Mar 16, 2011, 8:20 PM EDT
If you believe some people around the Anaheim Ducks, tonight is a “must-win” game for the Ducks against the St. Louis Blues at Honda Center. Win and they keep pace with the Peloton in the West—lose and the odds become even more daunting. Such is life in March of a hotly contested playoff race in the NHL.
It’s interesting in that of all the teams competing for the last few playoff spots, the Ducks seem to be flying under the radar. Maybe it’s because they got off to such a rough start that some people wrote them off way back in October. Maybe it’s because they’re holding down the last place spot in the Pacific Division. Maybe it’s because their all-star goaltender that is a huge part of their team is still out of the lineup and no one knows when he’s going to return. Whatever the reason, the Ducks are still right in the thick of the playoff race and no one seems to be talking about it.
Going into the night, the Ducks are two points out of the 8th and final playoff spot in the Western Conference. They have a game in hand on the 9th place Predators and hold 3 games in hand on the 8th place Calgary Flames. They are 5-2 over their last 7 games including a recent 4-1 homestand. You’d think there would be a little more buzz around a team thriving at this time of year, but the enthusiasm may be taking a little longer to catch on considering the recent stretch is on the heels of a 5-game losing streak.
Aside from a game against Colorado later this month, every game is against a team in the playoff hunt. The good side is if they win, they’ll be hurting their competitors. The bad part is that they better not lose many games. A couple losses against the wrong teams in the standings could make the mountain just that much tougher to climb. Including tonight’s game against the Blues, here are the opponents the Ducks will face down the stretch.
Kings (3 games)
Head coach Randy Carlyle knows they’ll need to beat the teams in front of them for any chance at the playoffs.
“When you’re trying to play catch up, that’s the only way you’re going to catch them…
“There (are) no ifs, ands or buts, if we win our fair share of games against the teams that are around us that only bodes well for our chances of making the playoffs.”
The statistics for the Ducks are all over the place—but don’t paint the most promising picture. Their -7 goal differential is not a good sign. Usually that’s a good indicator of who will make the playoffs and who won’t—so the Nashville Predators and their +14 would lead people to believe they are the team that could sneak into the final playoff spot.
Aside from that, they’re 27th in the league with 28.5 shots per game. Equally as alarming are the shots they’re allowing every game: 25th in shots allowed per game with 32.3. Put those together and they’re the 3rd worst team when it comes to shots for vs.shots against. To put it in perspective, the only teams who are worse are the Wild and the Oilers. One of those teams has been fading and the other has been looking at the draft for 3 months. That’s not exactly the type of company any team wants to keep at this time of year.
Predictably, they are 25th in the NHL when it comes to 5-on-5 play. But just because they’re struggling as a whole at even strength doesn’t mean they have a hard time putting the puck in the net. They have leaned heavily on their 4th best power play which is clicking at a 21.7% rate. Corey Perry, Teemu Selanne, and Bobby Ryan are all in the top 21 in NHL scoring. The only other teams that can claim that kind of high-end scoring are the Vancouver Canucks, Chicago Blackhawks, and Dallas Stars (all playoff teams as of writing). In fact, the Ducks are the only team that has FIVE players with at least 50 points on the year. Unfortunately, that’s where their scoring ends. Besides the big 5, only one other player has more than 30 points on the season.
Ducks coach Randy Carlyle acknowledges they are going to need better balance if they want to succeed down the stretch.
“It’s the responsibility of some other people in our lineup to make more of a contribution,” Carlyle said. “As we go down the stretch, that is what teams are made up of. It’s not always your main guys who are getting the points and making a difference for you. We know in order for us to have success, everybody has to be able to accountable, both on the offensive and defensive side of the puck.”
It’s the lack of balance that hurts when Carlyle can’t get the match-ups he wants when he’s on the road. Their 21-12-2 record at home is one of the best in the West—however; their 16-15-3 record away from Honda Center is one of the worst. There’s no questioning that they are a different team at home—they’ll need to make the most of those 6 home games in their last 13.
More important than the concerning road record or lack of depth is the cloud of uncertainty hanging around the goaltending situation. Jonas Hiller’s absence with his mysterious vertigo-like symptoms certainly isn’t giving the Ducks any additional hope. But since making his way to the left coast, Dan Ellis has shown to be a much better goaltender than he did in Tampa Bay for the Lightning. He’s 5-2-1 with an average 2.54 goals against average and pedestrian .902 save percentage. Clearly he’s not going to unseat Jonas Hiller as the goaltender of the future anytime soon. But when you compare his play to that of Curtis McElhinney earlier in the year (and Timo Pielmeier’s 2 period implosion), a guy who can give the Ducks a consistent chance to win is an upgrade over the previous alternatives. This just in: trying to replace an all-star goaltender is difficult for a team that depends on their goaltender to play like an all-star every night.
Tonight’s game against the Blues will tell us a lot about what we can expect from the Ducks down the stretch. Starting tonight, the Ducks really hold their destiny in their own hands. Beat the rivals they’ll face over the next month and they’ll be selling playoff tickets in Anaheim. But a few consecutive losses against those teams and tee times in Pelican Hill are going to start filling up in a hurry.
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