Don’t look now, but the once struggling Anaheim Ducks are two points behind Los Angeles for the Pacific Division lead. The Pacific might be the National Hockey League’s weakest, but in Los Angeles and Anaheim you have two teams that have represented that Division for the past four seasons, with the Kings wining two Stanley Cups.
Is anyone surprised? Did you really think Anaheim was a goner, despite the fact the Ducks were dead last in the Pacific at the Christmas break?
“It was miserable. The first three months of the season were pretty tough on everyone,” said Ryan Getzlaf, who had one goal to that point. “We figured it couldn’t go on forever like that, but we’d dug ourselves a pretty big hole. It was nice to get out of that and get back in a rhythm again.”
The Ducks players took a while, but they finally bought into head coach Bruce Boudreau’s check-to-win philosophy.
If they weren’t going to score, he reasoned, then they’d better not allow many. Now the puck’s going in a bit more at the other end, but Anaheim is playing the staunch defensive game they’ll need to get through Los Angeles, should they meet in Round 2 this spring.
The Ducks just closed a seven-game road trip that began with a 6-2 loss at Pittsburgh. Anaheim rolled of the final six games at 5-0-1, sweeping through Western Canada like a hot knife through butter.
“Other than allowing four goals (in Calgary) and six in Pittsburgh, we’ve been pretty consistent (allowing) two, one, or the odd three,” Boudreau said. “We’re (seventh) in the league defensively, and when we were not playing well we were, like, 23rd, 24th. Last year we were 20th in the league.”
Anaheim lost contributory offence in Kyle Palmieri and Matt Beleskey last summer. They thought Carl Hagelin would work but he didn’t, so he was shipped out for David Perron, the former Blue and Oiler who has 6-7-13 in 14 games as a Duck.
Meanwhile, Boudreau has split up Getzlaf and Perry, a move that has confounded opposing coaches. “When you have them on different lines, it’s hard to put your (top pair) against both of them,” Boudreau figured. “Now, Perry has found chemistry with (Rickard) Rakell, and Getzlaf has found chemistry with Perron.”
The Ducks still need another scoring winger to make a run, we reckon. How good would Andrew Ladd look on the left wing down in Anaheim?
With so many young defencemen in Anaheim — and two more good ones in the system in Jacob Larsen and Brandon Montour — GM Bob Murray could snap his fingers and have a Ladd, a Jordan Eberle, or a host of gifted wingers on the Feb. 29 Trading Deadline. What about Radim Vrbata in Vancouver?
It just depends on how desperate the Ducks, who have stood by while Chicago and L.A. split up the Cup parades for the five of the past six years, are to win one themselves?
Kings getting crowned
Speaking of Los Angeles, they lost a tough, 2-1 game to St. Louis in overtime Thursday. It was playoff hockey in February, according to eye witnesses.
“It was a fun hockey game to be a part of,” said defenceman Drew Doughty, who played a career-high 35:06 on the night. “It wasn’t the outcome we wanted. But that was a man's game out there tonight — the type of game the Kings like to be in.”
Los Angeles has frittered away a huge lead in the Pacific. They’ve won just four of their past 12 games, going 4-7-1. And captain Anze Kopitar left after the first period in St. Louis. No word yet on the duration of his absence, but if it’s serious, L.A. is in trouble.
Cradle of Filth
Janne Niinimaa, a huge death metal fan, blew through Edmonton this week. The former NHL defenceman is working for Finnish TV, so we asked him about the two up and coming Finns for the 2016 drat: Patrik Laine and Jesse Puljujarvi.
Which one of the 6-foot-3 wingers — slated to go at No. 2 and 3 behind Auston Matthews — is better?
“At the moment Laine is better. But long-term, Puljujarvi is going to be a more complete player,” said Niinimaa, who played 741 games for Philadelphia, Edmonton, the Islanders, Montreal and Dallas. “Laine is all offence — he’s an artist kind of guy. He skates like (Mario) Lemieux, the way he (has such a wide) stride on the ice. But Puljujarvi is unbelievable. He’s a small-town kid, works hard… More of a Finn. He’s got the whole package but he’s not mature yet. He’s like Jere Lehtinen, but with a bit more offensive upside.”
Niinimaa also reports that former NHLer Joni Pitkanen is back playing professionally in Finland. He left the NHL in a bad way after shattering his heel with Carolina. He won’t be coming back to the NHL though, Niinimaa predicted. Perhaps Pitkanen, who is 32, joins Jokerit, which competes in the KHL now.
Rolling up his sleeves
Speaking of the Oilers, who reside in 29th place again at the time of this writing, you can see a change in Todd McLellan’s post-game media briefings as the losses mount in Edmonton.
He’s getting to the place Oilers fans — and former coaches — have been at for a long time. The realization that, no matter how many years the losing has gone on in Edmonton, the distance between here and playing contending hockey is still a long one. The “fix” isn’t small, and the questions are many surrounding core players who have been through all of that losing.
“We knew what we were getting into,” McLellan said this week. He spoke about all the previous coaches in Edmonton, and the players who’ve heard similar instructions from all of them, yet still make the same mistakes.
“At what point do you lay down in bed at night and go, ‘Maybe there is something there? Maybe I do need to change a certain part of my game?’ You either have the skill, the will, the ability to make the change, or you don’t. And if you don’t, is it because you’re delinquent? Or is it just because you’re not good enough?”
McLellan knows how much work lies ahead in Edmonton, to the point where he didn’t grouse loudly despite a profoundly poor call that cost the Oilers an important goal in a loss to Minnesota.
“When we start winning more games,” he said wisely, “I’ll start questioning more calls.”
Stupid refs, stupid media
The Dennis Wideman-Don Henderson incident has been, if nothing else, instructive. Who knew the league had the right to basically subpoena a player’s phone for text messages? Or that players actually texted things like, “The only reason I’m here is cause the stupid refs and stupid media.”
(OK, that’s not so surprising.)
Most players — and people in the hockey world — had no idea that the NHL has access to text messages between players. But you can be sure that the CBA allows it, or the NHLPA would never have allowed the league to access Wideman’s cell phone.
Indeed, the Collective Bargaining Agreement references “evidence or information obtained in Player or non-Player interviews or communications,” along with this tract: “The Commissioner shall have the authority to consider any evidence relating to the incident even if such evidence was not available at the time of the initial Supplementary Discipline for On-Ice Conduct decision.”
I suppose you could wonder, what if they found a text from Wideman admitting that he wasn’t ever concussed? That would be pretty useful evidence, something the appeal process should be privy to.
In the meantime, you can bet that players who mostly pay very little attention to the details of the CBA — other than the part about escrow — will pay a little closer attention now.
“We will have to be cognizant in the future,” Colborne told Sportsnet’s Roger Millions. “I guess you can’t be texting teammates too often anymore.”