By Kyle Shohara
With the All-Star break now a thing of the past, the sprint to the postseason officially begins. Sure, it’s still only (late) January, but aside from a three-day stretch between games from Jan. 31-Feb. 2, the Ducks will be playing nearly every other night for the next two months. Their next “break” of three or more days won’t come until the final week of the regular season, when they play April 3 vs. Colorado and April 8 vs. Dallas.
And after a home-friendly schedule that allowed the Ducks to stay within Southern California for 36 of 37 days from Dec. 20-Jan. 25, tonight begins a road-heavy slate that has Anaheim playing seven of its next nine away from Honda Center.
There is no getting around the fact that this time of the year tends to be the “dog days” of an NHL season. The excitement that comes from the start of a new season has worn off, and the final weeks of the regular season are still months away. Staying motivated during these times can be a challenge for some, but not for the Ducks, who currently sit atop the NHL with 68 points (31-10-6). Ducks head coach Bruce Boudreau likes to attack the season on a week-to-week basis, giving his team short-term goals to keep them motivated. But this isn’t your typical work week.
The Ducks open this week with a road contest tonight at Vancouver, and then travel to San Jose for a game on Thursday night. Both are playoff-contending teams, with the division-rival Sharks (56 points) holding a one-point lead over the third-place Canucks in the Pacific. Then it’s back home for a can’t-miss matchup against the powerhouse Chicago Blackhawks at Honda Center on Friday night.
“We’ve had three shootout games against Vancouver, we’re 1-1 against Chicago and we’ve won one in overtime against San Jose,” said Boudreau. “It’s a really tough portion of our schedule right now. Not the easiest week in the world, I’ll tell you that much. It’s meaningful. Absolutely meaningful. It’s going to be a great test for us, but it’s a season of tests. Hopefully we’ll pass them again.”
“It’s a good test,” said former Canuck Ryan Kesler. “We’re going to go out there and prove to everybody, once again, that we’re the best team in the league.”
So it begins tonight, at Rogers Arena, against a Canucks team with a little less snarl on the blueline. Yesterday it was announced that 33-year-old defenseman Kevin Bieksa will be out for six to eight weeks following hand surgery. Bieksa, who goes by the nickname “Juice,” was struck in the hand by a shot from Tampa Bay’s Victor Hedman seven days ago. Bieksa was averaging 21:16 minutes per game, including 1:58 in shorthanded situations, and ranked third on the team in hits (74) and blocked shots (75) at the time of his injury.
“We'll miss Kevin,” said Canucks head coach Willie Desjardins. “He's been a big part of our team. When a game gets tough, he's always a guy that gets better. So we'll miss him, for sure. But, like any injury, somebody else has to step up and play well.”
You can expect to see Frederik Andersen and Ryan Miller in net tonight. Among league netminders, Andersen currently ranks second in wins (26) and leads in shootout victories (6). Andersen has posted victories in 16 of his last 19 decisions (16-2-1).
Miller helped backstop the Canucks to a franchise-best road shutout streak of 2:59:49 (he played 2:57:16 of that streak), spanning from Jan. 13-19. Miller also established a personal best of 3:20:45 from Jan. 8-19, which included back to back shutouts on the road. The 34-year-old enters tonight’s action with a 23-10-1 record.
Kesler is set to make his fourth appearance against his former team since joining the Ducks in a trade last summer. Kesler, who was drafted 23rd overall by Vancouver in the 2003 NHL Draft, went on to play 10 NHL seasons with the Canucks, scoring 393 points (182g/211a) in 655 career games from 2003-14. The Livonia, Michigan native was met with a mixture of cheers and boos at the onset of his first game back in Vancouver on Nov. 20 (4-3 shootout victory), which then turned into a chorus of boos every time he touched the puck.
It was an emotional night for Kesler, who called Vancouver home ever since he attended his first training camp at the age of 18. But those feelings, he says, have come and gone.
“I still have friends here, but that’s about it.” Expect more boos from the Canucks faithful tonight.
With four days off to rest a lower-body injury, defenseman Clayton Stoner appears to be ready for game action again. The 29-year-old says it was a “smart move” to sit out last Wednesday’s game vs. Calgary, the team’s final game before the All-Star break. “It was just at a convenient time where I didn’t have to risk playing,” he said. “I thought it was best.”
Stoner, who took part in every drill during practice yesterday, has skated in 40 of the club’s 48 games this season.