By Kyle Shohara
Familiar faces are likely to be on the ice tonight as the Ducks host the visiting Pittsburgh Penguins at Honda Center. Those include former Ducks Nick Bonino (2009-14), Matt Cullen (1997-2003), Chris Kunitz (2003-05 & 2005-09) and Ben Lovejoy (2012-15). All four played last night in Pittsburgh’s 5-3 loss against the LA Kings at Staples Center, with Kunitz (a member of Anaheim’s 2007 Cup champion team) leading the way with three points (1g/2a).
It could very well be John Gibson’s net tonight, and with good reason. The 22-year-old has posted a 2-1-0 record with a 0.67 goals-against average and .971 save percentage in his last three games, including a pair of shutouts on Nov. 30 vs. Vancouver (25 saves, third career shutout) and Dec. 4 vs. San Jose (23 saves, fourth career shutout). Since being recalled from San Diego (AHL) on Nov. 24, the Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania native has gone 3-2-1 with two shutouts, a 1.55 GAA and .942 SV% in six appearances. Gibson ranks third among NHL goaltenders with at least five games played in GAA and SV% and tied for fifth in shutouts (2).
The Penguins boast a high-powered offense led by their two superstars: captain Sidney Crosby and alternate captain Evgeni Malkin. With a goal and an assist yesterday, Crosby has at least one point in six of his last seven games, earning four goals and eight points over that span. Crosby enters tonight’s game riding a six-game points streak (6g/4a) against Anaheim. Malkin, meanwhile, was held off the scoreboard yesterday for just the second time since Nov. 17, ending a season-high four-game goal-scoring streak (5 goals). Malkin has eight goals and 13 points in his last eight games since Nov. 17.
Yesterday, Ducks head coach Bruce Boudreau jokingly said the best way to neutralize the duo is by taking away their skates. Aside from tossing their skates in the trash, Boudreau says it’s all about mental and physical toughness.
“They’re two of the elite players in the league, there’s no doubt,” Boudreau said. “In some circles, they’re 1-2, and have been for years. Fortunately, or unfortunately, I’ve coached against both of them a lot. You have to be mentally strong and not get intimated by their talent. You have to go at them. They’re great players for a reason because they find ways to have success no matter how hard you check them.”
And even if players think they’ve contained Malkin, he still finds a way to make them look silly. Case in point: his highlight-reel goal against the Edmonton Oilers on Nov. 28. After stripping Oscar Klefbom from the puck just outside the blueline, Malkin entered the zone with defenseman Mark Fayne as the lone man back. Although Fayne played him close, his body was turned, and when he went to pivot to front Malkin, the big Russian used the old “Savardian Spin-o-rama” to create space before going bar-down on the backhand for his first of two goals in the game.
Facing the likes of Crosby, Malkin and offseason acquisition Phil Kessel is a challenge Hampus Lindholm gladly accepts.
“Those are guys, who, if you play a really good defensive game against, you can play a good defensive game against anybody,” Lindholm said. “It’s a fun challenge. I’m ready for it.”
Chris Stewart adds, “We have to be prepared to play or else it could get ugly. They’re highly skilled. We have to stay out of the box and not turn pucks over at the bluelines. We have to make their stars work for their chances.”