Ducks continue to hang around the playoff hunt

If you believe some people around the Anaheim Ducks, tonight is a “must-win” game for the Ducks against the St. Louis Blues at Honda Center. Win and they keep pace with the Peloton in the West—lose and the odds become even more daunting. Such is life in March of a hotly contested playoff race in the NHL.

It’s interesting in that of all the teams competing for the last few playoff spots, the Ducks seem to be flying under the radar. Maybe it’s because they got off to such a rough start that some people wrote them off way back in October. Maybe it’s because they’re holding down the last place spot in the Pacific Division. Maybe it’s because their all-star goaltender that is a huge part of their team is still out of the lineup and no one knows when he’s going to return. Whatever the reason, the Ducks are still right in the thick of the playoff race and no one seems to be talking about it.

Going into the night, the Ducks are two points out of the 8th and final playoff spot in the Western Conference. They have a game in hand on the 9th place Predators and hold 3 games in hand on the 8th place Calgary Flames. They are 5-2 over their last 7 games including a recent 4-1 homestand. You’d think there would be a little more buzz around a team thriving at this time of year, but the enthusiasm may be taking a little longer to catch on considering the recent stretch is on the heels of a 5-game losing streak.

Aside from a game against Colorado later this month, every game is against a team in the playoff hunt. The good side is if they win, they’ll be hurting their competitors. The bad part is that they better not lose many games. A couple losses against the wrong teams in the standings could make the mountain just that much tougher to climb. Including tonight’s game against the Blues, here are the opponents the Ducks will face down the stretch.

Kings (3 games)
Flames (2)
Stars (2)
Sharks (2)
Blues
Predators
Blackhawks
Avalanche

Head coach Randy Carlyle knows they’ll need to beat the teams in front of them for any chance at the playoffs.

“When you’re trying to play catch up, that’s the only way you’re going to catch them…

“There (are) no ifs, ands or buts, if we win our fair share of games against the teams that are around us that only bodes well for our chances of making the playoffs.”

 

The statistics for the Ducks are all over the place—but don’t paint the most promising picture. Their -7 goal differential is not a good sign. Usually that’s a good indicator of who will make the playoffs and who won’t—so the Nashville Predators and their +14 would lead people to believe they are the team that could sneak into the final playoff spot.

Aside from that, they’re 27th in the league with 28.5 shots per game. Equally as alarming are the shots they’re allowing every game: 25th in shots allowed per game with 32.3. Put those together and they’re the 3rd worst team when it comes to shots for vs.shots against. To put it in perspective, the only teams who are worse are the Wild and the Oilers. One of those teams has been fading and the other has been looking at the draft for 3 months. That’s not exactly the type of company any team wants to keep at this time of year.

Predictably, they are 25th in the NHL when it comes to 5-on-5 play. But just because they’re struggling as a whole at even strength doesn’t mean they have a hard time putting the puck in the net. They have leaned heavily on their 4th best power play which is clicking at a 21.7% rate. Corey Perry, Teemu Selanne, and Bobby Ryan are all in the top 21 in NHL scoring. The only other teams that can claim that kind of high-end scoring are the Vancouver Canucks, Chicago Blackhawks, and Dallas Stars (all playoff teams as of writing). In fact, the Ducks are the only team that has FIVE players with at least 50 points on the year. Unfortunately, that’s where their scoring ends. Besides the big 5, only one other player has more than 30 points on the season.

Ducks coach Randy Carlyle acknowledges they are going to need better balance if they want to succeed down the stretch.

“It’s the responsibility of some other people in our lineup to make more of a contribution,” Carlyle said. “As we go down the stretch, that is what teams are made up of. It’s not always your main guys who are getting the points and making a difference for you. We know in order for us to have success, everybody has to be able to accountable, both on the offensive and defensive side of the puck.”

 

It’s the lack of balance that hurts when Carlyle can’t get the match-ups he wants when he’s on the road. Their 21-12-2 record at home is one of the best in the West—however; their 16-15-3 record away from Honda Center is one of the worst. There’s no questioning that they are a different team at home—they’ll need to make the most of those 6 home games in their last 13.

More important than the concerning road record or lack of depth is the cloud of uncertainty hanging around the goaltending situation. Jonas Hiller’s absence with his mysterious vertigo-like symptoms certainly isn’t giving the Ducks any additional hope. But since making his way to the left coast, Dan Ellis has shown to be a much better goaltender than he did in Tampa Bay for the Lightning. He’s 5-2-1 with an average 2.54 goals against average and pedestrian .902 save percentage. Clearly he’s not going to unseat Jonas Hiller as the goaltender of the future anytime soon. But when you compare his play to that of Curtis McElhinney earlier in the year (and Timo Pielmeier’s 2 period implosion), a guy who can give the Ducks a consistent chance to win is an upgrade over the previous alternatives. This just in: trying to replace an all-star goaltender is difficult for a team that depends on their goaltender to play like an all-star every night.

Tonight’s game against the Blues will tell us a lot about what we can expect from the Ducks down the stretch. Starting tonight, the Ducks really hold their destiny in their own hands. Beat the rivals they’ll face over the next month and they’ll be selling playoff tickets in Anaheim. But a few consecutive losses against those teams and tee times in Pelican Hill are going to start filling up in a hurry.

The Buzzer: Canucks continue Red Wings’ slide

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Player of the Night: Sven Baertschi

Last season, Baertschi was a bright spot for a dismal Vancouver Canucks team, generating new career-highs in goals (18) and points (35) in 68 regular-season games.

The 25-year-old carried over some of that momentum early on, generating three points in seven games, but they were all assists. Sunday marked his best moment of 2017-18, as Baertschi scored his first two goals of the campaign (giving him five points in eight contests).

Bo Horvat is the honorable mention in the Canucks’ 4-1 win against the Detroit Red Wings, collecting his first two assists of the season. Jake Virtanen also found the net for his first goal of the season.

(As an aside, Derek Dorsett somehow has five goals already in 2017-18. Dorsett’s career-high is 12 goals, but he’s already in range of tying his second-best mark of seven.)

Highlight of the Night: Why not go with Baertschi’s two goals?

Factoid of the Night: This marks the fourth straight loss for the Red Wings, dropping them to 4-4-1 after a promising 4-1-0 start. But the hits could keep coming.

Beginning with Tuesday’s game against the Sabres in Buffalo, Detroit will play three straight road games and seven of their next eight away from home. The bright side is that they’ll enjoy a ton of contests at their expensive new pad starting in mid-November, but the next few weeks could really dim whatever optimism the Red Wings built up early on.

(For pro-tanking Red Wings fans, this might not be such a bad thing.)

Sunday’s lone score: Canucks 4, Red Wings 1

Can Golden Knights keep winning as they keep losing goalies?

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The Vegas Golden Knights confirmed today’s fearful report: Malcolm Subban is expected to miss about a month thanks to a lower-body injury suffered during another Golden Knights upset (3-2 in OT vs. the Blues) on Saturday night.

It makes for a dizzying run of turnover in the Cinderella expansion team’s net; Calvin Pickard went to the Toronto Maple Leafs as the odd man out, Subban is headed to IR, and Marc-Andre Fleury is sidelined with another concussion.

The spotlight, then, turns to Oscar Dansk, the 23-year-old goalie who stopped 10 of 11 shots against St. Louis when Subban went down with that injury.

Golden Knights GM George McPhee said the predictable, right things regarding Dansk and the situation:

“Injuries provide opportunities for others and that is the situation we have here,” McPhee said. “Our top two goaltenders are currently sidelined so we will now give our AHL goalies the chance to play in their absence. We felt Oscar Dansk performed well in relief on Saturday in his NHL debut.”

In a way, Dansk feels like a lower-level version of Subban. While Subban is/was a struggling former first-rounder, Dansk was the second-round version; the Columbus Blue Jackets made him the 31st pick of the 2012 NHL Draft.

(Hey, the 31st pick is now a first-rounder thanks to the Golden Knights, so there’s that.)

Dansk hasn’t been setting the hockey world on fire at other levels, but maybe that makes him an interesting fit for this weird situation, as the Golden Knights continue to defy odds and puck-gravity during a 6-1-0 start.

What to expect

While the Chicago Blackhawks boast the sort of firepower that could make for an unpleasant introduction for Dansk, at least the Golden Knights still have a few games remaining on their first-ever homestand:

Tue, Oct 24 vs Chicago
Fri, Oct 27 vs Colorado
Mon, Oct 30 @ NY Islanders
Tue, Oct 31 @ NY Rangers

That back-to-back to end the month could be Halloween-scary, but at least Vegas has some time to prepare. The losses are likely to come starting on Oct. 30, as they face a six-game road trip and eight of nine games away from home. That’s challenging, no expansion disclaimers needed.

How they’ve been playing

Some wonder if the Golden Knights should loosen their defensive logjam by trading for a netminder.

Rather than wading too deep into that discussion, this seems like a reasonable time to look at the Golden Knights seven games (and six wins) in.

  • One thing that stands out is Vegas’ penalty kill. They’ve been almost perfect if you exclude a rough showing in their overtime win against the Sabres (Buffalo went 3-for-5 in that game). Aside from that, they’ve only allowed one power-play goal. They’ve also only hit the penalty box three or four times most nights, with one night with just one trip and the five opportunities for the Sabres standing as the outliers.

The Golden Knights should expect more struggles in both regards, at least at times, this season. Maybe this long run of home-ice advantage and their expansion status helped avoid most whistles? Perhaps Gerard Gallant has them playing extra-smart?

  • So far, the shot counts have been pretty reasonable in five of seven games. They’ve only been heavily outshot twice so far: their first game (46 shots on goal for Dallas, 30 for them) and this past one vs. the Blues (49 for St. Louis, 22 for Vegas). That’s surprisingly competent stuff.
  • With any team enjoying success, close games can be a red flag, especially if there are OT wins. Vegas has three wins in overtime and one other one-goal win. Their 3-1 win against Boston included an empty-netter.

This isn’t to dismiss those wins, but sometimes close games are more like “coin flips,” and some of those will start going against the Golden Knights eventually.

  • The Golden Knights are a top-10 team in two luck-leaning categories: PDO and shooting percentage. That said, they’re not the top team in either spot, so it’s not outrageous to give them some credit.

***

Through some intriguing combination of competence and beginner’s luck, the Golden Knights are off to a shockingly good start.

It’s one thing to lose one goalie, but seeing both go down is brutal for any squad, let alone an expansion team. The Golden Knights have every excuse to start to fade, and were likely to see slippage even at full strength.

Even so, credit this team for being far better than anyone expected, and this hungry bunch will at least be able to point to doubtful bits like these if they need some “us against the world” motivation.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

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Appreciating Stamkos after he hit 600 points

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The modern NHL is no stranger to star players missing extended stretches because of injuries, opening the door for “What if?” frustrations.

As glorious as the last couple years have been for Sidney Crosby, the threat of another concussion looms like Michael Myers in the bushes. Connor McDavid lost half of his rookie season. Carey Price has already dealt with serious issues of his own.

Still, you can forgive Steven Stamkos and Tampa Bay Lightning fans for being especially miffed over the years, as his issues have bordered on the freakish. Stamkos has dealt with blood clots, his most recent right knee injury that required surgery, and broke his tibia after taking this bad-luck spill in 2013:

(Even about four years later, it’s still unsettling to watch Stamkos rapidly become aware of how bad his injury was.)

Stamkos has missed playoff time and saw at least two seasons short-circuited by injuries, as he only played in 17 games in 2016-17 and 37 in 2013-14.

Heading into this season, it was reasonable to try to limit expectations; most athletes struggle in the first year after significant surgeries. Maybe Stamkos will hit a wall at some point, but so far, he’s enjoyed the best start of his career, riding shotgun with budding superstar Nikita Kucherov.

It almost seems fitting, then, that Stamkos scored his 600th regular-season point during the Lightning’s 7-1 beatdown of the Pittsburgh Penguins. Even so, it’s resounding that – with all Stamkos has been through – he’s at that level at 27, and he’s done so in 595 games.

Impressive. With this incredible head start of 18 points in nine games, a healthy Stamkos might match or exceed the work he did during his best days earlier in his career. Note how dominant he was from his second through fourth seasons (while Stamkos managed 29 goals and 57 points in the lockout-shortened 2012-2013 season, his fifth):

2009-10: 51 goals, 95 points

2010-11: 45 goals, 91 points

2011-12: 60 goals, 97 points

The other eye-popping stat from that run: he played in all 82 regular-season games in each of those three campaigns.

For some perspective, during the stretch of 2009-10 to 2011-12, Stamkos’ 283 points ranked second in the NHL, with only Henrik Sedins’ 287 ranking higher. His 156 goals easily led all players for that three-year stretch.

If that’s not enough to make you wonder where a healthy Stamkos might rank among the NHL’s upper echelon, consider this: from his sophomore 2009-10 season through today, he’s third in points-per-game among players who’ve played in at least 200, slightly edging Patrick Kane (1.06):

  1. Sidney Crosby (1.28)
  2. Evgeni Malkin (1.14)
  3. Stamkos (1.07)
  4. Kane (1.06)
  5. Alex Ovechkin (1.03)
  6. Nicklas Backstrom/retired Martin St. Louis (1.01)

As you can see, Stamkos ranks among six active players who’ve averaged at least one point-per-game since 2009-10.

Chances are, Stamkos will cool off mainly because, as great as Kucherov is, he’ll settle down a bit too. The Russian winger currently boasts a 29.4 shooting percentage, nearly doubling his already-impressive career average of 15.1 percent.

Still, it’s plausible that Stamkos could enjoy one of the best seasons of his career, and the interesting wrinkle might be that this stupendous sniper may serve as something of a facilitator (he currently has three goals versus 15 assists).

Now, don’t forget that Kucherov has been the catalyst for this burst, even if Stamkos makes this one of the NHL’s most scintillating symbiotic relationships. Hitting the 600-point milestone is merely a friendly reminder that Stamkos shouldn’t get lost in the elite conversation, and that hockey fans should be very, very happy to have him around.

Just stay a while this time, Stamkos. We like seeing you.

(Many stats via the wonderful resource that is Hockey Reference.)

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

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Throwing Babcock a bone? Leafs bring back Roman Polak

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Sometimes you need to zoom out from a shaky move and appreciate the bigger picture.

Mike Babcock nailed it when he described the Toronto Maple Leafs, at least at times, as dumb and fun. The Leafs currently lead the NHL with 37 goals, one more than the red-hot Tampa Bay Lightning, despite Toronto playing one fewer game. Still, these young Buds also must raise Babcock’s blood pressure at times with their double-edged sword style.

Credit Babcock, then, with mostly embracing what makes this team tick. More rigid coaches would strain against such designs, almost certainly lowering the Maple Leafs’ ceiling in the process.

The Maple Leafs raised some eyebrows on Sunday by handing slow-footed, limited veteran defenseman Roman Polak a one-year, $1.1 million contract. Actually, it might be more accurate to say that the Maple Leafs slumped some shoulders.

None of these Twitter reactions are really off-base, honestly.

Polak, 31, simply isn’t an ideal fit for the modern NHL, and the Maple Leafs are very much embracing the fast, attacking style that’s (delightfully) coming in vogue.

Here’s a working theory, though: even the best coaches (at least right now) have “their guys.”

“Their guys” are often well-traveled, gritty types. Some only help teams in minimal ways while taking spots from prospects who might eventually be able to make bigger impacts. Others are even worse: actively hurting their teams whenever they get on the ice while taking spots. New York Rangers fans are currently having Tanner Glass flashbacks.

Every GM in the NHL should limit the number of “guys” available to a coach. Otherwise, they’re echoing “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” by holding an intervention at a bar.

(By this analogy, Nazem Kadri is definitely wine in a can.)

Allow a hypothesis: with some injuries surfacing and the Maple Leafs generally playing well, and roaming free, signing Polak stands as something of a reward for Babcock’s patience.

It’s not great, and here’s hoping that Polak doesn’t take meaningful ice time away from better defensemen. There are some discouraging worst-case scenarios where Polak is used as a shutdown guy who really only shuts down the Leafs’ ability to counterpunch.

Ideally, Polak is used in a limited role and Toronto remains one of the most dazzling, heart-stopping, and successful teams in the NHL. That would make everyone happy (except the Maple Leafs’ opponents).

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

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