By Shawn Roarke
CHICAGO -- Anaheim Ducks defenseman Simon Despres is becoming less of a mystery to his team every day.
Despres made one of his bigger reveals Thursday, finally illustrating in Game 3 of the Western Conference Final the goal-scoring touch that was part of the reason he was so coveted by Anaheim general manager Bob Murray as the 2015 NHL Trade Deadline approached.
Defense - ANA
GOALS: 1 | ASST: 6 | PTS: 7
SOG: 16 | +/-: 8
Despres scored the first Stanley Cup Playoff goal of his career on a well-placed one-timer with 55 seconds remaining in the second period at United Center, breaking a tie and providing the winning margin in a 2-1 victory against the Chicago Blackhawks.
“For a guy you didn’t know too much about, he’s a really good player,” forward Andrew Cogliano said.
Anaheim leads the best-of-7 series 2-1. Game 4 is Saturday at United Center (8 p.m. ET; NBC, CBC, TVA Sports).
Despres, 23, was in the midst of his first full season with the Penguins when he was traded for veteran defenseman Ben Lovejoy on March 2. He had spent parts of three earlier seasons shuttling between the Penguins and their affiliate in the American Hockey League, working to refine the skills that helped make him the final pick of the first round of the 2009 NHL Draft.
“I wouldn't be the same player today if I didn't go to Pittsburgh and the lessons I learned there,” Despres said.
Yet he was far from a finished product, and it appears his burgeoning legend had not yet made its way to his new teammates in Anaheim. Several players have confessed to knowing very little about the soft-spoken Despres, even after he arrived.
That has changed quickly. Despres is adding admirers by the day with his play.
Asked what he liked about Despres, coach Bruce Boudreau talked about the defenseman's ability to play his off side on the blue line, a tricky proposition that's often a difficult task for veterans to master.
But it goes deeper than that.
“I think the calmness,” Boudreau said. “The calmness of not just getting the puck and throwing it away, getting on the backhand, just throwing it off the glass.
“He's a big, strong guy, so he can protect the puck really well. That's a real positive thing. His goal was a great one-timer. He doesn't get a chance to one-time the puck too often from his position. It was a great goal and a great shot.”
Despres might argue with that description; at least the part about the quality of the shot.
“I'm not a goal-scorer,” he said. “I just tried to hit the net and get it off as quick as possible.”
Actually, much like Despres, the truth is more complicated than that simplistic first assessment.
On the play, forward Ryan Getzlaf made a sharp pass to Despres, who was in the process of pinching into the zone along the wall near the top of the right circle. Despres cocked his stick and fired, sending a shot sliding along the ice that beat goalie Corey Crawford to the short side.
“We started moving the puck very well in their end and [Getzlaf] faked a shot and made a nice play to me and I had a wide-open cage,” he said. “Corey [Perry] made a nice net-front [target] and [Chicago goaltender] Corey [Crawford] was definitely thinking about him, and that left me the whole net.”
The goal blunted a Chicago pushback in the latter portions of the second period and gave Anaheim the lead heading into the third. Anaheim hasn’t coughed up a lead yet in this series, so it was a good bit of timing by Despres.
“Those are momentum-turners,” Cogliano said of Despres' goal. “They make the team feel better, make the team uplift a bit. It was a big goal for him, a big goal for the team. That’s a difference; a difference is a guy stepping up at the right time. That’s what you need in playoffs.”
But Despres did more than score the deciding goal.
He played more than four minutes on a penalty kill that was under siege early in this game and still licking its wounds from allowing two goals in Game 2, a 3-2 triple-overtime win by the Blackhawks. In 9:08 of power-play time Thursday, Chicago was credited with one shot on goal.
In the game’s dying minutes, Despres was tapped on the shoulder and asked to help protect the lead he had created. He was almost as pleased about that as with the goal he scored.
“I like the confidence when the coach put me out there,” Despres said. “I do my best to keep it that way; work hard and block shots and be a good defensive player.”
It’s a safe bet that everyone in his dressing room knows enough about Simon Despres now.
“He’s a great kid,” defense partner Cam Fowler said. “He’s playing super-well for us, and we just hope that that can continue.”