Whether anyone wants to believe it or not, this Ducks team enters tonight’s tilt on West Madison only two points off what was a record pace from last year’s Hawks team during an abbreviated campaign. But then again, last year’s Ducks weren’t off far off that pace either, and they ended up bowing out in 7 games to Scum. A longer season should reveal more truths about both squads, with the two teams squaring off this evening.
Entering tonight, the Ducks have won a staggering 18 of 19 games, beginning with their shootout win on this very surface back at the beginning of December, with their most recent victory being a 9-1 embarrassment of the Canucks at the Pond where the Ducks have yet to lose in regulation. They’ve been doing it mostly with offense, as Bruce Boudreau teams are wont to do, good for 3rd in the league in scoring at 3.4 per. This is obviously buoyed by the play of Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry, with both of them averaging over a point per game and playing in basically all situations. But there’s actually been help this year in complementary scoring, namely Andrew Cogliano, who earned himself a fresh four year deal at $3.5 per, which should have gotten his agent fired. Cogliano is staring down career highs in offensive production at only 47 games into the season while playing a speedy two-way game that somehow the Oilers shockingly missed out on seeing the potential of. Cogliano’s development has helped turn Nick Bonino into a viable scoring option as well, with 35 points so far this year, besting his total career production prior to this point.
Part of what’s sparked this turn around has been Boudreau having puck-moving defensemen at his disposal, namely Cam Fowler and Hampus Lindholm. In a shocking turn of events, Fowler finally found his footing around the 200 professional game mark, and has been able to flip the ice more times than not while starting just over half of his shifts in the offensive zone. Lindholm looks every bit the part of this year’s version of Jonas Brodin as the wiry Swedish rookie stepping in to play key minutes fresh into the league, and is doing so to the tune of a +25. The Ducks still possess some thump on the blue line however, with Ent-ish Bryan Allen returning from injury tonight, and stalwart Francois Beauchemin (who did not play here in December) taking on a more defensive role this year.
In the Ducks’ very crowded crease will tonight be Jonas Hiller, who has won an incomprehensible 14 straight decisions after Fredrik Andersson presided over the Vancouver dick punching. Though other than the record, Hiller’s numbers are fairly pedestrian, with a .914 save percentage and a 2.35 goals against, suggesting that he’s simply making the saves he needs to and not getting the Ducks killed, which should sound like a familiar refrain. In actuality, even in the midst of the streak, the Ducks actually only barely carry the the play with a 50.2% Corsi share, while scoring 60% of the goals involved in their games. So Hiller has to work a little bit harder than it would seem at first blush, but he always seems to give the Hawks all they can handle, especially being a right-hand catch. Hiller tends to play the game from his knees, so taking the time to pick a high corner is generally the way he gets beat. And with the way the Hawks shoot as a rule, when they do beat Hiller, it gets ugly in a hurry.
As for our Men of Four Feathers, they’re just coming off a game where basically the opposing goaltender was the difference. There wasn’t much more the Hawks could have thrown at Russian scumbag Semyon Varlamov, both in quantity or quality, and he simply had an answer for enough of them to give the Avs an opportunity with a power play in OT. And for those who want to bemoan the Hawks overtime and shootout record this year, it’s best to chalk most of it up to bad luck and/or the stupidity of the very nature of the shootout. When the games that matter go past 60 minutes, the majority of that time will be played 5 on 5, which is exactly what the Hawks want.
One curious note to come out of the game Tuesday were some of Joel Quenneville’s comments yesterday regarding his loss of faith in the Bickell-Handzus-Versteeg unit, which led to decreased playing time for all. On one hand, it’s a good thing that Q might finally be seeing that Zus just can’t keep up under the workload he’s been given, if at all. On the other hand, Bickell and Versteeg were a combined 21-2 in Corsi for, with Versteeg not being present on the ice for a single attempted shot against (12-0). Even factoring the much maligned Handzus, the trio was 27-3 for, so it’s totally fair at this point to openly speculate just what in the hell games Quenneville is watching. Either way, the lines for tonight remain the same, and the ice time of this particular line will be one to monitor, particularly with the size of both Bickell and Zus matching up against some of the Ducks’ girth.
That girth will also be a problem for the Hawks d-corps, and it remains to be seen which pairing will get the task of Perry and Getzlaf. While the Swedes have shouldered the responsibility for much of the season, Johnny Oduya and giant crashing forwards have often made games generally unpleasant to watch during his tenure here. Were Brent Seabrook generally facing the play on a consistent basis rather than his own net as teams entered the zone, this wouldn’t be that difficult a choice to make. Regardless, Q has options if one starts getting mauled early. Sheldon Brookbank likely goes tonight as Leddy’s partner because sandpaper or something. They’ll do so in front of Corey Crawford, who is still looking for his first win since December 8th over the Panthers, but his play since returning from injury has warranted far better outcomes.
With the last change at home tonight, look for Quenneville to go with power against power, sending Toews out against Getzlaf. Because realistically, any delusions he might have about Kruger and Bollig being any kind of checking unit against this lot can be thrown right out the window. Getzlaf is way too big for Kruger to handle, and Bollig and even Smith just aren’t fast enough. And again, making those two play in their own end is far and away the best way to blunt the Anaheim attack. As is picking spots to take the leaden footed Allen and Beauchemin wide through the neutral zone. Of course, that’s assuming the Hawk defensemen have held onto the puck long enough to make a breakout pass. As has been harped on for a couple weeks now, the gap between the forwards and defensemen has got to be tightened as teams have kept men back to diffuse any Hawk home run passes.
Being only one of two games on the docket tonight, these two teams are getting a warranted spotlight shone on them. And though the Hawks have dropped the last five straight against the Ducks, tonight is as good a night as any to remind the league just exactly where the path in the West still goes through. Let’s go Hawks.