Quite a test on deck for the Blue Jackets tonight in Anaheim, perhaps their most difficult to date this season.
The Ducks are 11-2-1 and just won five of six games on their 11-day road trip, and trail only the Chicago Blackhawks in points for top spot in the entire NHL. Headlining the hot start for Anaheim has been 30-year-old rookie goaltender Viktor Fasth, who's 8-0-0 and wrestled the starting job from incumbent Jonas Hiller, who struggled to open the season.
UPDATE: Hiller gets a rare start tonight against the Blue Jackets, which comes as a slight surprise given the run that Fasth is on right now. The Blue Jackets are going with Sergei Bobrovsky tonight.
Bruce Boudreau has the Ducks playing a high-tempo, north-south style of hockey that hockey fans embraced when he coached the Washington Capitals. It's non-stop, relentless pressure and it comes from all four lines; free-agent pickup Daniel Winnik is playing bottom six minutes for Anaheim but has five goals and nine points in the club's first 14 games. Everyone contributes in Boudreau's system and that's exactly what the Ducks have received to this point: contributions up and down the lineup.
With the likes of Ryan Getzlaf, Bobby Ryan and Corey Perry in the lineup, it may come as a surprise that a pair of veteran Finns -- 38-year-old Saku Koivu and 42-year-old Teemu Selanne -- are Anaheim's leading scorers with 14 and 15 points, respectively. They've paced the Ducks offense and are showing no signs of slowing down in the compacted schedule, which is exciting for hockey fans and scary for opponents.
There are many things the Blue Jackets will have to do better tonight than they did Saturday if a win is in the cards; they traded chances with the Coyotes and got into a shoot-em-up style of game that featured a lot of penalties and little to no flow.
Here are my "three keys" to success for the Blue Jackets tonight:
1. Play your game: It's awfully tempting to get drawn into playing the Ducks' style, especially if they score first. Anaheim likes to get the lead and keep going until the opponent is tired, and in order to combat that, the Blue Jackets must stick to their game plan of getting the puck in deep and making the Ducks do most of the work to create their opportunities. Columbus can't get into a habit of giving teams power play chances, especially with as many skilled players as the Ducks have on their roster.
2. Stay disciplined: The Blue Jackets' penalty kill has been one of the bright spots this season, but it was put to work far too often against the Coyotes. NHL power plays are too good to be kept off the board in seven or eight chances per game, and Columbus found out the hard way as Martin Hanzal scored the game-winner on Phoenix's eighth power play opportunity on Saturday night. Staying out of the box and playing at even strength is going to be key tonight, given the Ducks' team speed and ability to draw opponents into "lazy" penalties.
3. Check it back: Anaheim likes to possess the puck and work a low cycle game -- particularly with its top two lines -- which means the Blue Jackets have to break the cycle as soon as possible. As we've discussed recently in this space, that comes down to winning the first battles on loose pucks and getting the puck out of danger before the territory can be established in their end of the rink. "Checking the puck back" is something coaches will often say, and it's a good way to keep possession-style teams from dictating the game.