After seven long days, the wait is finally over.
Tonight, in front of a raucous home crowd, the Ducks will step onto the ice for Game 1 of this highly publicized Second Round series against the Edmonton Oilers. The storylines are set and none of them are being hyped up as much as the one down the middle.
Ryan Kesler, Selke finalist and checking-center extraordinaire, will go toe-to-toe with Connor McDavid, Art Ross Trophy winner and all-round electrifying talent. How often Kesler is matched up against McDavid remains to be seen, but the 20-year-old Oilers captain will be one of Anaheim's focal points over the course of this series.
"It's not about me versus McDavid," Kesler said to reporters earlier this week. "It's about the Anaheim Ducks and the Edmonton Oilers. It's bigger than one matchup."
Ducks head coach Randy Carlyle, a tried-and-true matchups guy, said he felt like Edmonton was more key on getting a favorable matchup for No. 2 center Ryan Nugent-Hopkins than McDavid in the first round against San Jose. Nevertheless, Carlyle offered the following: "We want to have our people on the ice against their best players."
As for the availability of defensemen Cam Fowler and Sami Vatanen, Carlyle simply said they are "available." That also goes for Hampus Lindholm, who was dinged up in Game 4 against Calgary. A final decision, he says, will come after warmups. All three players were on the ice today for the optional skate, though Vatanen might be the least likely to play tonight among the three.
Defenseman Josh Manson told reporters that having Fowler back in the lineup will be a "huge boost." Fowler is Anaheim's all-situations bedrock on the blueline and was a fixture on the club's power play. He averages more minutes than any other defenseman on the team and can also be used in a shutdown role if necessary. You can expect Fowler to get a heavy dose of McDavid if/when he returns to the lineup.
John Gibson will likely get the start tonight against Cam Talbot. Gibson started all four games against the Flames and won three of them. (He was pulled in Game 3 in favor of Jonathan Bernier). The 23-year-old netminder enters this game with a 3-0 record, 2.60 GAA and .926 SV% in these playoffs. For what it's worth, Gibson is 4-1-2 with a 1.84 GAA and .936 SV% in seven career games against the Oilers.
Tonight's game will also set the tone physically for what is to come as the series progresses. Manson, one of Anaheim's most physical players, says it's important for the Ducks to ramp it up early. "We need to get ourselves involved in the series," he said. "We know it's going to be a physical series. The sooner we can get involved and get our minds off the break, we'll be better off. Things get amped up a little bit more. They're a physical team and we're a physical team."
Adds captain Ryan Getzlaf, "No 'feeling out' in the playoffs. If you want to feel it out, the puck is probably going to be in the back of the net before you start. We have to go out and play the game we know how."
Potential Line Combinations
Video: The Ducks preview Game 1 against the Edmonton Oilers