngsters Jamie Drysdale and Zegras being complemented by the maturing Troy Terry and newcomer Bo Groulx, not to mention MIlano.
Zegras was playing with an energized Adam Henrique and Rickard Rakell through the middle part of the game, but made his magic with Milano, a concussion victim last year who has recovered and played mostly with Silfverberg and Troy Terry.
The Ducks came out hard. They were ahead in shots, 4-1, with three minutes gone. By eight minutes, it was 8-2, helped by an Anaheim power play. That part of the game, you might recall, was historically bad last year, 8.9% efficient. This year, thus far, the Ducks are above 30%, though on the night, the Ducks were zero for three, having scored 6 power play goals in 6 games to start the year.
Anaheim is getting scoring from their veterans, with Rickard Rakell having scored four goals in the first six games, but none on the night. Adam Henrique had perhaps the best chance amongst the vets against the Jets, going into the Winnipeg zone at one point in P3, stealing a puck by lifting a Jet’s stick, and then going across the zone for a shot. Hellebuyck made the save with a pad, and Henrique got to the rebound, but shot it wide.
So the Ducks had everything going for them: Milano was on, Zegras, too. They got a goal from the blueline. They took a late lead. And then that final minute happened, and undid it all.
After the game, Zegras said, “We’re great at getting the lead. We’re great at playing two-thirds of a period, but it’s that last five minutes that are giving us a little bit of trouble right now, but we know it. We’re going to learn from it and move on.”
Milano said much the same: “We played great until the last minute.” He went on to discuss his chemistry with Zegras, suggesting that they are similar players, and yet at the end, he went back to the loss. “We’re looking good . . . we’re looking better, but we still got to finish the game.” He later said it again: “We just have to finish that game off the right way.”
The Ducks are now 2-4-1, with young players figuring in the scoring on an almost nightly basis and the veterans charging as well, unlike last year. But collapses in games where they outshoot opponents 35-25 as they did on this night are going to make for a long season. They were so close to the victory, but Nick Ehlers, who scored the final two Winnipeg goals, thought otherwise.
Brian Kennedy is a member of the Professional Hockey Writers Association.