It says something about this game that one of the men the Ducks will be counting on this postseason is the same guy who broke their hearts not all that long ago. But that's hockey, where one minute you're driving a guy into a glass wall or punching him in the jaw, and you're having a beer with him the next.
It was just two springs back that current Ducks center Antoine Vermette was an enemy Blackhawk who turned the tide of a feverish Western Conference Final series between Anaheim and Chicago. That was in Game 4 in front of a packed house of more than 22,000 at the United Center, when Vermette scored 5:37 into the second overtime to giving the Hawks an emotional 5-4 victory that tied series at two games apiece.
"It was one of those moments that you don't forget, that's for sure," says Vermette, who can recite every detail of that goal, down to the defenseman (Simon Despres) who blocked his original shot on the play. "It was a hard-fought series overall and that was a tight game, obviously. It was amazing. It was a very intense moment and there was a lot of emotion flying around. The guys were excited, obviously, and the place was going nuts. It was a pretty cool moment."
Ducks fans don't need the reminder, but Chicago would go on to win that series in seven games and defeated Tampa Bay in the Final for the first Stanley Cup of the then 32-year-old Vermette's career.
"It was a big-time moment for my family and my career," says Vermette, who will be 35 in July. "That's the reason why we play, that's the ultimate goal. There are a lot of great players, Hall-of-Famers actually, who have never won one. It's tough. It's a very competitive league."
Vermette learned that hard lesson in his third NHL season when his Ottawa Senators were vanquished by Anaheim in five games in the 2007 Stanley Cup Final. "I was fortunate enough to have a couple good runs in the playoffs in the early stage of my career, including one in 2007 that turned out to be a good thing for the Ducks," he says. "As a young guy, you don't want to take it for granted. Those are memorable moments that unfortunately don't come along too many times, even if you have a long career. So you want to make sure you grab your opportunity."
His history with the Ducks certainly occurred to Vermette when he signed a two-year contract with Anaheim last August after two seasons in Arizona.
"It was kind of strange in some ways, but my first thought was I was excited because I know since playing for a long time playing against them, they were representing a great team," says Vermette, for whom Anaheim is the fifth stop in his 13-year career. "I thought I would be a great fit, and it would be a good opportunity at this stage of my career to give myself a chance to win it again."
The Ducks were more than happy to bring him into the fold, and once he arrived at training camp, "Guys didn't hold any grudges against me, so that was good," he says with a laugh. "It was the first time I was joining a team from the beginning of the season, so that's a huge help. They're a great group here, and they made me feel at home right away."
What Anaheim got with Vermette is a veteran presence with a vibrant personality, not to mention one of the best faceoff men in the game. In fact, Vermette is second among all active NHL players in faceoff percentage and was second in the league this regular season (62.3%). He won an astounding 68% of his draws in Anaheim's Game 1 victory over Calgary at Honda Center.
"I just want to make sure I can help my team in any aspect of the game I can," Vermette says. "Some areas are not as sexy, if I can call it that. In order to win, you've got to be effective in a lot of areas, especially at this time of year when there is more at stake. Faceoffs is one area where you're giving your team a better chance. It's not easy because the guy in front of you is trying to do the same thing you're trying to do."
But as far as his recipe for success in the dot, he really doesn't know. "I've been asked a lot about what my secret is, and I don't have a really cool answer to that question," he says with a chuckle. "It's not like I've focused harder on that or studying or putting in overtime. I just try and bear down and compete hard and get the edge on my opponent."
That level of intensity actually got the better of Vermette back in February in Minnesota, when linesman Shandor Alphonso dropped the puck on a faceoff against the Wild before Vermette was ready, and he reacted with a slash to the back of Alphonso's legs. He was ejected from the game and slapped with a 10-game suspension, uncharacteristic for the usually mild-mannered Vermette.
"It was tough, and usually I'm not in that position," he says. "At the same time, I thought I could use some time to maybe make the best out of it, spend some time in the gym a little more and do some stuff that can pay off down the road. But you want to be involved, and you want to help the team. You feel a little bit helpless. But I'm glad we put that behind us, and put together a pretty good streak after that, and since then we've been doing pretty well."
Indeed, the Ducks rolled into these playoffs on the heels of a 14-game point streak in which they went 11-0-3 and captured a fifth straight Pacific Division title. That set the stage for a hopefully lengthy playoff run in which Vermette would love nothing more than to play the hero once again.
"You've got to embrace the situation, the challenges, the ups and downs and the journey," he says. "That's what makes it special. You've got to handle it with some fun, some character and some drive. There's no better time of the year, that's for sure."