By Kyle Shohara
Earlier today, Ducks head coach Bruce Boudreau admitted the 3-0 loss against the Buffalo Sabres on Dec. 17 was the “low point” of his team’s season up to that point. After having five days to practice – and think about – a 5-1 loss at home to the Carolina Hurricanes, the Ducks laid an egg at First Niagara Center and came out with an 11-14-5 record. They woke up the next morning in 28th place, tied for last place in the league, and were 15 points back from the Pacific Division-leading LA Kings.
“Not taking anything away from Buffalo at that point, but we had five days to practice,” Boudreau said. “We weren’t very confident, quite frankly, after that game, but the players realized they wanted to win more than [achieve] personal glory. We’ve started playing better ever since that time.”
The Ducks finished that four-game road trip (which included the Devils, Islanders and Rangers) with a 1-2-1 record, but came out of the Christmas break like gangbusters. Anaheim owns the NHL’s top overall record (19-4-2, .800 points percentage) and road record (10-1-2) since then, and is currently 12-1-1 in the last 14 games. In addition, the Ducks are 9-1-1, posting the top record since the All-Star break. Anaheim’s 45 goals since the All-Star break are eight more than any other NHL team. Anaheim has won five straight (5-0-0) for the longest active win streak in the NHL. The Ducks also have the second-longest active home win streak (4-0-0).
“Guys are hitting the net, feeling confident about their shots, and the power play is working at a pretty good clip, which always helps,” said Boudreau, on the team’s surge. “When you get the lead, the other team presses. You can take advantage of their mistakes.”
They’ll get their final look at the Sabres this season, a team that features the second overall selection from the 2016 NHL Draft. Since that game on Dec. 17, Jack Eichel has earned 8-19—27 points in his last 28 contests, a stretch which included career-best, four-game point streaks from Dec. 30-Jan. 5 (2-4—6) and Feb. 12-19 (1-4—5). Eichel enters the game ranked in the top five among NHL rookies in goals (T-4th, 17), assists (T-2nd, 24), points (T-2nd, 41) and shots (1st, 173).
It’s not just Eichel who drives the train. Fellow rookie Sam Reinhart leads the Sabres with 18 goals and ranks tied on the team in scoring (18-9—27). Reinhart (18) and Eichel (17) are on pace to become the third pair of rookies in Sabres history to each record 20 goals in the same season. You have to go back to the mid-70s for the last time this happened: Danny Gare (31) and Peter McNab (22) in 1974-75.
“We need to deny them the puck as much as we can,” said Jakob Silfverberg, on Buffalo’s skilled forwards. “We need to play above them. If they have to puck, they’ll do good things. We’ve been doing a pretty good job of that lately.”
You can expect his line, which also includes Andrew Cogliano and Ryan Kesler, to match up against one of Eichel or Reinhart.
From a defenseman’s perspective, Cam Fowler says he and his teammates will have to place an emphasis on safe, smart hockey.
“They have some very high-end skill up front with their forwards, and we need to be aware of them and be ready to play tonight against a team with a lot of speed,” said Fowler. “We have to manage the puck. When we do that, we’re a very good hockey team. The more you let those guys get into transition with turnovers, it becomes very dangerous for you.”
It appears the Sabres will likely miss the playoffs for the fifth consecutive season, but that doesn’t detract from their work ethic, says Silfverberg. “No matter where you are in the standings, you’re always going to work hard. You’re always going to compete and want to win. There’s not a player in this league that wants to have a bad game. I’m sure we’ll get their best effort tonight. They’re a great team with young, skilled players.”
Frederik Andersen is expected to get the start for Anaheim, while Robin Lehner appears to be Buffalo’s netminder tonight.
Andersen enters the game with a 14-8-6 record overall, including a 9-0-2 mark in his past 13 appearances. Lehner (4-5-2) has a save percentage of .928 through 13 games, which is the eight-best percentage in the league among goaltenders with at least five games played. Tonight would be his 100th career NHL game.