2011-2012 season preview: Anaheim Ducks

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2010-2011 record: 47-30-5, 99 points; 2nd in Pacific, 4th in West

Playoffs: Lost to Nashville 4-2 in Western quarterfinals

After an embarrassingly bad road trip to start last season, the Ducks managed to turn things around and eventually earn home-ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs last season. Teemu Selanne proved that he could still play even though he turned 40 before last season. Lubomir Visnovsky showed that he is one of the most potent offensive defensemen in the league, and Jonas Hiller demonstrated in the first half that he is a world class goaltender. Take all of that and mix in an unstoppable top line led by the defending Hart Trophy winner and there are plenty of pieces in place to get fans in Anaheim excited.

Offense

There’s no question that the Ducks’ offensive line is extremely top-heavy — but those few stars showed that they were capable of carrying the team last season. MVP Corey Perry, captain Ryan Getzlaf, and Bobby Ryan combined last season to be arguably the top line in the entire NHL last season. Selanne joined Getzlaf and Perry on the power play and put up 31 goals and 80 points of his own. If the major players can stay healthy, they’re going to get theirs.

For the Ducks, the key will be for the team to get some scoring depth from the other lines. Jason Blake and Saku Koivu will join Selanne on the second line. Newcomer Andrew Cogliano will take over for Todd Marchant as the shutdown center. Another bottom-six player to watch could be rookie Devante Smith-Pelly — he plays the perfect style of game to be an effective, physical player who can create energy and opportunities for his teammates.

Defense

The weak spot on the Ducks is their blue line. Guys like Lubomir Visnovsky and Cam Fowler are the types of blueliners who can create offense from the point, but true shutdown defenseman are few and far between in Anaheim. Toni Lydman was a fantastic surprise for the team last year and will be asked to do the same last season. Francois Beauchemin will also look to rediscover the game he left during his first stint with the Ducks. Regardless, the Ducks were 20th in the league in goals against average — not a good stat considering Jonas Hiller and Ray Emery were such strong goaltenders last season.

Goalies

The word out of Anaheim throughout training camp is that Jonas Hiller is 100 percent and ready to start the season as the No. 1 goalie. He was one of the best goaltenders in the league going into the all-star break, but a bout with vertigo symptoms in essence sidelined him for the entire second half. Ray Emery stepped in with Dan Ellis to help the Ducks survive to the playoffs — but it’s always been Hiller’s net. In the offseason, the Ducks let Emery leave for a tryout in Chicago and acquired Jeff Deslauriers to put a little pressure on Ellis for the backup role.

Coaching

Randy Carlyle started his tenure in Anaheim with a trip to the Western Conference finals in 2006 followed it with the franchise’s first (and only) Stanley Cup in 2007. Unfortunately, the team and Carlyle haven’t had as much playoff success in the four years since reaching the promised land. Still, the Ducks have consistently been a playoff contender — due in large part to Carlyle’s ability to get his team to play with a tough edge.

Breakout candidate

Cam Fowler has all the makings of a breakout player this season. After his highly-publicized freefall in the 2010 draft, Fowler found himself in Anaheim in his very first season. He gradually became more comfortable on the ice and finished the season with 10 goals and 40 points. He also had a minus-25 rating. The Ducks and Fowler say that he’s more comfortable on both sides of the puck and he’s slated to get first-line power play minutes this season. Watch for Fowler to improve upon his rookie stats and grow into a legitimate top-four defenseman role.

Best-case scenario

In some ways, the Ducks can look to last season for their best-case scenario. Perry was able to put the team on his back and score 50 goals (even with Getzlaf out for an extended period of time). Selanne was able to stay healthy and didn’t miss a beat and Hiller was one of the best goaltenders in the game during the first half. If Anaheim can replicate everything from last season and have better luck on the injury front, it could battle for home-ice in the first round again.

Reality

The Ducks will need to prove that they can keep the puck out of the net. In a way, Anaheim is an interesting case study in building a team. While the Ducks used defense to win a Cup in ’07, they’re now led by an elite handful of scorers and a great goaltender. They could certainly use more depth at forward and a little more help on the defensive side of the blue line. Still, the Ducks proved that their formula can produce positive results when everyone produces at the highest level. They may slip, but the third spot in the Pacific and the seventh spot in the Western Conference are realistic expectations.

Video: AHL goalie Jonas Gustavsson scores his first career goal

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He didn’t shoot, but Jonas Gustavsson still scored.

The former NHL netminder, now with the Bakersfield Condors in the AHL, scored his first career goal Friday, as part of his team’s victory over the San Diego Gulls.

From the AHL:

With San Diego goaltender Dustin Tokarski on the bench for an extra attacker and the Gulls working on a power play, Gustavsson made a save before an errant San Diego pass slid down the length of the ice and into the vacated net at 16:56 of the third period.

Gustavsson is the fifth AHL goaltender to be credited with a goal without actually shooting the puck into the opposition net. In addition to his goal, Gustavsson stopped 30 of 31 shots in the Condors victory.

Bolts and Islanders both win, which is bad news for Bruins

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The New York Islanders and Tampa Bay Lightning each had to work overtime to decide their separate games, but when they ended, both clubs were victorious.

And that makes things even more interesting in the Eastern Conference wild card race.

With their shootout win in Pittsburgh, the Islanders tie the Bruins in points but take over the final playoff spot for now with fewer games played. The Lightning, despite an abundance of injuries all season, are just a point back of Boston and New York.

Nikita Kucherov scored the winner for Tampa Bay against the Red Wings. He’s up to 38 goals, which is second most in the league behind Sidney Crosby, currently at 42 goals.

Sellers leading up to the trade deadline, and without Steven Stamkos since the middle of November, the Lightning are in the thick of this race, even if others may have counted them out.

“Once again, people counted us out,” defenseman Victor Hedman told the Tampa Bay Times. “But we showed a lot of character. And we’re right back in it.”

The Bolts don’t play again until Monday, when they host the Chicago Blackhawks — only one of the hottest teams in the league.

Meanwhile, Saturday’s busy slate of games includes a showdown between the Bruins and Islanders. For Boston, it’s a chance for redemption after a particularly costly third period against Tampa Bay on Thursday.

What is wrong with the Sharks?

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Not that long ago, the San Jose Sharks appeared well on their way to winning the Pacific Division title.

On March 14, they had a seven-point lead on both Anaheim and Calgary. Gone is that advantage. Not only have the Ducks surged back into the fight for the division, but the Sharks have lost five in a row and are having a terrible time of late creating any offense.

The Ducks defeated the Jets on Friday, moving into a tie with the Sharks at 91 points.

San Jose’s struggles hit a new low Friday with a 6-1 loss to the Dallas Stars, a team with its own flaws and nowhere close to a playoff position.

At one point midway through the second period, the Sharks trailed the Stars by four goals and had only six lousy shots on goal. During this skid, San Jose has scored only five goals.

Earlier this week, members of the Sharks said they weren’t terribly worried about this losing streak. The losses, they had said, were in close games, which is true: San Jose lost three consecutive one-goal games.

“When I look at the losing streak, we dominated some of those games for long periods and found ways to lose. You never like to lose, but I’m not that concerned,” Sharks coach Pete DeBoer told CSN Bay Area. “We’ve got to obviously end it. We’ve got to get healthy. I don’t see a bunch of symptoms of a team that can’t get this fixed pretty quickly.”

This, however, was a blowout. Adam Cracknell recorded the hat trick, pushing his single-season career-high in goals to 10.

The performance at one point forced DeBoer to take a timeout, in which he expressed his displeasure.

Making matters worse for the Sharks: Defenseman Marc-Edouard Vlasic left the game early in the third period and was put under further evaluation. He didn’t return.

The Sharks visit the Nashville Predators on Saturday.

Halak and the Islanders defeat Penguins, move into wild card spot

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Quite a hockey game between the New York Islanders and Pittsburgh Penguins on Friday.

It offered plenty to enjoy — Phil Kessel‘s dominant but unfruitful shift in overtime, a combined 86 shots on goal between both teams, a showcase of skill from the likes of John Tavares and Sidney Crosby, and two strong goaltending performances from Jaroslav Halak and Marc-Andre Fleury.

Josh Ho-Sang, who wears No. 66, which is just fine in the eyes of Mario Lemieux, set up Brock Nelson‘s goal in the second period.

The Islanders and their fans probably aren’t hung up on style points at this juncture of the season. They just care about wins and points in the standings, and those are exactly what New York accomplished with a 4-3 shootout win in Pittsburgh.

Anthony Beauvillier and Tavares scored for the Islanders in the shootout. Halak made 37 stops, including a game-saver in overtime off Matt Cullen. Halak trapped the puck, which was right on the goal line, between his legs on a chance from in front. The play was reviewed but no goal.

The win gives the Islanders 82 points, which is the same total as the struggling Boston Bruins.

However, the Islanders, with one game in hand on the Bruins, take over the final wild card spot in the East for now.