By Kyle Shohara
After a long offseason, grueling training camp and seven preseason games, Anaheim’s 2014-15 regular season officially kicks off tonight against the Pittsburgh Penguins at CONSOL Energy Center (4 p.m. PT, Prime Ticket, AM 830).
Tonight marks the first match of an 82-game season that will eventually culminate on April 11 in Arizona. But for now, the focus is on tonight and tonight only.
Season openers have not been kind to the Ducks in their 20 seasons in the NHL. Anaheim owns a 5-15-0 record over that time, 16 of which have taken place on the road (3-13-0 in road season openers). At Pittsburgh the Ducks fare no better, sporting a 3-9-2 all-time record away from Honda Center.
“Everyone is eager to get going,” said forward Corey Perry. “This is what it’s all about. Anytime you bring in new faces, it’s an exciting time. They’re going to be excited, and we’re excited for them. Hopefully everyone jells together quickly and we can get this thing going in the right direction.”
In order to neutralize the high-flying Pens, the Ducks will need to shut down two of the game’s superstars: Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. Crosby is the reigning Hart Trophy (NHL MVP) and Ted Lindsay Award winner (NHLPA most outstanding player), and led the league with 104 points last season (Getzlaf finished second with 87). Malkin finished second on the Pens with 72 points in 2013-14 and led the team with 14 points during the 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Malkin missed all of preseason with an undisclosed injury and only practiced twice with the team, but all indications are that he’s playing tonight. First-year Penguins head coach Mike Johnston said yesterday that there’s a “99-percent chance” Malkin will play tonight, up from 50-50 on Tuesday. That’s an encouraging sign for the Penguins, who are 24-13-9 all-time in home openers (21-19-6 all-time in season openers).
Defenseman Olli Maatta is also expected to play tonight after undergoing offseason shoulder surgery. The 20-year-old earned 29 points last season, the most by a Penguins rookie blueliner since former Duck Ryan Whitney (38) in 2005-06.
“They’ve changed a little bit system-wise, but other than that, when you look down their lineup, there isn’t a lot of weak links,” said head coach Bruce Boudreau. “You better be ready to bring your A-game, or they’re going to beat you every time.”
If the morning skate was any indication, tonight’s starter will be Pittsburgh native John Gibson. The 21-year-old burst onto the scene last year, earning a shutout in his regular-season debut at Vancouver and finishing with a 3-0-0 record with a 1.33 goals-against average and .954 save percentage. Gibson went on to record a shutout in his postseason debut, a 2-0 victory in Game 4 of the Western Conference Second Round at Los Angeles. At 20 years and 300 days, Gibson became the youngest goalie in NHL history to record a shutout in his playoff debut, and was only the sixth NHL goaltender in the previous 60 years to post a shutout in his first Stanley Cup Playoff game, the first since Jonas Hiller did so for the Ducks in 2009 (April 16 at San Jose, Western Conference Quarterfinals).
According to reports, a group of approximately 200 friends and family members will be in attendance tonight to watch Gibson in action (if he starts).
“Anytime you get to play in your hometown, it’s a little more special," Gibson said after practice yesterday. “To get the start on opening night here would be a pretty cool experience.”
After being unable to put any weight on his leg last week after a fall in practice, defenseman Cam Fowler was the first onto the ice this morning at CONSOL Energy Center. The 22-year-old has been cleared by the team’s training staff, according to Boudreau.
Fowler tallied 36 points (6g/30a) with a career-high +15 rating and 14 penalty minutes in 70 games last season, and matched his personal best in assists and led Anaheim defensemen in scoring, assists and power-play goals (4), and co-led in goals. Fowler led the team overall in total TOI (1670:24), average TOI (23:51) and ranked third in blocked shots (122).
Tonight marks the first of two games against the Penguins. The Ducks went 0-1-1 vs. the Penguins last season, dropping a 3-1 decision in Pittsburgh on Nov. 18, 2013 and a 3-2 shootout at Honda Center on March 7, 2014. Corey Perry leads active Ducks skaters in career scoring vs. Pittsburgh, earning 10 points (7g/3a) in nine career games. Perry (2g/1a) and Ryan Getzlaf (1g/2a) co-led the team in scoring vs. the Penguins last season, each picking up three points in two games. All-time, Anaheim is 10-13-3 vs. Pittsburgh. The Ducks and Penguins will meet again in the series finale on March 6, 2015 at Honda Center.
MILESTONES WITHIN REACH
Francois Beauchemin - 4 points to 200 NHL points
Andrew Cogliano - 9 points to 100 points as a Duck
Cam Fowler - 6 assists to 100 NHL assists
Ryan Kesler - 7 points to 400 NHL points
Nate Thompson - 9 appearances to 400 NHL games