Just last week the Rangers were on top of the world. 7-2, 5-2, 5-1, 4-3.... oh boy did those goals flow. Even the ghost of Rick Nash got in on the action with a couple of 2 goal games. And then the West Coast happened, and the wheels came off the cart. First they lost to Colorado, but hey who hasn't lately? Then...oh dear...somehow they managed to let the Kings hang 4 on them. That’s right, the LA Kings. Scored 4 goals. I hate to repeat, but a team with Henrik Lundqvist let the Kings score 4 goals. Yep, theres nothing else to be said for it: The Western Conference is the Rangers kryptonite.
Tonight they have the opportunity to really fail on their road trip by getting spanked by another stalwart of the Western Conference: your hockey-god damned Anaheim Ducks. The Ducks have been ok of late, although their 6-3-1 record may present a rosier picture than reality. They come into this game after John Gibson had his one-per-month underwhelming showing in net. Naturally, the 6 goals against versus the Sharks wasn't all his fault, but he didn't cover himself in his normal glory. Of course this means he’s going to be an absolute wall tonight and be near unbeatable - the type of unbeatable that would take Rick Nash in his prime to beat - we know this because Big Daddy Gibson doesn't have two bad games. He’s just that good. Dare I say it (again); He’s the greatest net minder in the storied history of great Anaheim Ducks net minders.
Gibson being brilliant bodes well if the Ducks can play as well as they did in the first period versus the Sharks. They may not have scored, and they did give one up, but they were all over the Sharks like a fat kid on a cupcake. Relentless. Ravenous. Ritchie.... wasn't bad. If the Ducks can bring that level of play into this game, and get special teams to be even the tiniest bit special, they have a good chance of getting the points in this one.
Keys to the Game
Be Special: Randy Carlyle may be more known for his
inability to motivate his players for a full 60 minutes of relentless gritty hockey, but he’ll need all of his tactical nous to ensure an efficient and successful showing on special teams tonight.
The Ducks have a top 10 penalty killing unit (82.6%), and they have scored a couple of shorties since the new year. However they have let in 5 goals in the past handful of games. Like late last season, it appears that teams have cottoned on to the system employed by the Ducks and have adjusted accordingly. It should also be noted that since Ryan Kesler’s return from injury, the penalty killing unit has let in a far higher percentage of goals than before. It behooves Carlyle to make an adjustment here. Dare I say it, he should move away from a passive box system, and try to decrease shots from the slot even if it results in a greater percentage of shots from the point. At some stage, he’s just going to have to give Gibson the chance to see the shot and make the stop.
The power play unit as well requires tweaking. With three goals with the man advantage since the new year, its only just pacing the penalty killing unit for scoring: 3 PPG to 2 SHG. That's not optimal. Ranked 24th in the league, and in the bottom 10 all season, Carlyle needs to improve this aspect of the game. The early season troubles can be attributed to injuries, and while it certainly does take time for players to pick them selves up out of the rut and put them selves back into the groove, the power play has actually gotten worse since the team has returned to “full” health. Much of this can be attributed to the lack of “finishers” on the roster, as they certainly did get chances against the Sharks. However, the setup has also become more clinical (some might say deliberate) as the regular faces have returned. The hallmark of the early season power play, with Brandon Montour and Sami Vatanen threading the needle through the crease, has been replaced by passes back to the point and rimming around the line. Creativity has been replaced by safety. The Ducks, so long as they have Ryan Getzlaf on the ice, have the cattle to create scoring chances almost at will. Randy Carlyle needs to tap into his captain and place his high-skill players in positions to create and subsequently dictate the play.
The Rangers are a middling team for both sides of the man-advantage, so this should prove a fair test for Carlyle’s ability to coach his team without much fear of failure. Yes the Rangers can punish if mistakes are made, but if risks cant be taken against a middling team, then cup dreams should be dashed here and now. It takes a brave coach to make hard decisions to win in big games. 34 games out from the playoffs, with a healthy list, and against a middling team, seems like a good place to start.
All Eyes on Me
For multiple reasons, I’ll be perving on Ondrej Kase tonight. The 3rd line of Adam Henrique - Nick Ritchie - Ondrej Kase (C-LW-RW, for you lineup critics) has been solid of late, and has created numerous scoring chances. Much of this has been due to being sheltered, but it should be noted that one can only beat who is in front of oneself, and this line has arguably been the Ducks best over the past 3 games. Long touted as a playmaker, Kase has been a big part of that having collecting 7 points in the past 5 games and rolling into a 3 game point streak.
However, it seems likely that he’ll get chances on the top line with Ryan Getzlaf and Rickard Rakell at the expense of incumbent winger Corey Perry at some point in the night. While he did assist on a Getzlaf goal, he’s not shown that he can hang with this duo for any length of time. At least not just yet. In his contract year and with Max Jones potentially coming next season, Kase is in a unique position where he can simultaneously cement his place with the team and price himself out of Anaheim. Like Getzlaf once said “go to the net and I’ll make you rich (paraphrased from a comment about Dustin Penner).” Should this line switch come to pass, with more than a third of the season left, Kase has the opportunity to grasp a high profile position and drive the Ducks towards a playoff berth. A role that GM Bob Murray cannot ignore when it comes to contract talks.
To put it all together, I want to see if Kase can continue to present an option on offence, and to see if he can hang with the big dogs should that come to pass. For a guy who was once touted as the 8th best European draft prospect, and ranked #35th overall, but fell to the Ducks in the 7th round (#205th overall), it would be a great story.
Ignoring individual results, which line-up helps the Ducks win most?
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Henrique-Ritchie-Kase & Getzlaf-Rakell-Perry
Henrique-Ritchie-Perry & Getzlaf-Rakell-Kase