As a general rule of thumb, unless I'm doing a post-game writeup I like to sleep on a loss before deciding whether or not I should use this wonderful soapbox I have to dish out some tough love or to just let it pass. Nineteen times out of twenty I decide it's not worth it and things will probably get better. This time however it's different.
Last night's loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets officially triggered my red-alert alarm. Things are not okay with the Ducks right now.
There's no use in sugar coating it, last night's game was flat out bad. And perhaps the biggest problem I had was it was so typical of the way the Ducks have played for the past two-plus weeks and made their huge, glaring weaknesses so obvious. It's alarming to say but the team on the ice in these recent games have shown eerie similarities to the Ducks just before Randy Carlyle was fired. It has been that bad.
And now the Ducks sit five games away from the start of the playoffs (which they couldn't clinch on their own accord by losing horribly to the worst team in the West) and are playing arguably the worst hockey of any of the top-eight teams. Heck perhaps even the worst hockey in the entire West, save Nashville.
Look, I'm as dedicated and die-hard a Ducks fan as any of you reading this. I try to look for the positives in each game to tell myself this team will be fine and that our lead atop the Pacific division will be safe until we get into the playoffs. I cheer for this team with everything I have. And likewise I try to insult the arrogant pricks up the freeway as much as possible.
However speaking of the Kings, I now have to deal perhaps the biggest insult of them all back on our own boys. Brace yourselves:
The Los Angeles Kings are without any question in my mind the better team right now.
A die-hard Ducks fan just admitted it. Do I have your attention? Good. Let me explain.
The game last night showed off some of Anaheim's worst tendencies this season. Not only did they fail to get two points against a team that had no business winning the game, they blew the lead twice. While the Ducks haven't had many leads this season thanks to their amazing ability to win games from behind in the first half of this year, they've been completely unable to hold on to any of them in the last 10 games.
Credit where credit is due, Columbus is playing well. They've now won five straight games and eight of their last ten. Talk about getting hot at the right time. They played an excellent game last night and essentially dominated all but about 10 minutes
The biggest reason for that is Anaheim's absolutely abhorrent puck possession. When this season started, coach Boudreau had the Ducks playing like a well-oiled machine. They took care of the puck, they passed to open teammates in clear lanes, and were very methodical about their time with possession. When they didn't have the puck, the forwards pressured, the defensemen shut down, and everybody blocked shots. It was a winning formula that built us a nearly-insurmountable lead atop the Pacific Division.
Now I can argue only the last of those actions is true. The team is still blocking shots but Anaheim has completely lost the ability to hold onto the puck. Far too often over the last 10 games have the Ducks resorted to playing a dump-and-chase style game because they can't so much as get two feet over the opposition blue-line without losing the handle and immediately having to go back to playing defense. The dump-and-chase has been no better as the Ducks lose the race and the battle for that loose puck 7 out of every 8 times they try it. That or an unnecessary and stupid icing call. For the vast majority of last night's game, the Ducks struggled mightily to even get any sort of possession in the Columbus zone, let alone get a decent scoring chance.
Speaking of decent scoring chances, that's my next gripe I currently have with this team: their utter refusal to take a quality shot on net in favor of passing for a tap-in. Yes it was working early in the season but now, 40 games later, the rest of the NHL has had time to study and adjust to Anaheim's system, it flat out isn't working anymore. This team needs to get the idea through its head that unless they take the shots they're given, they aren't going to score any goals. And they haven't been!
How many times over the past two weeks have the Ducks tried to pass the puck into a man in the slot who's covered by two, three, or sometimes even four other players? Does that pass ever get through? The answer to that one is no. It's usually a turnover and a rare offensive zone possession goes for nothing as the puck immediately leaves the zone and it's back to praying the defense holds up for another rush.
The Anaheim offense has gone stagnant because they've refused to adapt to the game of their opponent. Other teams have learned that all they need to do is be strong down low, take away the pass through the crease, and Anaheim's offense will fail. It's worked like a charm. While we know there must be frustration in the locker room because of the lack of scoring, I'm here to say there's just as much frustration from the fans because they could change this if they would simply adapt their game. If our opponent insists on taking away the front of the net, we have two or three defensemen with cannon-like slappers from the point that are not being used. Sheldon Souray, Francois Beauchimin, and Cam Fowler could be even more productive if they would be given the chance to contribute.
Take a look at the game of the San Jose Sharks, for example. The Sharks very rarely try to feed the puck to the man standing in front of the net because he's usually covered. Throwing a pass into traffic is a good way to lose possession and thus the scoring chance. So when they can't break through there what do they do? Toss it back to the point and let the defenseman hammer it on net. If it gets blocked, oh well. All it takes is one puck getting through the traffic in front of the net and they've got a sure goal, especially if it tips off a stick or a skate or a shin pad on its way through. Odds are the goalie isn't going to see it in the first place, so how is he going to stop it, even more so if it gets deflected?
This is particularly true on the power play.
And oh, the power play. Where do I even begin with this gripe? The Ducks power play used to be arguably the scariest in the NHL. It was efficient, it was pretty, it dominated possession, and most importantly, it scored a lot. Now it has fallen from grace harder and faster than Rome from the height of its empire. I will say this: it is absolutely 100% inexcusable for a team to be better at puck possession in five-on-five play than it is with an extra man on the ice. Yet these Ducks have somehow found a way. The Anaheim power play has fallen from second in the NHL to seventh and the mighty engine that once powered the Ducks juggernaut has gone almost completely stagnant.
Now the Ducks first goal last night was in fact a power play goal. And who did it come from? Sami Vatanen, a defenseman. Where from? The top of the left circle. There was nothing fancy about it. No pretty pass through a crowded slot, no unnecessary cycle in an attempt to open up the defense, just a simple hard wrist shot with traffic in front that found the top corner of the net. It literally could not have been an easier play, and it was successful.
My point about the Anaheim Ducks right now is this: their game has become too predictable and too dependent on fancy plays with high-risk passes that they've lost the ability to play any other way and it's come back to bite them in nearly every other facet of the game. This team needs to shake things up and find its creativity again, perhaps ironically by becoming less creative.
Allow me to bring the Kings back into the picture. Los Angeles is playing its best hockey of the year right now and are poised to make the Ducks pay for their slip last night and once again shrink their lead atop the Pacific. While I don't respect that organization for anything else, I do have to give some credit to their system on the ice because it is successful yet so mind-numbingly simple. The Kings have the superstar power in Jeff Carter, Mike Richards, Anze Kopitar, and others, yet you don't see this team making fancy passes to a covered man in the slot. Their game is the utter essence of hockey, make high-percentage passes to the open man, and shoot whenever possible. Los Angeles puts up 30.3 shots per game in comparison to Anaheim's only 27.4. Some of them admittedly aren't fantastic shots but the true strength comes in that they also send a man to the front of the net as hard as they can in hopes of getting a rebound. If one pops out suddenly what was a mundane play has become a golden scoring chance.
Their points also do a lot of their shooting as well, utilizing the strategy of putting traffic in front to make it that much harder for the defense. Drew Doughty burned the Ducks with this in their last meeting by letting a simple shot go that beat Viktor Fasth through the five-hole.
When they don't have the puck, the Kings pressure the hell out of the puck, sending two or often three forecheckers deep into opposition territory, and it pays significant dividends as they often force a turnover before the puck even leaves that end.
It's so simple, yet it's so amazingly effective: take care of the puck when you do have it, don't make flashy or stupid passes, pressure the puck hard when you don't have it, and shoot as much as possible. No frills, nothing fancy, just simple hard-working hockey. Even in the pros it wins games.
The Ducks could learn a thing or two from watching this.
I trust the decisions coach Boudreau makes. He's done a remarkable job getting this team to where it's at with such a wonderful first 25 games. I can only hope he re-iterates some of these points to his players.
However speaking of coach Boudreau I can't help but feel like some of his constant line juggling is part of the reason this team looks so confused and powerless right now. Guys will be playing on one line in one game, practicing with a completely different line the next day, and be playing with a still-different group the day after that. I understand the need to make changes if the chemistry isn't there and the line isn't getting anything going, but likewise chemistry will never be there if it isn't given time to develop. Likewise guys who play spectacular one night will find themselves healthy scratches the next (*cough*Dvorak*cough*).
I would like to see some of the lines that show promise or minor success stick together for a game or two. If they're given a chance to really gel, who knows what could happen. However when they're torn apart after just sixty minutes of hockey (sometimes less) whatever little chemistry was there to begin with just gets torn apart and the whole team has to start all over again.
The power play particularly has been going through this, partially because of injury, but likewise much so because the team can't seem to get anything going. Pick a group, practice with them, and give them more than just one chance to figure it out. And likewise, please tell me why Teemu Selanne, one of the greatest and most feared power play weapons of all time was not on our first power play unit for quite some time?
There are a lot of things wrong with the team that took the ice in black sweaters at Honda Center last night. With five games to go I can only hope they get their act together. Otherwise all the wonderful promise and amazing talent this team showed through the first half of this shortened season will completely go to waste in a very, very short and extremely disappointing playoff run.