After a historic comeback win Monday night against the Winnipeg Jets, the Anaheim Ducks set a franchise record for most wins with 49. They reached the 50-win plateau last night with six games to go in ’13-’14. One of six teams to already clinch a playoff berth in the West, the Ducks are almost assured one of the top three spots in the conference and home-ice advantage.
What’s unsure is who the Ducks will face in the first round. Besides a likely first-round duel between Colorado and Chicago (everyone should be excited for that one), the bottom seeds will be jockeying for position until the final game of the season.
Unless there’s a radical change, like Vancouver running the table or some teams suffering Maple Leaf-like collapses, the Ducks are likely to play one of Los Angeles, Minnesota, Phoenix, or Dallas. Home ice will certainly be an advantage as Anaheim is an imposing 26-7-4 at the pond this year as they look to push past the conference quarter-finals for the first time since 2009.
So which potential first round opponent gives the Ducks the best chance of advancing? Here’s the breakdown:
Los Angeles Kings – 6th in the West
Ducks’ Record Head-to-head: 3-0-1
Random stat: The Ducks’ PK has performed at 94% efficiency against the Kings this season.
Of the four teams Anaheim could draw in the first round, the Kings are the biggest threat. Really, it doesn’t matter who lines up against the Kings first, as they’re a tough first round opponent for any team. They have a complete team – tons of playoff experience, depth throughout their lines, a stud defenseman in Drew Doughty, and ex-Conn Smythe winner/current superhero Jonathan Quick.
Sure, the Ducks have had the Kings number this year, going 3-0-1 in the regular season despite being out shot 156-90 in those games. But the playoffs are a different animal, with Quick’s propensity for stealing games and coach Darryl Sutter’s defensive, grinding system, which is tailored for postseason hockey. Their record against L.A. is irrelevant after game 82.
The Ducks can match-up with L.A.’s scoring up front but their defence will have a much tougher time containing the Kings’ scorers. Anaheim doesn’t have the depth or quality L.A. can ice on the backend. Getzlaf and Perry will see a ton of Doughty which is a daunting task for the big duo, while Anze Kopitar, Marian Gaborik, and Jeff Carter will be a handful to contain for guys like Cam Fowler, Francois Beauchemin, and Ben Lovejoy. The addition of Stephane Robidas at the deadline helps, but isn’t enough to shutdown the Kings for seven games.
Verdict: Similar to every other team in the upper echelon of the West, the Kings are the worst first round match-up. With all their experience, depth, and ‘playoff’ system, the Ducks will get ground up in a physical seven-game series. This would be like the Kings vs. Blues last season.
Minnesota Wild – 7th in the West
Random stat: Zach Parise tallied five points (3G, 2A) against the Ducks this year.
Despite the winning record, the Wild have competed well with the Ducks this season. Both teams have eight goals apiece against one another with Minny having the slight edge in shots, 94-90. Even faceoffs there isn’t much between them, at 105-91 in favour of the Wild.
Minnesota is an inconsistent team, but when they put it together, they boast impressive scoring on three lines. Zach Parise is a game-breaker. Mikko Koivu is as steady as they come and can lineup against Getzlaf. Matt Moulson has added solid secondary scoring. They have their own Drew Doughty in Ryan Suter, who sees so much ice time he probably skates more than he walks.
Having said that, the Wild have a few weaknesses that play into the Ducks’ strengths. Similar to facing L.A., the Ducks’ forwards can give the Wild fits in their own end. Outside of Suter and Jonas Brodin and maybe Marco Scandella, they don’t have guys who can shutdown monster forwards. And you know they’ll be peppering the Minnesota goalies with haze of uncertainty there. Can the untested Darcy Kuemper or ‘Mr. Universe’ Ilya Bryzgalov keep Anaheim at bay?
Verdict: The Wild are the second most favourable match-up for the Ducks. Minny has studs like Parise and Suter who can swing a series, but Anaheim’s incredible depth should overwhelm Minnesota’s backline. It heavily swings to the Ducks’ favour when the goalies are considered – Jonas Hiller is simply in another class compared to the Kuemper/Bryzgalov tandem. So unless Ryan Suter can skate 40 minutes a night (which may be a poor choice of words, because he can), the Ducks should have no problem advancing to the second round.
Phoenix Coyotes – 8th in the West
Random stat: Anaheim outscored Phoenix 20-11 in the five games.
I’ll start by saying the Coyotes are the most favourable first round match-up for the Ducks. They went 5-0 against them this season for a reason. With how both teams are built, the Desert Dogs matchup poorly to their Pacific Division rivals.
One of the weaknesses of the Ducks is they don’t feature a stud defenseman to shutdown premier offensive talents. Fortunately, Phoenix doesn’t have one of those players, at least up front. With their offence by committee, coach Bruce Boudreau will have an easier time matching lines as no single player on Phoenix can break a game open by himself. So their defense shouldn’t be exposed too often, and if they are, Hiller is nice insurance.
The Ducks will have to figure out Canadian Olympian Mike Smith, who was sensational down the stretch before getting injured. The tandem of Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Keith Yandle are deadly puck movers, but Yandle in particular can be exposed in the defensive third. Martin Hanzal is underrated and has the size and smarts to skate with Getzlaf, but he’ll have to ignore offence completely to slow down the NHL’s second leading scorer.
Verdict: The Ducks should pray for Phoenix in the conference quarters. Phoenix’s collection of scorers is average and they won’t have the defensive depth to deny Anaheim. Assuming the best case scenario, where Hanzal can keep Getzlaf quiet, the Ducks’ offense will overwhelm. They can still throw out guys like Mathieu Perreault, who led the team in scoring over the five games.
Dallas Stars – 9th in the West
Random stat: Jonas Hiller is 0-2-0 with a 3.91 GAA and .871% against the Stars; Kari Lehtonen hasn’t played the Ducks this year.
They’re on the outside looking in right now, but the Stars would be a threat if they snuck into the postseason. Both teams are mirror images of themselves – a dominant top line, surprising scoring depth, an unspectacular defence corps, and spectacular goaltending. The top lines are a wash – the Jamie Benn/Tyler Seguin combo is as strong as any in the league. Benn is a Getzlaf clone with a greater perchance for tickling twine. Seguin is a dynamic scorer who will be a huge match-up problem.
The defence and goaltending are on par with one another (even though Hiller’s numbers have been horrific) so there’s no distinct advantage for any team. Dallas does have the edge in the grit department up front, and that’s where the match-up is troublesome. The Ducks don’t have a pest like Antoine Roussel or an agitator/enforcer like Ryan Garbutt. In a seven game series where you get to know your opponent very well, those two will be in the Anaheim’s players heads, throwing them off their game. Roussel in particular will have a target on his back by series end. The pestering, physical play of the Stars’ characters guys (who can score, Cody Eakin being another example) is an element the Ducks don’t possess and match-up poorly against.
Verdict: After L.A., the Stars are a close second for the Ducks in first round match-ups to avoid. Both teams have similar makeups, but the Stars’ forwards are more tailored to playoff-style hockey. And though he hasn’t suited up for a game against the Ducks this year, Kari Lehtonen is a goalie you don’t want to meet – or underestimate – in the first round.