Anaheim calling to the hockey world...
If you've been following us through the losing streak, you know that yours truly has been calling for some changes in the playing styles of some of the Ducks. Specifically, I wanted to see Corey Perry making an effective pest of himself again, Bobby Ryan taking the Tiger Beat cuteness out of his play and Dan Sexton finishing his checks as he did habitually in the pre-Jason-Blake era.
All of those things came together for a win last night. The Sharks had dominated the Ducks throughout the year and threatened to sweep the six game season series with a win last night. San Jose even mounted a comeback late, but ultimately, the Ducks put down the best team in the Pacific.
Daniel, the Ducks have been able to play well against the Hawks and finally, last night, they had a good showing against the Sharks. The bubble teams are fighting each other for the privilege to face one of these powerhouses, some would say the privilege to lose to one of these powerhouses. So if, and it's a gi-normous IF, Anaheim made the playoffs, what chances would you give this team against either of those teams?
It seems strange to say, but I think the Ducks would have a better chance against the Sharks than the Blackhawks. Still, I think these are two teams the Ducks have a serious chance of beating in a First Round series. The Sharks hate the Ducks. With that in mind, the physical play would be high. The Ducks are always at their best when they're trying to out hit the opponent. I think that Joe Thornton has shown he can't really handle that kind of series. If Aaron Ward wouldn't have fallen asleep on that first goal and missed his check on Jumbo Joe, Thornton probably would have been invisible yesterday. I think the Hawks could be more problematic because they don't really play that physical style. Maybe the Ducks could intimidate the Blackhawks and get under their skin, but that team is so focused on speed, it might be a drain having to battle them over a 7 game series. There's a lot of scoring power in Chicago, and that worries me.
However, the biggest reason why the Ducks have a shot against both of these teams is goaltending. It's hard to fault Hiller for either of the goals he let in, and he had some huge saves to keep the Sharks from mounting a serious comeback, including a fantastic glove save in the third that kept the game at 3-1. Nabokov has a tendency to let in soft goals after he's let in the first one. He does see a lot of rubber and can be a hard goalie to solve, but I think he's just an Osgood in Shark's clothing. As for Chicago, Huet and Niemi have looked good this season, but not perfect. Huet will definitely let in enough soft goals to cost his team 2 games a series. Niemi is inexperienced, so there's no telling what will happen. There's a lot of experience in this Ducks line up, and I think that few teams won't be worried if the Ducks find a way into the playoffs. They have a goaltender capable of stealing games, a top line that can wear a defense down, and at least two defenders capable of skating right up the ice and scoring. The Ducks have serious concerns on the blue line and their inability to protect Hiller from the occasional rebound is the biggest weakness. But I still think they have enough to get it done. You know, IF they make it.
I can't remember a time this season when I didn't think of this team as defensively porous or offensively handicapped. Thus, I can't remember a time this season when I thought of this team as capable of surviving a playoff round. But there's something about actually watching them face their potential foes, actually seeing whether or not the top seeds have the Ducks' number. And I think they don't. It may be harder for Anaheim to actually get to the dance than it would be to beat their first opponent.
And yet, I know this team has glaring flaws. This is still an undersized defense that periodically underperforms the offensive expectations for which it was built. Not a single line of forwards is truly set. And Jonas Hiller will be nowhere near as fresh as he was last spring. But the undeniable flaw seems to be a regular season phenomenon: lack of effort. If this team focuses and plays up to its competition for seven games, I don't know that they can be overwhelmed by the current top teams in the West.