By Kyle Shohara
The Ducks begin a crucial four-game road trip tonight against the Buffalo Sabres at First Niagara Center. Anaheim should have plenty of jump, too, since the team has played only once in 10 days. Currently sitting in last place in the Pacific Division, but only three points out of a playoff spot, the Ducks can climb right back into the mix over the next week.
It’s a win-the-week mentality for the Ducks, as it’s always been, so the focus right now is all on the Sabres, who enter the game with a 13-16-3 record (29 points), good for seventh place in the Atlantic Division and 14th in the Eastern Conference. The Ducks, meanwhile, are 11-13-5 (27 points) and find themselves in last place in the West.
John Gibson will make his eighth consecutive start in net. The 22-year-old is 4-3-1 with a 1.74 goals-against average and .934 save percentage in eight games this season, and ranks second among league leaders (min. five games started) in GAA, tied for fifth in SV% and tied for seventh in shutouts (2). Gibson was pulled after two periods in Anaheim’s 5-1 loss against Carolina last Friday, relieved by Frederik Andersen, who will serve as tonight’s backup.
Head coach Bruce Boudreau says Gibson and Andersen’s competitive nature will help push them in games and in practices.
“They both want to be the No. 1, so I think it starts in practice and they'll both be practicing harder,” Boudreau said. “When they get into games, like Gibson tonight, he has to know he's got to play his best. There's no rest. Freddie's waiting for the chance because he wants to show that he can still do it. I think it's a good inner competition. They both get along well. It's not a competition where there both are at each other's throat every day."
Tonight marks the return of left wing Jiri Sekac, who scored a goal in a one-game conditioning stint with the San Diego Gulls over the weekend. Sekac suffered an ankle injury on Nov. 1 vs. Nashville and missed the next 18 games. Sekac, who has a goal and three points in 11 games this season, will likely skate on a line with Ryan Kesler and Jakob Silfverberg.
Starting in net for the Sabres will be veteran goaltender Chad Johnson, who brings with him an 8-9-1 record, 2.46 GAA and .911 SV% in 20 games. The 29-year-old had a strong November that saw him finish with a 3-1-1 mark, .954 SV% and 1.12 GAA in seven appearances.
Ducks fans will also catch a glimpse of Jack Eichel, the second overall pick from the 2015 NHL Draft. Eichel became the third-youngest player in Sabres history to score in an NHL debut when he found the back of the net on Oct. 8 against Ottawa. Eichel spent last year at Boston University, where he became just the second freshman ever to win the Hobey Baker Award (Paul Kariya) with his 26-goal, 71-point season in 40 games.
He’s a special talent, no doubt, and earlier today Sabres head coach Dan Bylsma said Eichel is among a new breed of rookie players.
"I think this about a number of young players in the league right now. It's dynamic,” Bylsma said. “A dynamic aspect of what they bring, and what Jack brings. I say the same about [Detroit’s] Dylan Larkin. I haven't seen [Edmonton’s] Connor McDavid play yet, minus the highlights, but the speed they can play with is dynamic. It's virtually every game where there's a moment where they take you out of your seat.
“Hold your breath with that speed and with that skill. That's what Jack has done. We’re 32 games into his professional career and he's been able to do that a lot. He hasn't been doing it as much of late in the last few games, but that's what you’re probably going to get at least a couple times a night."
Ducks defenseman Clayton Stoner says the key to finding success tonight is neutralizing that young energy the Sabres exude.
“They’re a young team that's going to be full of energy,” said Stoner. They’re going to come out and play hard and use that energy to create momentum against us on the forecheck. If we can come out early and shut down some of that energy and put some shots on net and drive the net a little bit more, I think we’ll create some chances. If we get one early, we can shut down some of their momentum.”