Few teams have seen as many important players go down in the early part of the season as the Anaheim Ducks. Losing the likes of Corey Perry, Ben Lovejoy, and Patrick Maroon amongst others for extended periods of time have made the opening quarter of the year a much more difficult climb than the previous two under coach Bruce Boudreau. However a team that has had a similar bumpy road in the Eastern Conference is the Boston Bruins, who have spent the past 15 games without captain Zdeno Chara following a PCL tear suffered against the Islanders on October 23. Coming into this evenings contest both teams sit in rather precarious playoff positioning thanks to uneven play of late, with Anaheim second in the Pacific Division and six points clear of the final Western wild card, and Boston occupying the first Eastern wild card spot and five points clear of the final wild card. The Ducks have begun to heal but still face issues on the back end, and have a major opportunity facing a reduced Bruins side at home.
After building a modest four-game winning streak, Anaheim has seen their momentum halted by a pair of rather resounding defeats. First, the Blackhawks darkened black Friday with a dominant 4-1 win, then San Jose mauled the defense early and held off a late comeback to secure a 6-4 result. In each of the contests the Ducks found themselves soundly outplayed for the majority of the affair, but can at least look to build momentum off a strong push down the home stretch in northern California. Still, it's back to back defeats to a pair of playoff powers and the schedule doesn't let up facing the defending Presidents' Trophy winners in Boston. Frederik Andersen has started 11 straight dating back to November 7th against Arizona, and after putting up a sterling performance in defeat against Chicago couldn't make up for bad bounces and defensive miscues in getting the early hook at SAP Center. Both Ryan Getzlaf and Perry put up three point evenings against San Jose, scoring in the same game for the first time since the 4-3 win in Vancouver. Matt Beleskey's remarkable contract year continues, having equalled his 2009-10 career high of 11 goals in less than half the time. Still, the need is there for more consistent secondary goal scoring: Maroon and Jakob Silfverberg are putting up points at a similar rate as last season, but both have just one goal apiece. Andrew Cogliano has cooled greatly from his career-best season of last year. All of this compounded by a defense corps icing four players (Sami Vatanen, Hampus Lindholm, Josh Manson, Mat Clark) with 204 regular season games experience between them, putting additional stress on Cam Fowler and slower defensemen like recently acquired Eric Brewer.
While one never likes to hear injuries used as an excuse, according to Springing Malik the Ducks have seen the second most total man games lost (117) through the first 20 games of the season. Their opponent in Boston has lost 67 man games through the same stretch, but enter the game tonight with Chara, David Krejci , and Adam McQuaid all on the injured reserve. They've struggled to gain traction of recent as well, going 4-3-1 in their past eight games. Strange as it may have sounded to hear on the Prime Ticket promos for the game, it's been 29 year old second full year NHLer and former Swedish Hockey League standout with IF Malmo and Linkopings HC Carl Soderberg who has carried the load offensively for Boston, leading with 17 points on a tied for squad-high five goals and a team best 12 assists. There are five other players tied with Soderberg at five goals, including Patrice Bergeron, Dougie Hamilton, Milan Lucic, Brad Marchand, and Seth Griffith. Hamilton leads the defense in scoring, but the unit has come short of the standard set in recent years without Chara as well as the early season trade of Johnny Boychuk to the Islanders. Tuukka Rask has also seen his numbers dip thanks to the quality of the unit in front of him as well with his save percentage as low as it's been since 10-11, though his winning percentage remains in the vicinity of his career best of least season.
What Can We Learn From This Game:
With some fans left scratching their head at the bringing in of Brewer in an attempt to bolster the blue line, the early returns at the Tank were not great. Though Lovejoy is again skating his return is not imminent, and Francois Beauchemin will be out for an extended period of time thanks to a broken hand. This will be Anaheim's third straight game against a team that has been a recent staying power in the league, and another bright spotlight in which this patchwork defense unit will be tested. We'll get an additional look at Brewer to see whether he is the 'steading, veteran influence' as has been pitched on the broadcasts, or another foot-slow and less dynamic defender in the vein of the mumps-infected Clayton Stoner and recently traded Bryan Allen. The mantra has again turned into the need for a "full 60 minute effort", and though the Bruins are significantly diminished due to injury they represent a formidable challenge. After spending the majority of the last two games looking like they didn't belong on the same rink as a pair of Western powers, tonight represents a measuring stick from the East.
Lucic does something stupid to draw the ire of Anaheim and their fans, but things get really ugly in the crowd if the defense struggles again. Chris Pronger is not walking through that door, and though undermanned the unit needs to prove that it can hang against a high quality opponent. If not, not only will the likely multitude of Bruins fans in attendance be making a ton of noise, but the chants of "We want(ed) Yandle" might be pretty noticeable too.