By Kyle Shohara
Two Western Conference powerhouses square off in a highly anticipated early-season matchup tonight in Chicago. The Ducks enter the game sitting atop the Western Conference with 7-2-0 record (14 points), while the Blackhawks sit in fourth place (second in the Central) with a 5-2-1 mark (11 points). Though Chicago won two of the three matchups between these teams in 2013-14, Anaheim has won five of the last seven in the head-to-head series dating to 2011-12.
Tonight will serve as another test for the Ducks, who saw their six-game winning streak come to an end in a penalty-filled 4-1 loss to San Jose on Sunday.
Defenseman Clayton Stoner is quite familiar with the Blackhawks, having played against them 15 times as a member of the Central Division-rival Minnesota Wild.
“They’re very offensive and their transition game is really quick,” he said. “They’re a five-man unit that moves around the offensive zone really well. You need to know your assignments and know where your guys are. You can’t be losing guys. You have to be quick on them.”
Head coach Bruce Boudreau says Chicago’s defensive core, which hasn’t changed for years, is a big reason why the team has found success year after year. “If you look at their [defensive] core, it [hasn’t changed],” he said. “Until they don’t have Duncan Keith, Johnny Oduya, Brent Seabrook and Niklas Hjalmarsson, they’ll play the same way. These four guys have been with them for the last five years, and their top two lines have been interchangeable for the last five years.”
With Ben Lovejoy out 6-8 weeks with a fractured right finger (more on his injury below), the Ducks recalled right-handed shooting defenseman Josh Manson from Norfolk of the American Hockey League yesterday. Manson, 23, recorded one point (assist) with four penalty minutes in seven games for Norfolk this season. The 6-3, 217-pound defenseman also appeared in one preseason contest for the Ducks last month, going scoreless with five penalty minutes.
Boudreau says he has three options to choose from to play alongside Cam Fowler. “We’ve got a choice of Mark Fistric, Josh Manson and Bryan Allen,” he said. “We’ll make a decision before the game.”
HEATLEY READY TO GO
There is a strong possibility that Dany Heatley makes his long-awaited Ducks debut tonight. Heatley skated with Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry yesterday at practice, and took part in line rushes this morning at United Center. The 33-year-old left wing says he’s raring to go.
“I got a little taste in preseason, but I’m really anxious to get things going,” he said. “I feel good. Getting off the plane for three hours, practicing and not feeling it, was good. These are huge games. What a road trip.”
Getting up to speed with Getzlaf and Perry, he says, shouldn’t be an issue. “I’ve watched them and played with them, and I know what they’re doing. Hopefully it doesn’t take me that long to be back into it.”
STARTING IN NET
If the morning skate was any indication, tonight’s goaltending matchup will be Anaheim’s John Gibson against Chicago’s Scott Darling. Like Gibson did in his NHL debut last season (3-0 shutout victory on April 7 at Vancouver), Darling won his first career NHL game, a 32-save performance in Chicago’s 2-1 victory vs. Ottawa on Sunday.
Darling, an Illinois native, has split time among the SPHL, ECHL and AHL since the 2010-11 season. The 25-year-old signed with the Blackhawks on July 1 and was recalled by the club Tuesday after posting a 2-0-0 record with a 1.44 goals-against average and .948 save percentage in two appearances this season with the Rockford IceHogs (AHL).
Gibson earned his first victory of the season on Friday vs. Columbus, a 16-save performance in Anaheim’s 4-1 victory at Honda Center.
Lovejoy sustained his fractured right finger during a fight with Sharks forward Joe Pavelski at 10:18 of the third period in Sunday’s 4-1 loss to San Jose at Honda Center.
“I feel bad for him,” said Fowler. “It’s a tough thing. He was just sticking up for his teammates, doing the right things. Those things will happen.”
Lovejoy has been Fowler’s partner since his arrival from Pittsburgh in February, 2013. The two developed instant chemistry, and last season Fowler saw his plus-minus rating skyrocket to +15, the highest of his career. Lovejoy’s plus-21 rating was also a career high.
“He complements me very well, and that chemistry is hard to find,” said Fowler. “However, we have people in here that I’ve played with before. It’s going to be a little bit of an adjustment, but nothing that I can’t handle. He brings a very important element to our team. He plays a lot of big minutes, and he certainly helps me out a lot on the ice. He’ll certainly be missed.”
The 30-year-old Lovejoy has one assist and a plus-2 rating while having played an average of 17:58 minutes in nine games for the Ducks so far this season.
ONE GAME AT A TIME
Tonight marks the first of a four-game road trip spanning six days and 4,731 miles. All four opponents qualified for the 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs, and figure to do the same this season. But the Ducks are in the here and now, a mindset that Stoner says is required for success.
“It’s one game at a time,” he said. “That’s how we’re going to approach it. The best thing we can do is put all of our focus on one game. We can’t worry about who we’re playing next or where we’re headed from here. We just need to worry about the Blackhawks tonight.”