So...... has anyone looked at the upcoming schedule for this week recently? It's CRAZY! Technically it started with yesterday's game against Calgary, but that only serves to set the stage. Starting tonight, the second of back to backs, the Ducks will play the only three teams ahead of them in the standings (San Jose, Chicago and St. Louis) plus the Kings, who are only three points back, within the next eight days. Also, the Chicago and St. Louis games are back to back on the road.
If you thought playing eight road games in 15 days was a tough test of the schedule, try four of the best teams in the league stacked one after another in the same week. This is an enormous test for the Ducks and the way they've been playing recently, I'm not all that optimistic.
Keys to the Game: Ranking third in the league in goals per game (3.44) and fifth in team goals against (2.12) the Sharks are pretty darn good at the ice hockey right now. Taking a peek at the individual stats for a moment, Tomas Hertl leads the team with 13 goals and Joe Thornton has a hilariously lopsided stat line of 4-24-28. When I saw that, I thought those two things must be connected. But it turns out Thornton has only assisted on five of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Hertl's 13 goals this season (I was expecting to see like ten).
We like to think that the Ducks are pretty deep up front, and for good reason. With all of the injuries that have hit the team this season, certain players have had to pick up some slack. However, I feel like I've been beating this drum for a while now, the vast majority of that slack has been picked up by Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry (with Dustin Penner tagging along). The occasional goal from an Andrew Cogliano or Nick Bonino or Kyle Palmieri hardly even compares to how LOADED this Sharks team is up front.
The top six scorers on the Sharks right now are all listed as centers by NHL.com. That's obviously faulty information, but it means that they're spread over at least two, more likely three lines. And that doesn't even take into account the fact that Brent Burns has 14 points in only 12 games (including a hat trick/four point game yesterday vs. ST. LOUIS). That total would put him behind only the PPG line, Bonino and Mathieu Perreault on the Ducks and he's played less than half the number of games any of them have.
So, that all points to the Ducks' busted up defense having their hands full tonight. Getting Saku Koivu back yesterday, and seeing him play so well, was huge. PPG and the Winnik-Koivu-Cogliano line (tried to say Winn-Ko-Co there but it's just not intimidating enough) will have to be at the tops of their respective games tonight to help the D out as much as possible.
The Sharks' D won't knock your socks off like that, but they appear to be pretty rock solid too. They've only used seven defensemen this year (compared to the Ducks' nine, maybe ten if, recent call up, Alex Grant gets inserted tonight) and the ice time has been almost perfectly distributed among them. Justin Braun leads the team in TOI/G with 22:10 and Scott Hannan is last with 18:23. Luca Sbisa, Sami Vatanen, Mark Fitric and Nolan Yonkman are all averaging fewer minutes than Hannan this season with the Ducks.
Also, when is the next flight from Norfolk to San Jose? I'll pay for Emerson Etem's ticket.
What Can We Learn From this Game: Are the Ducks for real? That's the theme of this week, starting tonight and going through LA and Chicago to the game against St. Louis next Saturday. We might not get a definitive answer, and there will always be the caveat of injuries, but playing the cream of the crop one after the other (mostly on the road, and with back to backs mixed in) will begin to let us know where the Ducks stand.
And it all starts tonight. I don't know about you, but I have that sinking feeling in the bottom of my stomach that comes with playoff hockey. It should be fun.
Fearless Prediction: Joe Thornton will NOT score four goals.
Stay tuned here for updates throughout the day (lineup news, etc.) and start commenting. We'll have a quick stats pack shortly before puck drop for the in-game comments to flow.