There’s a weird feeling this April.
For the first time in quite awhile, the Anaheim Ducks enter the final week of the regular season with no guarantee that they’ll play more than 82 games.
Consider when the Ducks have clinched a playoff spot in recent years:
2016-17: March 28
2015-16: March 24
2014-15: March 28
2013-14: March 25
In fact, the last time the Ducks waited until April to clinch a playoff spot was 2012-13, but we’ll throw a giant asterisk next to that due to the funky schedule from the season-shortening lockout.
Even with their 4-3 overtime victory over the Colorado Avalanche on Sunday, the Ducks have done nothing more than merely improve their chances. Anaheim currently sits at third in the Pacific Division with 95 points, while the Los Angeles Kings are a point behind holding the first Wild Card spot. The Avalanche, after earning one point in the overtime loss against the Ducks, sit in the second Wild Card position with 93 points. The St. Louis Blues are currently on the outside looking in with 92 points, but the Blues have a game in hand with all of the aforementioned teams.
Western Conference Playoff Race (Games Ending 4/1) pic.twitter.com/TobOLOhscM— Damian Echevarrieta (@Ech28) April 2, 2018
The good news for the Ducks is that they have the easiest schedule remaining — each of the other teams still fighting for a playoff spot have at least two games against teams currently holding a playoff position. The Ducks, meanwhile, only have Minnesota left on the slate before finishing up with Dallas (the Stars were eliminated from contention Sunday) and Arizona.
Anaheim is definitely in the driver’s seat, but there’s still much to be decided.
Shutting them down: It’s hard to negate top players in the league on a night-in, night-out basis, but the unit of Andrew Cogliano, Ryan Kesler and Jakob Silfverberg has done some of its best work of late.
On Friday against the Kings, the trio was tasked with matching up against Hart Trophy candidate Anze Kopitar. Kopitar is having arguably the greatest season of his 12-year career — he currently ranks sixth in the NHL with 90 points — but he was largely invisible against Anaheim. The Kesler line held Kopitar to a 30 percent CF% with nine attempts for and 21 against. Individually, Kopitar didn’t register a shot attempt the entire game.
Shutting down Kopitar — a two-way wizard — is one thing, but handling the Avalanche’s Nathan MacKinnon is another. MacKinnon (my personal Hart Trophy favorite) is a freight train; he possesses a special combination of power and speed that typically gives Kesler fits.
But much like Kopitar, MacKinnon was rendered ineffective. McKinnon posted seven shot attempts (three on goal) but none were particularly dangerous. His best chance was an attempt from the top of the circle in the waning minutes that handcuffed Ryan Miller before Hampus Lindholm swatted the puck out of harm’s way. MacKinnon was held to a secondary assist on the night — his main contribution was that he drew two penalties (both on Lindholm).
The Kesler line finished with five points (two goals, three assists) as a unit. Really, the scoring is a bonus — if this line can continue to hound the opposition’s top scorers, it’ll be a major boost for Anaheim in the postseason.
Calling the shots: Who says we never give Randy Carlyle credit? Down by two entering the third period, Carlyle decided to shift his lines and move Ondrej Kase up with Ryan Getzlaf and Rickard Rakell, and push Corey Perry down with Adam Henrique and Nick Ritchie.
It was a simple but masterful move by Carlyle — Perry fed a beautiful pass to Henrique for the Ducks’ second goal seven minutes into the third period, sparking the eventual comeback. Meanwhile, Kase scored the game-winner in overtime on a play that originated on Getzlaf’s stick.
Carlyle has done well to keep his top three lines mostly intact down the stretch, but his decision to mix it up for the third period paid major dividends.
Mr. 900: It’d be remiss not to mention that Francois Beauchemin obtained the 900-career-game mark Sunday, with 589 of those coming with the Ducks. Beauchemin currently ranks seventh all-time in games played with the franchise and second among defenseman, trailing only Ruslan Salei (594 games). If you include the Stanley Cup Playoffs, no defenseman has played in more games for the Ducks than Beauchemin.
M.A.S.H. Unit: It seems that every year the Ducks face serious question marks in terms of health at the end of the regular season.
Last year, Cam Fowler took a knee-on-knee hit from Calgary’s Mark Giordano in the third-to-last game of the regular season and was forced to miss the entire first round against the Flames. In 2015-16, Frederik Andersen suffered a concussion in the final weeks of the regular season and that probably factored into why John Gibson received the nod to start round one against Nashville (though Andersen returned for Game 3 and reeled off three wins in a row).
Josh Manson, Sami Vatanen and Patrick Eaves are all notable players that were forced to miss time early in the postseason with injuries in recent years (though those ones didn’t pop up until the Stanley Cup Playoffs).
This year it’s injuries to Gibson and Fowler that will keep Ducks fans awake at night. Fowler exited Sunday’s game late in the third period after taking a hit from Colorado’s Blake Comeau in the corner of the Ducks’ zone. On the hit, Fowler used his left arm to brace himself against the boards for the incoming hit but appeared shaken up immediately after the play. He did not return.
There’s no definitive evidence of when Gibson was hurt or what he injured, but all signs point to a collision in the first period when Kesler crosschecked Colorado’s Gabriel Landeskog right into the crease, and Landeskog awkwardly bowled over Gibson. While he certainly has a history of injuring Ducks players, it’s hard to totally fault Landeskog here. And hey Kesler....let’s hope your moment of message-sending didn’t shelf arguably the Ducks’ most important player.
Wake up, stripes: There were a handful of frustrating decisions by officials on Sunday. In the first two minutes of the game, the Ducks were tossed from four face-offs. One led directly to the Avalanche’s first goal. Drop the puck already.
Later, Kesler and Colorado’s Nikita Zadorov received coincidental penalties when Zadorov tripped up Kesler beside the Avalanche net. Kesler was called for embellishment, which is hard to figure since Zadorov’s stick was between his legs when Kesler tried to skate away.
3 - Ryan Miller: Unofficially, this was the sixth time Miller had had to replace an injured Gibson mid-game. His numbers in those six appearances are 2-0-1 with a .918 save percentage. Not bad for a cold goalie.
2 - Ondrej Kase: Kase now has 19 goals in his breakout campaign, but this overtime winner against the Avalanche was his most important by a long shot.
1 - Andrew Cogliano: Anaheim’s spark plug was at his best against the Avalanche, finishing with a goal and an assist. Now can the man please receive some 3-on-3 overtime shifts?