Corey Perry

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.

Beleskey expected to miss six weeks with right knee injury

BOSTON, MA - OCTOBER 20:  Matt Beleskey #39 of the Boston Bruins takes a shot against New Jersey Devils  during the third period at TD Garden on October 20, 2016 in Boston, Massachusetts. The Bruins defeat the Devils 2-1.  (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
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The Boston Bruins are expected to be without forward Matt Beleskey for the next six weeks because of a right knee injury.

That update came from the Bruins on Monday. Boston was victorious over the Florida Panthers in overtime, but Beleskey wasn’t in the lineup.

The Bruins have now won three in a row and four of their last five games.

Beleskey suffered the injury in a collision in the neutral zone with Taylor Fedun during Saturday’s game. He left the game and didn’t return, after his knee drove into the hip of Fedun as the Sabres defenseman pivoted.

In 24 games with the Bruins this season, Beleskey has two goals and five points.

The Penguins are playing a brand of hockey from another era — and it’s a treat for hockey fans

PITTSBURGH, PA - NOVEMBER 08:  Evgeni Malkin #71 of the Pittsburgh Penguins is congratulated by teammates after scoring a goal against the Edmonton Oilers at PPG PAINTS Arena on November 8, 2016 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Matt Kincaid/Getty Images)
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PITTSBURGH — The Pittsburgh Penguins are doing their part this season to single-handedly address the NHL’s ongoing goal scoring shortage.

At both ends of the ice.

After their 8-5 win over the Ottawa Senators on Monday night — an insane game that featured both teams making a goaltending change, a hat trick, a penalty shot, a fluke goal bouncing off the glass, three replay reviews, and a random appearance by actors Steve Carell and Bryan Cranston in the stands — the Penguins find themselves at the top, and bottom, of pretty much every major offensive and defensive category.

Just consider:

  • Their 3.31 goals per game average is the second best in the NHL behind only the New York Rangers.
  • Their 3.04 goals against average is the fourth worst ahead of only Dallas, Arizona, Toronto and Philadelphia.
  • They are averaging 34.7 shots on goal per game, tops in the league and more than a full shot per game better than the No. 2 team (Chicago).
  • They are giving up 32.6 shots on goal per game, the second worst mark in the league ahead of only the Arizona Coyotes.

When it comes to the latter two points they outshot Ottawa by a 46-34 margin on Monday night, making it the fourth time in the NHL this season a team recorded at least 45 shots on goal and surrendered at least 34 in a single game.

The Penguins have played in three of those games (the other was that 60-shot effort by Columbus over the weekend, and that game went to overtime. The Penguins did all of three of theirs in regulation).

An important thing to keep in mind about that stat: There were only seven such games like that all of last season. For the entire NHL. By all 30 teams. Combined. Only one team (Philadelphia) played in more than one, and nobody played in more than two. The Penguins have played in three in their first 26 games.

Monday’s game was already the 13th time this season (in only 26 games) where they have faced a two-goal deficit at some point in the game when they trailed 4-2 midway through the second period. They have now won six of those games, and are 5-6-1 when they have trailed after two periods. In one of those regulation losses they actually overcome a three-goal deficit, tied the game, and then gave up the winner in the closing minute.

A lot of this is the result of having a team that rolls out four lines of forwards every night that possess the ability to score (including three of the most talented forwards in the league in Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel), combined with a blue line that is made up almost entirely of puck-movers and offensive-minded defensemen.

On one hand, it is an absolutely thrilling and captivating brand of hockey to watch. It is a throwback to the 1980s and early 1990s when wide open 8-5 games were fairly common. It is showcasing skill during a time when defense, structure and goaltending have dominated the league.

Because of that, is also not a style of play that has resulted in a lot of success in this era.

Over the past 10 years only one team has won the Stanley Cup finishing worse than seventh in the league in goals against (the lowest ranking over that stretch: The 2008-09 Penguins were 17th. Six of the Cup winners were in the top-two, including three that were the best in the league).

Only one other Cup-winning team during that stretch finished worse than 10th on the penalty kill (the 2010-11 Bruins, who were 16th). The Penguins are currently 29th.

These are areas they clearly need to address and correct (and they know it), because you are not always going to be able to rely on erasing a two-goal deficit in the playoffs no matter how great your offense is, and you are not always going to be able to put a five-or six-spot on the scoreboard.

The funny thing about this is the Penguins are returning pretty much the exact same roster from their 2015-16 Stanley Cup winning team. They are still a team built on speed and playing fast, a recipe that drove them to that championship just a few months ago. But that team excelled in a lot of the important defensive areas. They held opponents to less than 30 shots per game. They were sixth in the NHL in goals against and fifth in the league on the penalty kill.

After Monday’s game, coach Mike Sullivan talked about the importance of playing a “speed” game without necessarily turning it into a track meet.

“We certainly want to play a speed game because that is when we are at our best,” Sullivan said. “We try to distinguish between a speed game and a track meet. For me, we want to play a speed game and use our speed to advantage, but also not feed their transition game and allowing a track meet where you are trading chance for chance. Sometimes I think when we get away from our game a little we have a tendency to get into that track meet a little bit.”

He continued:

“For me it starts with out decisions with the puck. When you look at the makeup of our team we are a team that wants to play with the puck, so we want to make plays instinctively, but when we recognize the danger zones and when the plays aren’t there to be made, that is when we force teams to play 200 feet and that is when we become a more difficult team to play against. That is playing a speed game. So we try to distinguish between those two things.”

All of this is what makes this current team and the way it is playing so fascinating.

Almost every game quickly devolves into madness, and their record so far is great. But they are clearly not playing the way they want.

In the meantime, it is an absolute treat for hockey fans that are starving for more speed, skill and goals to take over the league.

‘I’m going to address it harshly,’ says Trotz of Ovechkin’s penalty trouble

WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 15: Alex Ovechkin #8 of the Washington Capitals looks on against New York Islanders during the second period at Verizon Center on October 15, 2016 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
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There is no question the Washington Capitals are having difficulty through this portion of their season, with losses to the New York Islanders and Tampa Bay Lightning to begin the month of December.

They snapped their recent three-game skid with a 3-2 overtime win over the Buffalo Sabres on Monday.

Marcus Johansson scored twice, including the tying goal late in the third period and the winner in OT. Jay Beagle had a goal and six shots on net. It’s a step in the right direction for a team Barry Trotz said still needs to be better at five-on-five.

He’s also still unhappy with the penalties taken by Alex Ovechkin, who had another minor for slashing against the Sabres. Trotz has already expressed concern for the time his captain is spending in the penalty box and the coach has once again vowed to deal with the problem.

“Unacceptable,” Trotz told reporters.

“He’s a leader. He can’t take those penalties. He’s got to be on the right side. I’m going to address it harshly with him tomorrow.”

It’s a tough loss for the Sabres, who were just over six minutes away from a win. It could’ve been worse. Jack Eichel, who suffered a high-ankle sprain early in the season, was hurt in the second period.

He got tangled up with Dmitry Orlov along the boards and struggled to the bench. There was a shot of him on the bench in obvious pain, but he did return to the game.

Sam Gagner has been ‘a great story’ for the surprising Blue Jackets

ANAHEIM, CA - OCTOBER 28:  Sam Gagner #89 of the Columbus Blue Jackets celebrates his second goal of the game for a 4-0 lead over the Anaheim Ducks during the first period at Honda Center on October 28, 2016 in Anaheim, California.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
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The Columbus Blue Jackets just keep on winning, remaining one of the big surprises so far this season — provided their last two performances were against the Arizona Coyotes.

We’ve seen the emergence of Zach Werenski. And Alexander Wennberg continues to impress.

But what about Sam Gagner? At 27 years old, he’s another interesting story on this early-season surprise of a team. Signed by the Blue Jackets at the beginning of August to a one-year contract worth only $650,000, Gagner is off to a very strong start with his new team.

For the Blue Jackets, they have received tremendous bang for their buck with this signing.

Gagner scored twice in Monday’s 4-1 win over the Coyotes, giving him 10 goals this season. He also had two assists. Again, this is against a young, rebuilding Arizona team, but still, Gagner has provided Columbus with additional offense, with 17 points in 23 games.

He has already eclipsed his point total from last season, basically in half the time. He had 16 points with the Flyers — in 53 games.

“He’s applied himself,” coach John Tortorella recently told FanRag Sports Network. “When I had him at center, for some reason, it wasn’t working. When we moved him to wing, things started happening for him. He seems more comfortable on the wing and he can play both sides, too.

“He’s scored some big goals for us and helps us on the power play. He knows that this is probably his last kick at the can, and it’s amazing what it does for athletes [who are] thinking ‘man, this is where I’m at right now.’ I think he has done some soul-searching and to me, right now, it’s a great story.”

He’s part of a Columbus team competing right now for top spot in the Metropolitan Division. In December.

That’s a pretty good story, too.