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.

Video: Don Cherry sings ‘Take Me Out to the Ball Game’ at Cubs game

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So, CBC personality Don Cherry was the Chicago Cubs’ recent guest for their traditional rendition of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” during the seventh-inning stretch.

He’s not the first hockey-person to do so, as Jonathan Toews was involved in a memorable butchering of that song, among others.

Cherry put his own spin on it, giving fans a chance to review both his singing, lyrics, and his suit (the latter of which was relatively understated):

Russian Machine Never Breaks and Sportsnet note that Cherry tweaked the lyrics just a bit, but he earned some points with fans in Chicago by getting a cheap Blackhawks pop.

Hey, if nothing else, it provided an opportunity to dust off that awesome, ancient photo via Getty.

The case for Hurricanes signing Jaromir Jagr

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This post is a part of Hurricanes day at PHT…

It’s tough to pick the perfect NHL home for Jaromir Jagr because there are just so many variables.

There are, for instance, unspoken demands. Jagr has easily earned the right to ask for a significant salary and role thanks to his Hall of Fame career. It’s his right to hold out for what he wants.

Of course, it makes him a tougher puzzle piece to wedge into a team’s bigger picture. The 45-year-old could finally totally fall off the map in 2017-18. Naturally, even if he merely continues to slip, there’s the argument that Jagr is taking minutes away from players with a brighter future.

SBNation blog Canes Country, for instance, ultimately argued against the Carolina Hurricanes bringing the legend in:

Justin Williams was brought in this offseason to help bring veteran leadership to the Hurricanes, and it seems general manager Ron Francis – Jagr’s former teammate in Pittsburgh – is done making moves. Their leadership quota filled, there’s really no place for Jagr to fit in the Canes’ lineup.

Perhaps not, but let’s trot out a few reasons why the Hurricanes should really think it over.

Star power

In Mid-July, 24/7 Wall St. reported that the Hurricanes saw the second-largest percentage drop in professional sports over the last decade. An eight-year postseason drought tends to hurt a team at the box office, after all.

Now, winning would be the best way for the Hurricanes to fill the seats. There’s no denying that.

Still, for all the hype about this roster full of young stars, that buzz might not go far enough to really draw mainstream attention. Signing Jaromir Jagr would be a way to draw eyes to the Hurricanes, and with a ton of cap space, Carolina is nicely equipped to meet his demands.

Grumpy old men?

Canes Country makes a strong point about how Jagr might not fit in with, say, Jordan Staal or Victor Rask.

Of course, part of that reasoning is based on a perfect world scenario where no one gets injured, but even assuming that’s the case … perhaps head coach Bill Peters could find some creative solutions?

For one thing, the question of foot speed could, conceivably, be mitigated by putting the few elder statesmen together. Perhaps Jagr would line up with Lee Stempniak and/or Justin Williams, thus sequestering some of the older legs and giving Peters a chance to massage situations to their advantage?

He might still provide a boost

It’s understandable to point to, say, dipping numbers for Jagr without Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau and say that he can’t do it on his own.

On the other hand, Jagr sure seems like he would fit in on a team that’s quietly building a reputation as a possession powerhouse. Even in 2016-17, Jagr’s incredible hockey IQ and puck protecting prowess allowed him to put up the sort of possession numbers that players half his age would envy.

Just consider how he compares to the HERO chart standard for a first-line winger:

If fancy stats bore you, consider this:

Maybe Jagr wouldn’t be such a bad stylistic fit, after all?

***

Hurricanes GM Ron Francis said that he’s comfortable with the team as is, yet he’d also be willing to make an upgrade. The implication seemed to be via the trade route, but the Hurricanes really might want to give some extra thought to bringing in Jagr.

It might just help them break that playoff slump.

Gulutzan thinks Flames can be ‘a 100-point club’

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Calgary Flames head coach Glen Gulutzan covered a wide array of topics in a great Q & A with the Calgary Sun’s Wes Gilbertson, with his discussion of how well 2017-18 could go possibly being the most interesting note:

“The challenge, for sure, is managing expectations. We weren’t a 5-10-1 team to start last year, and we weren’t a 16-5 team to end,” Gulutzan said. “We finished with 94 points. I think, realistically, we can do better than that. But to make a jump from 77 to 94 to 118 isn’t realistic. So we have to manage that expectation. Our goal is we think we could be a 100-point club. That’s kind of what I think a lot about in the summer — trying to manage that expectation but also have something in mind that we think we could be.”

Interesting.

Adding Travis Hamonic to a defensive mix that was already quite impressive should raise Calgary’s ceiling to begin with. It doesn’t hurt that many of their best players are in the meat of their primes, from Johnny Gaudreau to Dougie Hamilton to Sean Monahan and more.

Gulutzan praised the size, character, and “play” of new goalies Mike Smith and Eddie Lack, yet that might once again be the reason to wonder if the Flames can make that next step from a team fighting for a playoff spot to a team legitimately contending.

(The jury’s still out on Gulutzan, too, though he makes a reasonable point that 2017-18 could be more stable as his second season after the “mega changes” of his debut season.)

There are some other interesting bits in this interview, which is worth your time, including:

  • Micheal Ferland is slated to start the season as Calgary’s first-line winger alongside Gaudreau and Monahan.
  • Hamonic will likely pair up with T.J. Brodie to begin; Gulutzan says that while Hamonic isn’t a “void” on offense, he expects Hamonic to open things up for Brodie.
  • Gulutzan expects a “big leap” from Sam Bennett.

Check out the full back-and-forth at the Calgary Sun.

If you need even more Flames action, there’s also this:

Francis hopes Hurricanes live up to hype

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This post is a part of Hurricanes day at PHT…

The Carolina Hurricanes haven’t been able to make the jump that some have been anticipating for a while, but that hasn’t shaken GM Ron Francis’ confidence in head coach Bill Peters. At least not yet.

Francis had high praise for Peters and other facets of this Hurricanes team in a detailed interview with Chip Alexander of the Raleigh News & Observer.

And, oh yeah, Francis also doesn’t have an issue with the Hurricanes being a dark horse candidate in many eyes.

“It all starts with us and we have a lot of belief in our players and we think we’re capable of having a good year and doing some good things,” Francis said. “I have no problem with people talking about that and putting those kind of expectations on us. Hopefully, they’re right.”

Even so, Francis had some interesting things to say about the makeup of the team, including the fact that while he’s comfortable with where Carolina stands, he’s also open to making a move if an opportunity comes up.

Don’t expect him to bash what they have, though.

Take the team’s set of centers, for instance.

“If you look around the league and you say ‘This guy is a legitimate No. 1, top-line center,’ there’s probably 16 of those guys in the entire league,” Francis said. “They are not easy to find, and a lot of time you have to draft those guys and develop them. We’re hoping we have that kind of guy in our system already, but I certainly feel the guys we have in the middle are elite center men.”

Francis reasonably views Jordan Staal as a sturdy “horse” for the team, and doesn’t seem too concerned by Victor Rask‘s uneven 2016-17 season. Even in also flattering depth options, those two will indeed play a role in Carolina taking the next step, as long as some big changes – Scott Darling getting a significant contract, Justin Williams coming back – end up working out.

That said, file this under “Easier said than done,” as the Hurricanes must navigate the brutal Metropolitan Division to get a “foot in the playoffs.” For all we know, that might not work out even if this group makes some big strides in 2017-18.

Either way, it’s enjoyable to get Francis’ perspective on the team, being that he was one of the most cerebral players of his era. Read the full article here.