The stretch run to the Olympic break begins tonight as the Ducks open a five-game homestand against the Minnesota Wild (7 p.m. PT, Prime Ticket, AM 830). The Ducks will look to sweep the season series, with previous victories in St. Paul (Oct. 5, 4-3 OTW) and Honda Center (Dec. 11, 2-1 W).
And for the first time since Nov. 22, the Ducks will have defenseman Luca Sbisa in the lineup. The 23-year-old has battled through an injury-plagued season which he describes as “terrible.” But he’ll put all that in the past with a fresh start tonight against Minnesota.
“I just have to go out there and play my game,” he said. “If I play the way I’m capable of playing, I can help this team out. It’s got to be right off the bat.”
But with the success the team has had this season, the affable defenseman knows he’ll have to play his best hockey to become an everyday player in a deep lineup.
“The team has been playing so well,” he said. “I’ll have to play well right away or they’ll go back to their regular guys. That’s the fair thing to do. I’m in a situation where there wasn’t much I could’ve done differently.
“Both injuries were bad luck or whatever you want to call it. There’s nothing else I can do but play well. I’m a player that plays better under a little bit of pressure.”
Sbisa is known for his mobility and physicality, and head coach Bruce Boudreau expects him to come out of the gates with a lot of energy.
“Here’s a guy that’s a top-four defenseman the last three years, and he’s only played nine games for us,” Boudreau said. “I’m expecting a little nervousness, but I’m thinking he’ll play really hard and want to get back in and be a regular.
“He’s a very likeable guy, so everyone wants to see him succeed. He’s mobile, he’s big, and he can hit. All of these things make our team better when he’s at his best.”
Sbisa is expected to take Mark Fistric’s spot in tonight’s lineup, and Jonas Hiller is expected to get the start in net.
EXPECTED LINE COMBINATIONS
Dustin Penner-Ryan Getzlaf-Corey Perry
Matt Beleskey-Nick Bonino-Jakob Silfverberg
Andrew Cogliano-Saku Koivu-Kyle Palmieri
Patrick Maroon-Mathieu Perreault-Teemu Selanne
Cam Fowler-Ben Lovejoy
Luca Sbisa-Francois Beauchemin
Bryan Allen-Hampus Lindholm
TAMING THE WILD
Minnesota enters tonight’s contest with a 6-3-1 record over its past 10 games, and currently sits in eighth place in the Western Conference with 62 points (28-20-6). Though the Wild has had its struggles on the road (9-13-4), only four points separate themselves from ninth-place Phoenix. This coupled with a highly skilled lineup that includes two Olympic-bound Americans (Zach Parise and Ryan Suter) makes for a very dangerous hockey club.
“They have a really quick team that works hard,” said Jakob Silfverberg. “[Parise and Suter] are very skilled players who put up great numbers. There’s a reason for that. We need to make sure not to give them any room or fun out there.”
Patrick Maroon says the physical element also makes the Wild a difficult team to play against, but one he feels the Ducks match up well against.
“We’re both big, physical teams with a lot of skill up front,” he said. “It’s been a good matchup for us. But for us to continue that, we need to keep playing good defensively against these guys because they have a lot of sneaky guys who can put the puck in the net.”
Not one to shy away from the physical play, Maroon says that’s how they’ll neutralize Parise, Suter and the rest of Minnesota’s talent.
“We just have to play hard against them,” he said. “You can’t let them out easy. You have to play physical. You have to hit them every chance they get the puck because then they shy away from it.
“That’s a big part of our success this year. Laying the body down, hitting a lot guys, hitting their skilled guys to separate themselves from the puck. It creates a lot for us, too. We’re that type of team. We’re big and strong, and we need to keep that physicality up.”
Anaheim owns an all-time record of 24-16-9 vs. the Wild, including a 15-7-2 mark at Honda Center. Anaheim is riding a club-best six-game winning streak vs. Minnesota, having swept last season's three-game set (3-0-0) along with a 2-1 win on Feb. 14, 2012. In addition, the Ducks have won three straight at Honda Center over the Wild.