Sometimes it's necessary to think outside the box when backed into a corner.
Such was the case for head coach Bruce Boudreau and the Anaheim Ducks, as facing the prospect of an 0-3 hole against the Nashville Predators that only four teams had dug out of in 181 previous situations would be some long odds.
Instead, the Ducks earned a 3-0 victory at Bridgestone Arena by upping their forechecking pressure, scoring timely goals, getting solid goaltending, and (despite the final penalty numbers) improving their discipline by better controlling their emotion. On to some more in depth thoughts about a needed win to cut the series deficit to 1-2 that presents the chance to make it a three game series on Thursday.
Lineup Changes Key To Tactical Changes
The Ducks announced just one skater change after their game day morning skate, inserting the veteran Shawn Horcoff in place of Chris Wagner. However, the major shakeup came in the reconfigured forward lines that Boudreau trotted out:
David Perron - Ryan Getzlaf - Ryan Garbutt
Nate Thompson - Rickard Rakell - Corey Perry
Andrew Cogliano - Ryan Kesler - Jakob Silfverberg
Jamie McGinn - Shawn Horcoff - Chris Stewart
Kesler's line has become the keystone on which this Anaheim squad operates, matching up with the most dangerous opposition lines when possible and taking critical defensive zone starts. Everywhere else in the lineup was a significant alteration, removing a slower, bigger player on each of the top two lines in favor of one with every bit as much jam, but more speed.
The results were immediate, with the Ducks able to knock the Predators off balance with a pressuring forecheck that prevented many of the easy defensive zone clearances and clear paths through the neutral zone that were so frequent in the first two games at Honda Center. The added speed up top was a critical component, as it took away that advantage that helped Nashville create so many defensive "one and done" situations, while creating turnovers and allowing sustained offensive pressure that just wasn't there before.
One need look no further than the turnover created that lead to the game's opening score. Anthony Bitetto flubbed his pass to defense partner Barret Jackman thanks to McGinn's forecheck, which allowed Stewart to scoop up the loose puck and find Horcoff alone driving the left hash marks. It was perhaps the best transitional sequence the Ducks have had this postseason, and it was generated by the fourth line.
By gaining control of the neutral zone, it forced the Predators to work harder to set up in the offensive zone, which in turn allowed the Ducks defense to better lock down the dangerous areas on the ice. Anaheim dominated in even strength chance creation for the game, with a 17-10 scoring chance edge, but even more importantly holding a 6-2 advantage in high danger chances. The lack of freedom of movement into the zone gave Anaheim defenders time to set up, and take away both passes, and skating lanes to the slot which were exploited to the tune of 15 high danger five on five chances in the first two games.
Freddie Steady Behind More Stout Defense
The other big change was the decision to go with Frederik Andersen between the pipes in place of John Gibson. The result was a 27-save shutout for the big Dane, the second of his playoff career after blanking Calgary in round two last season.
While Gibson was not spectacular in either of his appearances, Andersen also benefitted from a much better defensive performance in front of him. Even despite facing five Nashville power plays, the Ducks allowed just four high danger area shots on Andersen, and seven from the medium danger areas. Contrast this with the first two games, where Gibson saw 11 and seven high danger shots, with five and seven medium danger shots.
Another aspect that was mentioned on the broadcast by Brian Hayward was how communicative Andersen is. While the degree of Gibson's chattiness on the ice isn't readily apparent just from watching the games, there is a visual difference when Andersen is in net. He's constantly pointing out oncoming forecheck pressure, letting his defensemen know where the opponents are, and where they have outlets to move the puck. Against a Nashville side that thrived on making zone exits tough, having a goalie that directs traffic so emphatically has to help.
Ducks Let It Go Emotionally In Game Three
After the over the top performance in game two that saw Anaheim out-hit Nashville 47-32, but also fall out of favor with the officials due to early wildness, this was a much more composed performance where the Ducks still got the better of the physicality.
Players skated away post-whistle, there were very few scrums after play had been blown dead, and there seemed to be significantly less of the clearly visible jabbing at Nashville. It's one thing to tap Pekka Rinne on the pads or blocker as one goes by, just to let him know you're there, it's another thing entirely to continually get in the goalie's kitchen and constantly create pileups in front of the net for the officials to have to separate.
The moment that crystalized the Ducks much more zen approach to this game came when Andersen had made a save, and the Predator forward who was stopped at the top of the crease at the whistle leaned in and continued to push forward. Andersen simply slid back, then pushed away, as the Ducks defender allowed the linesman to move the infringing player.
Boudreau also seemed more relaxed during the game, which certainly is easier to do when the team takes the lead near the ten minute mark of the first period and never lets it go. Still, one of his canniest moves came on the third Ducks goal, where he decided to make a quick change to his forward lines. With the Predators fourth line trapped on the ice following an icing, Boudreau elected to go heavy with his first line on the offensive zone draw by switching out Garbutt for Stewart. The result after the face off win was a surgical pass to the slot and the hard charging Stewart, who chipped home the sealing goal.
It's not that there weren't discipline issues of any kind in the game for Anaheim, as the carry-over interference minor on Cam Fowler, as well as Silfverberg's lumberjack job and the team getting caught with too many men on a bad change could've drastically altered the complexion of the game had Nashville converted. Some of the penalties were silly, but they were nowhere near as 'dumb', to use Boudreau's term, as game two's infractions were. It's not ideal to give away five power plays, but the Ducks limited Nashville to just nine power play shots, and 14 shot attempts- the kill was strong, but best not to lean on it again in game four.
The Next 'Biggest Game Of The Season'
The job in Nashville is half done, as just as much as a loss in game three would've left no margin for error, so too will a loss in game four.
Anaheim's altered game plan made for their most complete game of the young postseason, and one of their better efforts down the stretch of the year. Head coach Peter Laviolette and Nashville will have counters to face the more impressing Ducks forecheck, and it'll be up to Anaheim to continue to control the neutral zone and make Andersen's job easier by keeping high danger chances and shots low.
With the same kind of composure, fewer power plays allowed, and a defensive system executed to a similar level, the Ducks will stand a very good chance of coming back to Honda Center even.