The Anaheim Ducks are tied with the Los Angeles Kings for first in the Pacific Division in terms of points. The two teams meet today in a battle that will likely help decide who will win the division.
If the Kings win in regulation and then beat the Winnipeg Jets on Saturday, then they will take home the Pacific Division crown. If the Ducks win in regulation, then they could likely win the division with an extra game in hand. And any kind of overtime game tomorrow would mean the winner may not be known until the Ducks finish the season against the Washington Capitals on Sunday.
Winning the division this year could mean more for Anaheim
The Ducks have won their division three seasons in a row and the story has been similar each year. Anaheim has made it one round farther in each of the last three post seasons, but the end result has still been no Stanley Cup Final appearance.
This year may be slightly different for Anaheim however. The past three years Anaheim cruised to winning the division, whereas this season the Ducks have battled from last place in their division to a photo finish with their rivals the Kings. Winning the division alone is probably not a big deal or concern for Anaheim, but when you factor in where the team was and how they could rally from last to first, then there is something to be said for that accomplishment. The Ducks could gain some momentum by beating Los Angeles today and playing well in their final two games. If they Ducks can carry some of that momentum into the playoffs, then the result might be different especially if some key players get healthy in time.
If Anaheim wins the division, then they would play Nashville
Based on the current standings and playoff system, the winner of the Pacific Division would face the Nashville Predators. The Ducks played the Predators three times this season. The Ducks dropped two out of three of the meetings against them this season. The Ducks were blown out 5-1 in the first meeting and lost the last meeting 3-2. The game in between the Ducks won 4-2. Despite the 1-2-0 record against Nashville, it’s difficult to determine how the Ducks would do against them because those games were all played early in the season when Anaheim was struggling to score goals consistently.
For Anaheim to beat Nashville they need to play consistent in the entire series. Lately the Ducks have played well against Calgary and Dallas, but then not as well against Vancouver and Winnipeg. The Ducks are also need to get healthy for the post season. Rickard Rakell and Frederik Andersen are expected to play this weekend hopefully. Kevin Bieksa and Brandon Pirri are both out without a timetable for their return. David Perron is out for maybe a few more weeks.
Another key for Anaheim is how they attack Pekka Rinne. He had played well recently winning 13 of his 15 starts from February 22 through March 26. In his last four starts it has been a different story. He has given up 13 goals in those four contests and only won once. The Ducks need to screen Rinne and get plenty of traffic in front assuming Nashville starts him come playoff time. Rinne may make or break Nashville early in the playoffs.
If Anaheim finishes second or third, then they would face San Jose
If Anaheim faces San Jose, then it would be a more familiar matchup. The teams have played each other four times this season and the Ducks hold a 3-1-0 advantage in the series. The numbers can be a little deceiving as three of the games were decided by one goal and the first meeting was a one goal game until a late empty netter by San Jose. Some might argue that San Jose is a better opponent for Anaheim, but with each game being so close this season, the series may wind up going six or seven games. Anaheim could probably get by San Jose, but a grueling first round series could hinder them later down the road in the playoffs.
Just like if Anaheim faced Nashville, the Ducks need to play consistent and stay healthy if they draw San Jose. The Sharks have won four of their last five games, including beating Los Angeles five to two and Nashville in a shootout. They have been on Anaheim’s heels for second place for the past few weeks. The Ducks would likely face Martin Jones, who has won 36 games on the season, posting a 2.26 goal against average and .918 save percentage. He has been in net in each contest against Anaheim with a 1-3-0 record, but he had one shutout and only gave up one goal in two of the other three contests.
The biggest difference in a series with San Jose would be the physicality. The Ducks and Sharks have had some emotionally charged battles in the regular season and postseasons of the past as well. The Ducks would need to stay out of the penalty box, but at the same time use the forecheck and size to control the tempo of the game. It would be an entertaining series, but it would be an extremely hard fought one.
Strategy as the season ends
Regardless if the Ducks face the Predators or Sharks, they need to focus on their own game in the final three games of the season. The Ducks will need their best against the Kings, which usually happens when the two clubs meet. If the Ducks can win today in regulation, then they can possibly take the division on Saturday and rest some players on Sunday. The Ducks also need to avoid any more injuries and get other players back before the playoffs because neither Nashville or San Jose are going to be easy first round match-ups. If Anaheim can play their game and stay healthy, then their chances of going far in the playoffs significantly increase.