By Kyle Shohara
A long and winding 13-day journey is nearing its end, as tonight the Ducks play the penultimate contest of their seven-game road trip in Edmonton, Alberta. So far, so good, as the club enters the game with a 3-1-1 record through the first five games of the trip.
Yesterday’s 6-4 victory over the Calgary Flames moved the Ducks into sole possession of second place in the Pacific Division, a point up on the San Jose Sharks, who were idle. It was Anaheim’s ninth win in its past 11 games (9-1-1). The Ducks have gone 16-4-2 dating to Dec. 27. It’s a remarkable turnaround for a team that ranked 29th in the NHL with a 12-15-6 record (30 points) prior to this 22-game stretch.
And what seemed like a remote possibility is all of a sudden within reach, as the Ducks sit just five points back of the division-leading LA Kings.
Oilers head coach Todd McLellan had this to say about the high-flying Ducks. “They've made the decision, at some point, to really commit - their high-end players and everybody in their lineup to checking. They check to win. In my opinion, they're one of the best teams - if not the best team - in the league right now.”
The Oilers currently sit last in the Western Conference and 29th in the league, but they have a rookie wunderkind back in the lineup. After winning the draft lottery (again) last April, the Oilers chose Connor McDavid with the first overall selection in the 2015 NHL Draft in June. McDavid recorded 44-76—120 points in his final season with the Erie Otters of the Ontario Hockey League and finished the season as the CHL Player of the Year, OHL Most Outstanding Player, 2015 OHL Scholastic Player of the Year and 2015 OHL Playoff Most Valuable Player.
McDavid, who turned 19 last month, made his NHL debut on Oct. 8 at St. Louis and was named the NHL rookie of the month for October after finishing with 5-7—12 points in 12 games.
All was dandy until McDavid suffered a fractured collarbone after losing an edge and crashing into the endboards on Nov. 3 vs. Philadelphia. McDavid required surgery and missed 37 games. He returned to the lineup on Feb. 2 and promptly recorded his second three-point game of the season. McDavid recorded his first-career five-point game (2g/3a) five days ago against Toronto, and enters tonight’s game with 3-4—7 points in his past four games and 4-8—12 points in seven games since returning from injury.
“I've never seen him live, but he looks awfully fast,” said Ducks head coach Bruce Boudreau. “It looks like he can make moves at a high rate of speed. He makes the players around him better. It's a different threat than we've seen and it'll be a great challenge to see if we can do it.”
Ducks center Ryan Kesler figures to line up against one of McDavid or Leon Draisaitl – another one of Edmonton’s stellar up-and-comers. It’s a challenge McLellan says is good for his young team.
“I don't mind some of our young players playing against that,” he said, on facing Anaheim’s shutdown center. “That's part of our evolution. Based on where we are in the schedule and standings, that's not a bad thing. They learn what it's going to feel like in the playoffs. Leon, Connor and those types of players playing against Kesler is good experience for them at this time of the year.”
Edmonton is similar to Calgary in terms of overall team speed, especially up front. And much like the Flames, the Oilers have no problem playing a run-and-gun style. The Ducks were guilty of straying from their defense-first mentality yesterday – something Boudreau doesn’t want to see moving forward.
“Our changes have to be a little bit better, and the [things] we do system-wise,” Boudreau said earlier today. “We were really loose yesterday. These are things we have to tighten up on. And we know defending is the way we succeed. When we're not doing those things, it becomes a helter-skelter type of game. That's something we're not really comfortable with.”
Defenseman Kevin Bieksa adds, “We have some very important games coming up. Our identity has changed a lot. I think we found our identity. At times last game we were trading chances which is not our game. When we’re good defensively and we’re giving teams 20 shots or less per game, we’re a tough team to beat.”
In the net tonight will be Frederik Andersen – his second start in as many days and fourth in the past five games overall. Andersen has an 8-0-2 record in his past 12 appearances and has not lost in regulation since Dec. 21 against the New York Islanders. Boudreau said Andersen’s performance yesterday was “really good,” which included two big-time saves midway through the third period.
John Gibson, out with an upper-body injury suffered on Feb. 13 against the Chicago Blackhawks, was on the ice this morning for the team’s optional skate. It remains to be seen whether he or Anton Khudobin, recalled on Feb. 14, dresses as Andersen’s backup.