Honda Center, Anaheim, California
Time: 7PM, 1900hrs Pacific Time
TV: Prime, FS-A, NHL.TV
Radio: The Mighty 1090
Gods be damned! After what seems like the longest off-season in recent memory, hockey is back on the agenda. After (and I absolutely did not fact check this) what seems like an eternity of starting on the road, the Ducks are opening up the season on home ice. Against a division rival no less. How sweet is this?
The game is a 7pm start, however the franchise is urging all fans attending to show up for the “Orange Carpet” festivities, including a meet and greet with some of the players, starting from around 3:30pm on the South Side of Honda Center. Those in attendance will also score a free poster (which actually looks pretty cool), all part of continuity for the “Highest Ranked Fan Experience in LA.”
As for the game itself, the Ducks are coming into this one off the back of a relatively underwhelming pre-season competition (3-3-1) and having let in 4 goals or more in 3 of those games. However, no one should pay any attention to pre-season results, and the Ducks have yet to out their full lineup in any game. A full lineup that is largely the same one that went all the way to Conference Final last season. General Manager Bob Murray elected to make only minimal changes to this Conference Final contending team, bringing back Patrick Eaves and letting Nate Thompson go for Dennis Rasmussen. The expectation was and will continue to be that young players such as Nick Ritchie and Ondrej Kase make strides in the development, and can increase their capacity for scoring timely goals. However, the Ducks biggest challenge is that Ryan Kesler is out until around Christmas, while Eaves was not able to suit up for any pre-season games, and back-up net minder Ryan Miller only saw action in one before he was hurt. Similarly, Hampus Lindholm and Sami Vatanen have been recovering from off-season surgery and were also not able to see pre-season action. It is unclear as yet, who if any of these players will suit up on opening night. The Ducks depth is going to be sorely tested until these players are welcomed back into the fold. It is an opportunity to see some new players, or old players in new positions. It is exciting. If nothing else, the proposed Rakell-Cogliano-Silfverberg (C-LW-RW) line should make some sweet corsi magic.
As a stark comparison to the Ducks, few teams were as busy as the Coyotes this off-season. While change does not always foreshadow good things, Arizona cut away a lot of the dead wood and replaced it with some pretty interesting new toys. Out went Shane Doan, Mike Smith, Radim Vrbata, Connor Murphy, Alexander Burmistrov, Anthony DeAngelo, and former Duck Peter Holland. In came Niklas Hjalmarsson, Jason Demers, Derek Stepan, Antti Raanta, Nick Cousins, and ex-Duck Emerson Etem. While the two last names on the list are unlikely to move the needle a great deal, Hjalmarsson and Demers will solidify a pretty decent top 4 defensive corp, Stepan gives them a really solid 2C in 1C clothing, and Raanta can only be an upgrade on what was an utterly horrific netminder (one we’re excited to note is now in Flames - yay! easy wins!). In addition to the elder statesmen added to the roster, the Coyotes boast one of the leagues strongest prospect pipelines, and they’ll be hoping against hope that names such as Dylan Strome, Clayton Keller, Max Domi, Brendan Perlini, Christian Dvorak, Anthony Duclair and Lawson Crouse, will all take steps towards their potential and rise out of the Pacific cellar. Moulding it all together is new head coach Rick Tocchet, who replaces longtime head coach Dave Tippett.
All Eyes On Me:
It would be the easiest thing in the world to point to one of the up and coming young stars in Strome, Keller (winning the Calder Trophy in a landslide) or Domi. I could even go with the feel good story of Mario Kempe, who somehow against all odds looks like an NHL player out of nowhere. But screw those guys.
Instead I’m going to direct your gaze to Raanta. As a glorious Finnish man and one of the top back-up netminders in the league, he's now getting his chance to be the man. Back-up netminder Louis Domingue showed he was nowhere near ready to carry the burden last year when Mike Smith was injured, meaning that this is Raanta’s bus to drive. If Raanta can somewhat replicate what Cam Talbot’s achieved in Edmonton, going from back-up to starter, there will be hope that Arizona will make a little noise this season. With a large part of the Ducks offence sitting on the pine, Raanta should have an easier time of it than he might otherwise. If he can negotiate the behind-the-net cycle game of Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry, he has an excellent chance of stoking the hype train walking away with his first win as the teams #1 netminder. Ducks will need to get all up in his grill (is this still a thing? I’m not that old yet right?) early in the piece and make him sweat. If he gets his groove on, the Ducks will be waiting for game two for their first victory.
(edit: It appears the pressure has gotten to be too much and Raanta has gone and done himself a LBI. By all reports, he’s out for the game.)
Key to the Game:
The Ducks Power Play:
The zebra’s have been out in force this pre-season with a stated mandate to come down hard on certain penalties. Thus far this has resulted in ton of special teams play and less of the more interesting even-strength play (is it just me??). As an example, in the Ducks last pre-season game both teams combined for 72 PIM and 14 power plays.
Given that a great deal of the Ducks offence (Kelser) is out of the lineup for approximately the next 34 games, this could almost be said each and every game. However, it is the season opener, and I’m getting in first. The Ducks ability to manufacture some scoring with the man advantage is going to be key. With Kesler (and Vatanen) on the shelf it would appear that the power play will revert to a team of Getzlaf, Perry, Rickard Rakell, Cam Fowler and newcomer Brandon Montour. Sans Montour, this group has had some success over the years, and Montour looks like he’ll fit on that unit like a glove. In particular, his willingness to thread the pass through the “royal road” is a rarity on the Ducks and should be a boon, opening up the ice and moving Raanta about the crease. If they can make Raanta jittery early, the nerves of playing for a new team with their hopes and dreams on his shoulders may be too much.
The flip of the coin is that the Coyotes have put together a new PK unit, in an attempt to fix the train wreck that was in place last season. Demers and Hjalmarsson both come from strong penalty killing clubs (Panthers were #2 last season; notably former Panthers assistant Scott Allen will be in charge of the Coyotes PK) and will look to stifle a power play unit that has typically been middle of the road over the past couple years, despite the awesome weapons it can equip. The battle between the Ducks power play and the Coyotes new-look penalty kill will go a long way to deciding this contest.
Check the enemy out at Five for Howling, but be sure to play nice while you visit.