Final Score: Ducks 1 Blackhawks 0
Chart courtesy www.war-on-ice.com
It was a prescient moment on the broadcast when Brian Hayward brought up the history of tight checking, closely contested games between Anaheim and Chicago at the United Center, and in the opening 20 minutes the game followed that exact script. While both sides were able to get a decent number of shots on net, none of them were particularly troubling for either starting netminder. The Blackhawk defense did well to keep nearly all of the Ducks 10 shots in the period from outside the 'home plate' area in front of the net on their starter appearing in his second NHL game Scott Darling.
The only moment of real offensive danger came in transition for Chicago, with Jonathan Toews dropping the puck back to Niklas Hjalmarsson at the top of the slot. The Swede rung iron on a shot through traffic, and it would be the closest either team would come to breaking the deadlock in the opening period. Much of the play focused on forechecking, while keeping the opposition to the outside when they were able to set up in the zone. The Ducks got a physical spark when Mark Fistric dumped Michal Rozsival into the Anaheim bench with a powerful hip check along the boards, in a play that is sure to be seen regularly in highlight reels and video packages at Honda Center.
"I wanted to get a good hit on him, kind of spark the guys. I thought we came out a little slow and we needed a little momentum swing, so I saw an opportunity and took it," Fistric told Julie Stewart-Binks during the first intermission on Prime Ticket.
A key storyline was how the defense corps would look for the Ducks, and as anticipated Clayton Stoner skated with Cam Fowler for nearly the entirety of the game, while the Francois Beauchemin-Hampus Lindholm pair remained intact, and Fistric partnered with Sami Vatanen.
"Guys have got to play their off side that they're not accustom to, but we're a strong group; we've got a lot of guys that can play good hockey and we've got to come together as a unit of six and play solid hockey," said Fistric to Stewart-Binks on Prime Ticket.
The period ended scoreless with the Ducks holding a narrow 10-9 shot advantage, and scoring chances even at five apiece. Of note, neither duo of Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry or Toews and Patrick Kane registered a shot in the opening 20 minutes.
While chances were a slight bit more plentiful in the second stanza, the game still was closely contested. Mere moments into the period Andrew Cogliano redirected a shot from the point that just skittered wide of the far post, and nearly three minutes later he would create a turnover that led to an opportunity that Devante Smith-Pelly fired over the top. John Gibson really established himself by making a couple of very good saves, battling to fight off a one-timer from Marian Hossa from the top of the circle and with around 7:30 remaining made a split save on a breakaway by Brandon Saad. On the breakaway play Vatanen was caught focusing on Kane in the neutral zone and didn't notice Saad behind him coming off the bench on a line change, but Gibson was equal to the task and the rebound chipped back to him.
The Ducks took their first penalty of the game on a very close holding call on Stoner, whistled for a slight nudge with his stick hand and his other free in the corner. Anaheim was able to kill the penalty off with little event from the Blackhawks, and kept the home team from establishing in the zone with the man advantage. Chicago would start to gain more extended stays in the Ducks zone in the final five minutes of the period, and Gibson made a good blocker save on Jeremy Morin wrister from the near circle off a turnover, while Matt Beleskey had a late opportunity for the Ducks that Darling was equal to.
Shots were an even 10-10 in the period, though Chicago grabbed the advantage in scoring opportunities at 8-5. One could see the building play from Gibson, and Cogliano remarked about it to Stewart-Binks during the second intermission on Prime Ticket.
"(Gibson's) great, he's a very confident guy. He's been on different stages before and been successful, he's one of the best upcoming goalies if not the best. Tonight he's showing why he's ready to be a big part of our team," Cogliano said.
Chicago turned up the heat in the final frame, outshooting the Ducks by an 18-5 margin. It was bouyed some by a pair of penalties take by Vatanen, but at even strength the side in red was clearly rising as well. Just over a minute into the period Bryan Bickell found Toews alone between the circles, but Gibson robbed him with a larcenous left pad save sliding post to post. When Vatanen went off for high-sticking Kris Versteeg near the midway mark of the period the Blackhawks built more momentum, but Brent Seabrook mishandled a puck back to the point and lost his balance in the process, allowing Smith-Pelly the come free on an uncontested breakaway. The forward cooly went forehand to backhand, opening up the fivehole of Darling moving across the crease and slid it home to give the Ducks the lead with 8:28 remaining on his third goal and first shorthanded tally of the season unassisted.
"I know he's a big goalie, just tried to get him going side to side and I'm happy it squeaked through," Smith-Pelly would tell Stewart-Binks on "Ducks Live" after the game on Prime Ticket.
The pressure continued to compound from the Blackhawks and it lead to some line shuffling as Jakob Silfverberg, who was denied on a near post one-timer early on in the period, skated with Nate Thompson and Emerson Etem on a line that played an important defensive role down the stretch. Though no regular Ducks center finished above the break-even mark at the face-off dot, Thompson had the best performance winning 46% of his draws. Vatanen took his second penalty of the period with 2:35 remaining as his stick got tangled with Morin at the offensive blue line and lead to a tripping penalty. However Anaheim was able to kill the advantage off, and with Perry and Getzlaf each blocking shots in the dying seconds the Ducks were able to hang on.
Gibson finished with 38 saves on the game, and appeared much more square and controlled over the course of the game. "I just tried to simplify, do the little things, and get back to the way I know how to play," he said to Stewart-Binks on "Ducks Live" following the game.
"We knew they had a good team, we knew they were going to come in the third. The team played really well, had a lot of blocked shots that helped me out," said Gibson.
Good: It's a solid (albeit very early in the season) road win over a team that is rightfully looked at as a standard bearer in the Western Conference. Anaheim played the possession game fairly evenly with them through the first 40 minutes, and were extremely opportunistic in taking advantage of a single glaring mistake. Also, for all the handwringing about what would happen with the defense corps they performed well enough with a great game from Gibson behind them to shutout a very good hockey team on the road.
Bad: Once the third period hit, Chicago ratcheted up the pressure and really seemed to take control of the game. Though the Ducks ended up scoring the only goal in the period, the hosts put 18 shots on net and attempted in the neighborhood of 30 in the final frame.
Ugly: It's a bit strong of a characterization, but after being deservingly lauded for his play in recent games Vatanen did not have his best night. He was a negative as far as shot attempts while on ice, seemed to get caught out of position on a couple occasions, and took a pair of penalties with the second coming in the waning minutes of the third.
3rd MVD: Mark Fistric- It was mentioned on the broadcast, and one can forget just how big of an impact Fistric can have on a game with his physical play. His bench-dumping hit on Roszival was a nice energy boost for the team in the first, and his five hits leveled Ryan Kesler for a game high. Though the Blackhawks had four more shot attempts than Anaheim while he was on the ice, he worked well in his 14:58 of ice time.
2nd MVD: Devante Smith-Pelly- Removed from the top line with the regular season debut of Heatley, Smith-Pelly worked very well with Kesler and Cogliano over the course of the game. He had a couple chances thanks to Cogliano and his forechecking, and showed great composure while breaking in from center ice alone under control and getting the mammoth Darling to open up and find the twine between the wickets to score the game winner shorthanded.
1st MVD: John Gibson- After a poor performance in the season opener which hatched a whole host of questions, Gibson's 38 save performance against one of the league's best is exactly the kind of play the Ducks will be happy to see from their prized rookie. While not heavily tested in his win against Columbus, he made multiple grade-A saves including stopping the likes of Toews and Hossa on open one-time shots from the slot. It's the kind of game that for the moment will quiet concerns and give fans additional confidence in their young netminding tandem.
Next Game: Thursday, October 30, 2014 @ St. Louis 5:00 PM PT