CHICAGO -- Maybe there should be a new favorite in the Western Conference. The Anaheim Ducks have stated their case emphatically.
The Ducks stayed perfect this season against the first-place Chicago Blackhawks with a 2-1 win at United Center on Friday. Sheldon Souray scored the winner with 2:08 remaining in regulation and Jonas Hiller made 25 saves as Anaheim improved to 3-0-0 against Chicago and snapped its own four-game losing streak.
Goalie Ray Emery took the loss for Chicago, his first in 13 decisions this season.
The second-place Ducks, who needed third-period comebacks to beat the Blackhawks in their two previous meetings, moved within three points of Chicago in the Western Conference standings. More important, the Ducks swept the season series against the Blackhawks -- and may own the mental edge over them as well.
Chicago is 25-2-2 against every other team in the Western Conference, but just 0-2-1 against the Ducks. All three games have been tight, with Anaheim scoring in the waning moments of the third period to win in regulation or send the game to overtime. On Friday, the Blackhawks were also missing two of their stars -- Marian Hossa and Patrick Sharp -- due to injury.
"I think we've proven to ourselves that we can beat the best team in the League on any night," Ducks forward Bobby Ryan said.
Ryan, though, was among several players in Anaheim's dressing room who didn't want to read too much into the significance of being perfect against Chicago in the regular season.
"Sure it might mean something if we play them in the [Stanley Cup] Playoffs at some point, but that's still too far ahead, at least for me," Hiller said. "I'm more worried about the next few games."
The Ducks will try to build on their first win in five games against the Columbus Blue Jackets at Nationwide Arena on Sunday. That precedes a three-game mini-series over a span of five days against the Dallas Stars, starting Monday in Texas.
"It's good we have a little success against them [the Blackhawks] in the regular season, and that's all it means," said Souray, whose winning goal was a rocket from the left point that broke Chicago defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson's stick and still went through traffic to get past Emery.
"We've got a lot of hockey left and everyone is chasing them, but we're really chasing them," he continued. "It's a good win, a good two points. We're glad to get off the slide. We'll enjoy it and get back to work against Columbus."
Chicago can at least take solace in the fact that all three games against the Ducks have been relatively even. However, losing all three, especially the way they lost them, stings and won't provide the Blackhawks much in the way of confidence should these teams clash in the playoffs, perhaps the Western Conference Finals.
"You look at how close you are to the finish line and you come up with nothing, it's almost hard to imagine that we come up with no wins and only one point [against Anaheim]," Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville said. "It's a disappointment in ways, but hopefully there are lessons there because when games are on the line, tight games, that's when we gotta be our best."
The Ducks have been at their best late in all of the games against Chicago. The only difference Friday night was their formula for success. Instead of pushing hard for a third-period comeback as they did in the previous two meetings, the Ducks had to overcome giving up a game-tying power-play goal to Patrick Kane just 2:26 into the third period, which came seconds after Emery robbed Daniel Winnik of a shorthanded goal with an athletic left foot save.
The Ducks overcame the swing in momentum for three major reasons:
* Anaheim's top line of Ryan Getzlaf, Ryan and Corey Perry didn't give the Hawks a chance to use the momentum created by Emery's save and Kane's subsequent goal because they spent nearly 30 seconds of the very next shift in the offensive zone and created a couple of scoring chances.
"Getzlaf's line hemmed them in and took the crowd sort of out of it again," Ducks coach Bruce Boudreau said. "It wasn't that loudness that you usually get in Chicago."
* Hiller was perfect against all five shots he faced over the final 17 1/2 minutes of regulation, but more impressive was the Ducks' work in front of him to keep the slot clear and scoring chances down.
"We did a way better job in our own zone," Hiller said.
* The Ducks intelligently funneled the puck to Souray at the left point and he responded by using his 100 mile-per-hour shot to beat Emery for the winning goal. The quick passing of Francois Beauchemin to Getzlaf to Perry opened up a shooting lane for Souray.
"When he gets it, it's a hard thing to stop," Boudreau said. "He shoots faster than he skates, I'll tell you that."
Other than the two points earned Friday, most important to Anaheim was how it played in the first period. A strong start was the Ducks' main point of emphasis heading into the game -- they had lost their previous four games in part because they were outscored 9-1 in the first 20 minutes.
This one was 0-0 at the first intermission. The Ducks were thrilled.
"If you look at the last four games, we have lost all four in the first 10 minutes," forward Teemu Selanne said. "That was the focus, be ready because usually second and third is always good for us. When we get going, usually we are good. Luckily we got the good start and this team [the Blackhawks] here, they're probably the best team in the League in the first period. You've got to be ready right away."
Perry opened the scoring with his 11th goal of the season just 75 seconds into the second period. The Ducks carried the lead until Emery's save led to Kane's game-tying power-play goal, but yet again they found a way to beat the Blackhawks with a strong finish.
Does this mean there is a new favorite in the West?
"It's just regular season," Selanne said. "Our goal is to build the momentum to the playoffs, and it's a new season then."
|Niklas Hjalmarsson Interference against Bobby Ryan|
|Corey Perry Hooking against Bryan Bickell|
|Luca Sbisa Interference against Michael Frolik|
|Sheldon Souray Delaying Game-Puck over glass|
|Francois Beauchemin Slashing against Andrew Shaw|