By Kyle Shohara
Suitcases were packed to the brim two days ago when the Ducks left Orange County for Pittsburgh, and with good reason. What they’re about to face is a season-long road trip that covers seven games over 13 days. It begins tonight in Pittsburgh, ends Feb. 18 in Vancouver, and includes two sets of back-to-backs.
With a road trip of this magnitude and duration comes a tendency to look ahead on the itinerary, so Ducks head coach Bruce Boudreau says the team’s sole focus right now is on Pittsburgh.
“You have to look at it as taking it one day at a time,” he said. “We’re just focusing on Pittsburgh. If you start looking at a seven-game, -day trip all across the country, you can get overwhelmed. We’re in Pittsburgh. Let's play Pittsburgh tonight and worry about tomorrow, tomorrow.”
The Ducks couldn’t have entered the road trip on a better note. Winners of six straight, including a three-game divisional sweep last week against San Jose, LA and Arizona propelled them into third place in the Pacific with at least a game in-hand on every team in the division. In fact, the Ducks have played the fewest games of any team in the league (50). Since Dec. 26, the Ducks are 13-3-1, the second-best mark in the NHL over that span.
“I think everybody was surprised at the start for the Ducks,” said former Ducks defenseman Ben Lovejoy. “Everybody expected them to be a top team this year. The way they're playing now is indicative of their talent level. We're treating them as an elite team tonight and we need our best effort to have a big game against them.”
Pittsburgh native John Gibson will get the start for Anaheim. The 22-year-old wasn’t tested often in his last start, a 4-2 road victory against the Kings, but the win was his third in a row and 12th of the season. Gibson (12-7-2), who leads the league in goals-against average (1.92) and ranks tied for third in shutouts (4), stopped 23-of-24 shots in Anaheim’s 2-1 victory over the Penguins at Honda Center on Dec. 6.
Marc-Andre Fleury will be in the cage for the Penguins. Now 31 years of age, Fleury is riding a seven-game home unbeaten streak (6-0-1) and is 7-3-0 in 10 career contests against Anaheim.
Although the Penguins enter tonight’s contest with a five-game home winning streak and a nine-game home unbeaten stretch (7-0-2), they’ll be without the services of Evgeni Malkin, who is still dealing with a lower-body injury. Malkin, who will miss his third consecutive game, co-leads the Pens (with Sidney Crosby) in scoring (23-26—49) and had points in 11 of his past 14 games (6-13—19) prior to the injury.
The Penguins have gone 5-1-0 over their past six games and 7-2-2 in their past 11.
“We played some good hockey during the trip, and it's nice to finally get rewarded,” said Crosby, referring to their recent two-game roadie against Tampa Bay and Florida. “It took a while, but we did a lot of good things and found a way to win on the trip.”
The middle-of-the-night trade on Jan. 15 between the two clubs that involved David Perron and Carl Hagelin has worked out for both sides. Struggling to find consistency earlier this season with the Penguins, a return to the Western Conference has done wonders for the 27-year-old Perron, who did his best work with St. Louis and Edmonton. Perron has three goals and eight points in seven games with Anaheim – he had four goals and 16 points in 43 games with Pittsburgh before the trade. He’s been a nice fit on left wing for Ryan Getzlaf, whose ability to slow the play down works in Perron’s favor.
Hagelin, meanwhile, has five assists in eight games with the Penguins, but only had four goals and 12 points in 43 games with the Ducks. Perhaps the rugged nature that is the West didn’t suit Hagelin, whose game is based on speed. He’s done well in Pittsburgh on a line with Malkin and Phil Kessel.
“Quite frankly, both teams play different styles,” said Boudreau. “Pittsburgh is all speed and we're more of a grind-it-out team. David is more of a grinding-it-out type of player than Carl is, but Carl has got the outside speed that is very difficult to match. I think it worked out well for both teams.”