The last time the Anaheim Ducks and Arizona Coyotes crossed paths the Thanksgiving turkeys had yet to be put in the oven, and Anaheim sat with an 8-10-4 record having scored just 42 goals and been shut out six times.
It's amazing how things change when being given the time to play themselves out. While many were calling for the job of head coach Bruce Boudreau over mashed potatoes and gravy, in the following months the Ducks have found their identity first as a 'lockdown to win' defensive team, and now evolving into a legitimately dangerous two-way club.
So while posting a 0-2-1 record in the first three games against the team currently a point back of them for the final Pacific Division playoff spot was not ideal, the Ducks find themselves with an opportunity to see just how far they've come when the Coyotes come calling tonight.
Ugly Early Meetings
In the first three games, the Ducks out-shot the Coyotes by a 104-91 margin, but at even strength only out-attempted by a 123-120 mark. The biggest issues were defensively, where Arizona flat out gashed Anaheim to the tune of a 64-38 scoring chance edge at five-on-five, as well as 27-16 in high danger chances. These were the early days of Hampus Lindholm with Kevin Bieksa, before the former Vancouver defender was switched to Cam Fowler, and even at that what would become the top pair had their rocky moments.
Max Domi and Anthony Duclair were able to run rampant with their speed in these early meetings, Domi putting up three goals and three assists, while Duclair netted a hat trick in the first meeting and had five goals over the three games. The duo ate up Fowler and Bieksa, finishing with better than 60% SAT against the Ducks defenders, while Duclair gutted the at the time second line of Carl Hagelin, Ryan Kesler, and Jakob Silfverberg, creating a 58% or better SAT against each. Domi meanwhile gave Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry problems, generating 65%+ SAT when facing the Ducks top line.
On defense for Anaheim, Bieksa was on the wrong end or even on the shot attempts ledger with nine of the 14 forwards he faced while for Fowler it was 11 of 14. Even the normally reliable attempt generator Sami Vatanen struggled, finishing above the even mark against just three of 14 forwards, the same as partner Clayton Stoner.
In each game it was something. In the first meeting a 3-0 bum rushing in the opening frame dug the Ducks grave early; the second time out a three-goal Coyote second period turning a 2-0 lead into a 3-2 deficit, and Getzlaf ultimately dropped the game away in overtime with an ill-timed area pass; in Arizona for the third game the Coyotes built a 2-0 lead through two periods, and had a response to Kesler's early third period goal just 1:19 later from Duclair.
Why The Ducks Are Different Now
Since that last meeting in the desert, Anaheim has posted a 16-7-3 record while Arizona is 13-12-5. The Coyotes suffered through a five-game losing stream from December 1-8, and have allowed four or more goals in 14 games. Conversely, the Ducks have locked it down with 52 goals against while the offense has potted 63.
The free wheeling allowed by the defense in early months is no more, as in the games since the last meeting Anaheim is second in the league in even strength SAT% at 54.4, tops in SCF% (56.1), and second in HSC% (58.6). It's a marked improvement from the 23 games including the last meeting and before, when despite being eighth in SAT% (52.1), the Ducks were 23rd in SCF% (48.4) and HSC% (47.0).
The improvement in the defensive zone is best visualized with hextally charts, showing where shots attempts are being allowed from in relation to league average. On the left is from this piece from November 2, and on the right is from today:
Anaheim has essentially shut down the slot, as well as the highest danger area directly in front of the net. Considering the Coyotes speed was a large part of them being able to get to the inside, this more incorporated and comfortable Ducks defense corps will do what they've done to succeed and limit the speed through the neutral zone and on entries to keep play to the outside as much as possible with help from their forward unit.
Then there's the offensive aspect, which has really started to bloom since the acquisition of David Perron and subsequent shuffling of the lines. It's a small five-on-five sample size (just 46:42 time on ice together), but Perron with Getzlaf and Chris Stewart have yet to allow a goal against while scoring three, and have dominated possession with a 59.0 SAT%. The results haven't been as overwhelming for the combination of Patrick Maroon, Rickard Rakell, and Perry, scoring and conceding three goals with a 48.1 SAT%, while the new third line of Andrew Cogliano with Kesler and Silfverberg have scored twice, allowed none and had 55.8% SAT.
Perron's hot entrance with points in five of six games, three goals and five assists, has in turn helped invigorate Getzlaf and get the offense going as a whole. Since Christmas the team is averaging 2.88 goals while allowing just 1.81 per game. Having learned and gotten very good at controlling teams defensively, that the offense is getting in gear is a very good sign that the analytic dominance is starting to and should keep showing on scoreboards as well.
An Important Test Game
While few would've suspected at the start of the season the Ducks would struggle as they did out of the gate, probably fewer would've projected the Coyotes to perform as well as they have. With Arizona already able to claim a season series win, tonight is important both as a means to stay above the Coyotes in the Pacific Division playoff picture, but also to take down a team that's a symbol of those early season issues.
Ahead of the longest road trip of the season, it's an opportunity to keep the momentum of a five-game winning streak going in the team's final home game before February 21. The patience of the early months has born a squad that's looking more and more like what they were expected to be, and they'll be tested tonight against a team that's managed to trip Anaheim up early this season.