A Guest Post by Brian Kennedy
Two stories are converging in Anaheim as the Ducks continue a strong push toward the playoffs after having gotten off to a horrid start.
One is that Jonas Hiller is lights-out great almost every night. The highlight of the year so far, perhaps, was his performance on January 9th versus the San Jose Sharks. In fact, both he and his counterpart in the other net were amazing. Hiller faced 37 shots in shutting out the Sharks, one of four blankings he has given other teams this year.
The other thing to note about the team right now is that they continue to play without standout center and Captain Ryan Getzlaf, who has been on IR since late December with non-displaced sinus fractures.
Before he left, the team had lost two straight and four of five. They won the game he got hurt in, playing in Phoenix, and then reeled off nine other wins against three losses. In terms of month-to-month play, the team was the best ever in January, their .727 win percentage (8-3-0) a club record for the month. The previous best was .692 (7-2-4), set in 2005-06.
Both Hiller’s momentum and their success despite being captainless changed in the night following the all-star break, as they were drop-kicked into next week by the San Jose Sharks. The score was 4-3, but as their coach said after the game, “I just didn’t think we had enough, early enough and often enough.” He also commented, “From an execution standpoint, we were behind. [Even] later in the game, we weren’t sharp with the puck. It’s very frustrating from the point of view of the coaching staff, since we haven’t done that kind of thing in a long, long time.”
The odd thing about the team’s season so far is that they have found themselves in the playoff picture for most of the time since the early days even though they began with three losses and just three points out of the first ten available to them. One factor which has made it hard to judge their real progress, however, has been that the Ducks have an odd schedule this year which saw them play as many as four more games as some other teams before the first half of the season had gone by.
This made for a strange skewing of the results when one looked at the standings, and it had to be remembered constantly that the team was not really where it looked like they were, which would become clear when the other teams played more games. Now, that has all but corrected itself, with the Ducks playing their 53rd game Wednesday night and those squads which surround them in the standings having played anywhere from 51 to 52.
Finally, then, Ducks’ followers don’t have to perform corrective math when reviewing the standings, and given that their team has been on a roll of four wins out of five games (four of six after the evening’s play), they can at last believe that maybe, the playoffs are a real possibility. But only if the team doesn’t let the funk of the post-break loss to the San Jose Sharks get them down.
What might rally them is to get Mr. Getzlaf back. It’s not that the team has been bad without him, as was said. They are getting scoring from their blueline (Fowler has five goals and 26
points; Visnovsky eight and 35), and from other forwards (Selanne has 15 goals; Perry 25, Ryan 22, Koivu 11 and Blake ten). That kind of balance would be the envy of a lot of clubs, not the least of whom is the cross-town Kings, whose season has been up and down and who can’t put the puck in the net with any consistency.
But Wednesday night if not before, his presence was badly missed. The team came out flat, letting San Jose march into their end and stuff it behind goaltender Hiller at the 14-second mark. As if that wasn’t bad enough, the goal came on the Sharks’ third shot, one by Thornton, two by Heatley, the second of which went between Hiller’s legs.
The Ducks should have had extra incentive against the Sharks, since a San Jose win would tie the two teams in points with 60. In addition was the fact that after this game, the Ducks would pack bags and head out for four games, albeit the furthest away being in Edmonton.
If Hiller was amazing the last time he faced these Sharks, he was anything but that Wednesday. Chased after ten shots, and three goals allowed, he had been beaten on two that were definitely “I need that back” types. The first of those (second goal overall) was a wrister from just inside the blueline fired by Ben Eager as he came down the wing. It was a long one, and it clanked in off the far side post, so you might call it a perfect shot.
Or you might tell the truth—Hiller was, for whatever reason, cheating to his right, and he left a gap just a little too big on the long side. As he described it after the game, “I don’t know if it went off Lubo [Visnovsky]. I was surprised it went blocker [left] side. I thought it would go the other side, so it caught me on the wrong foot.”
The third goal, scored just past halfway in the first period, was a long, low wrister that might have been hard to see but shouldn’t have gone in either. Curtis McElhinney came on in relief, no doubt hoping to improve his 3-4-1 record but with nothing much to lose unless the Ducks could get some scoring going. They did, but he lost anyway.
Coach Carlyle didn’t blame the starting goaltender for the loss. “He’s played some outstanding goal for our hockey club, so we should have rallied around and fought for him. That was my message and my belief, is that we’ve got a guy here who’s played very well for our hockey club, and just because things didn’t go his way, it was our responsibility to pick up the slack.”
The Ducks managed to get it to 3-1, then saw San Jose go ahead 4-1. The Ducks closed to 4-2 before the second period ended, and got another goal early in the third to make it 4-3. But they couldn’t get another past San Jose netminder Antti Niemi, who stopped 27 of the 30 shots he faced.
McElhinney, who played just over 48 minutes, had eighteen shots come his way, and he nabbed all but one. But since his team erased the three-goal deficit he had started with, he ended up with the loss.
The Ducks now leave town for a couple of weeks, but play only four games in that time. Coming home won’t be a lot of fun, either, as the next opponent in town are the Washington Capitals.
Getzlaf, for his part, is skating in practice and may come back after missing another game or two.