As the Ducks prepare for tonight's game against the Winnipeg Jets, winning the Pacific Division might be one of the last things on their minds. It would be an accomplishment, no doubt, considering the quality of competition within the division, but as the last four years have proven, it means very little if you're not the last team standing in June.
After bouncing around the standings for the better part of the season, the Ducks can move into a tie for first place if they win and the San Jose Sharks lose in regulation tonight. Anaheim is tied with the Edmonton Oilers, who used a five-goal third period to cap off a 7-4 victory last night in Colorado. Yesterday a few of the Ducks said the most important thing right now is playing their best entering the Stanley Cup Playoffs. It's about peaking at the right time of the year, and right now, the Ducks are surging.
The Ducks have gone 5-1-1 over their last seven games and 7-2-1 dating to the end of their bye week on March 3. At home, the Ducks have reeled off six wins in their last eight (6-1-1) and have posted a 14-4-2 record at Honda Center since January 1 (second among NHL teams in home standings points (30) and wins). All seven of their wins since the bye week ended have come against teams currently in playoff spots.
Their opponent tonight, technically, has not been eliminated from playoff contention yet, but they will be soon. The Jets are coming off a 5-2 defeat last night in LA and sit 12 points behind Nashville for the second wild card spot. Despite their place in the standings, Ducks head coach Randy Carlyle says he expects Winnipeg to come out strong.
"They're going to look to avenge last night's performance, I'm sure," he said. "They've got one of the most dynamic scorers in the league. They also have a big forward group and a hulking defenseman in Dustin Byfuglien. With Mark Scheifele and Blake Wheeler, they're a big, aggressive hockey club. You know they're going to be coming to the net. There are no easy ones in the NHL, I guarantee."
The dynamic scorer Carlyle is referring to is Patrik Laine, the 18-year-old forward who leads NHL rookies with 61 points (34g/27a) and ranks fourth among all players in goals. Laine was selected with the second overall pick, behind Toronto's Auston Matthews, in the 2016 NHL Draft. Entering tonight's game, Laine holds a one-point lead on Matthews for the rookie scoring race.
Laine co-leads rookies (with Toronto's William Nylander) in power-play goals (9) and ranks tied for fourth in shots on goal (182). Much like Washington's Alex Ovechkin, Laine likes to unload one-timers on his off wing just above the left faceoff dot on the power play.
This will be Anaheim's first up-close look at Laine, who did not play in the series opener after suffering a concussion two weeks prior. "You just can't let him shoot," said defenseman Sami Vatanen. "He's having an unbelievable year. He's a good guy off the ice, too." Vatanen knows Laine, as the two were teammates on Team Finland at the 2016 World Cup of Hockey.
The Jets did not hold a morning skate at Honda Center, so it remains to be seen if emergency call-up Brenden Kichton makes his NHL debut tonight. The 24-year-old defenseman was recalled earlier today from Winnipeg's AHL affiliate (Manitoba Moose) and could slot in for Byfuglien or fellow blueliner Josh Morrissey, both injured last night against the Kings. Byfuglien left the game in the third period with an undisclosed injury, while Morrissey took a shot off his left leg in the same period. Jacob Trouba has missed the past five games with an upper-body injury, one of five regulars on defense that have been unavailable for the Jets.
John Gibson was on the ice for the second consecutive day as he continues to recover from a lower-body injury. Gibson admitted he came back too early when he played in St. Louis on March 10 (after coming off a lower-body injury). This time around, Gibson says he's not risking anything. "I want to make sure once I come back this time, I'm back for good and don't have any setbacks."
Until Gibson is ready to play, the Ducks are going to continue leaning on Jonathan Bernier, who has gone 7-1-1 with one shutout, a 1.64 goals-against average and .948 save percentage in nine starts since March 3. Since that date, Bernier co-leads NHL goaltenders in wins, ranks third in save percentage (minimum five starts) and fourth in goals-against average (minimum five starts).
"Right now, we're rolling with Bernier," said Carlyle. "Let's not forget what he's done for us. We're going to go with the guy who is healthy and giving us a chance."
Potential Line Combinations
Video: Ducks preview their matchup with the Jets