The Ducks went 7-3-1 in the first month of 2016, and now, as they prepare to resume play following the All Star break, they sit within striking distance of both the final Wild Card spot and third place in the Pacific. Winning their games in hand on the teams above them would put them into a playoff position in both categories. In no particular order, here are a few things that for one reason or another have found their way into my head recently.
Winning Without Fowler
The Ducks have seemingly played their best hockey since Cam Fowler went out of the lineup with an injury, which has naturally led to some questions about his actual value to this team. To any who would seriously consider the possibility that Fowler hurts this team, I ask you to remember what happened when Chris Pronger was suspended on two separate occasions, each for one game, during the 2007 Stanley Cup Playoffs. The Ducks won both of those Pronger-less games, and I don't think anyone took that to mean the team was better off without him in the lineup.
Now, I don't mean to compare Fowler to Pronger just yet, and I don't mean to equate a couple fistfuls of games in January with a pair of games in May and June. My point is simply that a whole bunch of factors, all of them somewhat luck-dependent, go into deciding the outcome of a hockey game. There is no feasible argument, eye-test-based or stats-based, that says a healthy Cam Fowler is anything other than one of the Ducks' best defensemen. For my money, he's their very best.
Separating the Twins
We've seen this before from head coach Bruce Boudreau, and we know how it's going to end up when all is said and done. Sure, keep them apart for now if it means Chris Stewart and David Perron can keep producing. Just don't, y'know, hedge the rest of the season on it. Please.
(Speaking of Perron, credit where it's due: Brilliant, brilliant, brilliant trade. More scoring potential for this year's run and $4 million more in cap space toward resigning the RFAs next summer. Just brilliant.)
Despres Back, Theodore Down
Simon Despres didn't play the best game he's ever played in his return to the lineup in Boston, but nor did he look out of place or a step behind. That last part is equally applicable to rookie Shea Theodore, who was just sent down to San Diego. I'm not sure what general manager Bob Murray's plan is going to be, but right now he's got nine NHL defensemen in Fowler, Sami Vatanen, Hampus Lindholm, Despres, Theodore, Josh Manson, Kevin Bieksa, Clayton Stoner, and Korbinian Holzer. There's got to be a trade coming, so forgive me for being terrified and excited at the same time. Those first seven names, in that order, would make a superb blue line.
Off The Iron
After the Boston game, Boudreau was asked what's changed in the offensive zone lately, and, per Eric Stephens, he said, "Well, we're not hitting posts." Which, I thought, was exactly right. The Ducks' PDO (shooting percentage plus save percentage) has been near rock bottom for most of the season, and only recently have they seemed to get any puck luck. But I wanted to see how the Ducks' post shots compared to the rest of the league, so I waded into the murky depths of NHL.com's enhanced stats site and, with help of paper and pencil, figured out how many times each team in the league has hit the iron (crossbars and posts combined). What I found wasn't what I was expecting.
The Ducks have hit the iron 28 times this season, which is exactly the league average number. Yes, they've played the fewest games, but not by enough to be a big factor. And yes, I might have added wrong, and yes, the stats themselves might not be perfect, so yes, there's room for error. But when half the teams are in the same ballpark or higher, and when league-leading Nashville has hit the iron 41 times, it's hard to say that the Ducks' offensive woes were mostly due to hitting the post.
But the shot attempt numbers and the PDO numbers are far more reliable (than me and NHL.com, obviously) and important (much larger data set), and they agree with Bruce in principle. The Ducks were unlucky, and recently they haven't been, and that's been a big help.
Highlight-Reel Empty Net Assists Do Happen
Always nice to hear an announcer say, "Chara went fishing and lost."
The New All-Star Format
When the NHL first announced the 3-on-3 format, I immediately thought of the 2009 Young Stars Game that was also three-on-three, rookies vs. sophomores. The only thing I remembered about that game is that it was a hell of a lot more fun to watch than the real All Star Game that followed it. Sure enough, 2016's three-on-three tournament was far and away the best format I've seen.
A minute or so into the Atlantic vs. Metropolitan game, Erik Karlsson let loose a slapshot from pretty far out that the goalie saved pretty easily, but that in itself announced that this was going to be a different kind of game than what we've gotten used to in the last few years. Players were actually playing strong positional defense (for the most part) during the final Pacific vs. Atlantic game, and it showed up on the scoreboard in a big way. One combined goal in twenty minutes of three-on-three, and ten times the entertainment value of every other All Star game I've seen put together. Well done on this one, NHL, and I expect to see something similar next year.
(Allow me to nitpick one thing. When someone takes a penalty, make it 3-on-2 instead of 4-on-3. Just 'cause this is, after all, the All Star Game.)
Good Games Against Good Teams
We know the Ducks are a better team than those immediately ahead of them in the standings. Whether or not they can leapfrog the likes of Arizona will largely depend on how quickly, if at all, those teams' (including the Ducks) shooting percentages regress to the mean. But if the Ducks do make the playoffs, they will do or die against higher level competition, and it's worth noting that they've held their own against the best of the West so far this season. A little early to be talking about this? Perhaps. Just thought I'd throw some numbers out there. Here are all the games so far that the Ducks have played against the three big dogs in the West:
vs LA (Jan 17) 50.5 SAT% (3-2 L)
vs Dallas (Jan 15) 50.6 SAT% (4-2 W)
vs Chicago (Nov 27) 50.6 SAT% (3-2 OTL)
@ Dallas (Oct 27) 42.9 SAT% (4-3 L)
@ Chicago (Oct 26) 52.9 SAT% (1-0 OTL)
The Make-Up Game
On January 22, the Ducks-Capitals game was postponed due to a big ol' snowstorm [EE- Thanks again, Jonas], which means the Ducks are going to have to fly out to the nation's capitol one more time
before June this season. The Ducks do actually go back east in February, but unless the league wants to saddle them with three games in three nights, there is no way to fit that game in.
Perhaps the only palatable solution is to set up a game in April, right after the regular season is supposed to end, and then push the Caps' and Ducks' (if they make it) opening round series back a couple days. Regardless, it's going to be annoying. Let's just hope the entire season doesn't come down to beating the best team in the league in their own barn a day after everyone else has stopped playing.