After putting a close to the first playoff series in Winnipeg since back when Nikolai Khabibulin, Keith Tkachuk, and Shane Doan skated for the original iteration of the franchise in short order last season, the Anaheim Ducks continued their mastery of the Jets nee-Thrashers on Sunday night at Honda Center. Power play goals on both of their opportunities, another opponent smothered from shot-generation, and Anaheim in a position where they haven't been for a while but almost everybody expected they'd be. Presenting the Best and Worst of the Ducks opening their eight-game home stand against the Jets:
Best: Multiple Goal Leads
While the play of John Gibson has been a revelation since his recall from San Diego earlier in the season, it's an awfully fine line to ask both him and the Anaheim defense to walk scoring only one goal a game as the Ducks did on their three-game Pacific Division road trip. It certainly helps to have special teams converting, but even better is seeing Anaheim get a couple even strength tallies to take advantage of the growing shot attempt and scoring chance disparities the defense has created as the season has gone along.
At some point the Ducks will need to get more offensively at five-on-five from outside of the top line, but with how Rickard Rakell and Corey Perry have been creating and scoring since the first month of the season it's been enough to float the team back into the playoff picture. Getting power play scoring from Ryan Kesler is good, but it'd be much nicer to see a score or two come with his even strength mates Jakob Silfverberg and Carl Hagelin.
Worst: The Power Play Has It Going, But Still Not Many Chances
It's no secret that Ryan Getzlaf is one of the, shall we say, more vocal players around the league. Anaheim's captain always seems to have something to say to the officials, and there are more than a couple instances where he's lost his cool and reacted in a manor that could be viewed as "showing the stripes up". Makes you wonder about how the Ducks, now with a 20% extra man success rate, have a league-low 100 power play opportunities this season. If the current rate holds up they should draw 216 chances for the year, which would be the third fewest in a full season since at least the 05-06 campaign.
Last season Anaheim drew the seventh fewest power play chances in the league with 235; in 2013-14 they were right around the middle with 275; in lockout-shortened 12-13 the Ducks had the second fewest with 135. Since Getzlaf became Anaheim's captain in 10-11, the Ducks have had the seventh fewest power play chances in the league- it's a real shame considering they've had one of the league's top ten power plays over that same stretch. How does the saying go? "No one likes us, we don't care".
Best: Ice Traffic Control Third Period
Part of the Ducks limiting Winnipeg to only five shots in the final period was the Jets playing their second game in as many nights after a win in San Jose. But a big part of it is the amongst league-best shot suppression that Anaheim's defense corps has turned in as the season has worn on. Since Christmas the Ducks have allowed five, eight, seven, seven, and five shots against in their final periods, and those shot totals have been aided by eight times Anaheim has been forced to kill a third period penalty.
It's somewhat surprising to see the Ducks as a blanketing defensive side, particularly considering the concerns some have voiced about "anchors" with the younger players, as well as what a struggle the opening month of the season was. Yet here they are, getting the likes of Ryan Lambert to sing their praises for the analytic advantages the corps has been helping to create. It's all the more impressive considering it's happened while essentially spending the entire season without Simon Despres, while in recent games and for at least a few more weeks sans-Cam Fowler. Sami Vatanen and Hampus Lindholm, Josh Manson and Shea Theodore, the clutch of young defensemen drafted by general manager Bob Murray has helped the unit survive, and find a way to statistically thrive with the addition of veteran pieces like Clayton Stoner and Kevin Bieksa.
Best: Stewart Slides Back In
There have been stretches this season, particularly since the return of Nate Thompson, that head coach Bruce Boudreau has given one of the lower line players healthy scratches multiple games in a row. Earlier in the season it was Patrick Maroon while Nick Ritchie was called up, in recent games it's been Chris Stewart who was the odd-man out. He was quick to reacquaint himself by going after Chris Thorburn after Rakell's game opening goal, the ol' "keep the momentum going fight" gimmick, while setting up Kesler's power play score and finishing a solid +4 in even strength shot attempt differential for his 8:37 of ice time.
3) Shea Theodore
Brian Hayward voiced what many Ducks fans surely have thought about seeing the 26th overall selection from 2013- he has not only not looked out of place in the NHL thus far, he's acquitted himself extremely well. While Theodore's offensive game has drawn most of the proverbial ink, he's been the prototypical modern defender in how he uses his body and reach to keep play to the outside. The Perry goal that made it 3-0 was set up by Theodore not only physically holding his own against the 6'8" Tyler Myers, but but riding him off the puck and forcing a turnover at the side of the the Anaheim net. Bit of a statement from the coaching staff as well to entrust him with 3:02 of power play time and 2:03 on the penalty kill.
2) Kevin Bieksa
First goal as a Duck, an additional assist getting the puck to the net for Stewart to find a late-arriving Kesler for the knockout blow fourth goal, and a +5 shot attempt differential for the full 60 minutes sealed up one of the better performances Bieksa has had since coming to Anaheim in the offseason. Second most minutes among the defense corps with 21:48 and a team-high 3:46 of shorthanded ice time, for all that time on the PK the Ducks had a +3 shot attempt differential while he was on the ice a man down. We've been critical of Bieksa in the early going of this season, and as he's rounded into form and developed some cohesion with a unit that's set a franchise record with two goals allowed in four games, Bieksa certainly deserves a significant share of praise and credit considering the role he fills.
1) Rickard Rakell
While it likely won't happen this season, it shouldn't surprise to see Rickard Rakell in an All Star Game soon. The first goal was the kind of eye-popping, highlight reel play that makes anyone who sees it sit up and take notice. Shrugging off a pair of defenders, getting to the slot, and staying with it after the initial backhanded attempt was blocked to knock home the opening score was impressive. The Ricky Dangle Show was in full effect, and hopefully will be re-upped for several years to come sooner rather than later.