April 10, 2018 | 11:30am ET
BY Hannah Spraker, The Fourth Period
DUCKING AND DIVING INTO THE PLAYOFFS
TORONTO, ON -- April is upon on us, and for Average Joe that means that spring has sprung and summer is looming round the corner, but hockey fans are not your Average Joe.
Spring for hockey fans means dusting off those car flags and meticulously planning their schedules around NHL Playoffs. Anaheim is sunny and warm, and the sound of “Bro Hymn” echoes throughout the air as Ducks fans gear up to “Paint it Orange” for the sixth consecutive season.
The 2017-18 NHL season has been one of surprises. Vegas turned out to be way better than anyone anticipated, Edmonton flopped, Mike Fisher came out of retirement, unexpected heroes come in clutch for given teams, and the Anaheim Ducks miraculously recovered from the incredulous amount of injuries that plagued their locker room to clinch their playoff spot. But they aren’t out of the woods just yet.
Fighting their way down the stretch, what the Ducks managed to come back from is truly incredible with the never-ending obstacles that have come their way from the get-go. They’ve lost 318 man-games to injury this season. From Ryan Kesler missing 37 games, Ryan Getzlaf’s broken face, and Patrick Eaves tragically being diagnosed with Guillain-Barre Syndrome, to Kevin Bieksa’s hand surgery, and guys like Ondrej Kase in and out of the lineup, the revolving door continued on and on.
This team just couldn’t manage to stay healthy this season and that could be extended into the post-season. Will they have a fighting chance in the playoffs without vital pieces?
A foul of the highest magnitude; John Gibson and Cam Fowler struck with injury as we wrap up the regular-season and the Ducks make their playoff run.
Gibson is labeled as day-to-day with an upper-body injury and could still potentially start Game 1, whereas Fowler is put in the “oh so vague” 2-6 week category with a shoulder injury. This is a huge hit to the Ducks lineup. Even though they’ve been red hot down the stretch and they’ve caught fire at the right time, I don’t have much confidence for them to get far without Gibson and Fowler.
Shocking, I know, that Gibson is once again hurt. This is the asterisk I have always put next to his name. Yes, he’s a phenomenal goaltender, and no doubt the catalyst that put the Ducks in the position of where they are in now, but he is always getting hurt; never playing a full season without going down with injury. Although, this time it isn’t that nagging groin injury, but rather just an unfortunate circumstance. In the game against Colorado, Gibson had quite the collision with Gabriel Landeskog that resulted in an upper body injury. He’s been skating which looks promising, and perhaps they were just resting him for the first round, but he did not travel with the team for their last regular season game in Arizona and without Gibson healthy to start the playoffs, I don’t think the Ducks stand a chance. He has been skating with the team though, which does look promising.
Don’t get me wrong, I think Ryan Miller has been absolutely clutch for the Ducks, and that acquisition was key for Anaheim since we know that Gibson is prone to injury, but I don’t trust Miller with a 6 or 7 game series on his shoulders at 37 years old. He’s a more than capable backup goalie, and he deserves every bit of praise, but I think the Ducks need Gibson in net to put themselves in the best possible position for a run at the Cup. After all, he’s been the Ducks MVP this season without a shadow of a doubt. Although it is not the ideal situation, if you’re going to have a backup start the playoffs for you, Miller is the guy.
Hampus Lindholm and Josh Manson are the leading force on the blueline, but Fowler’s absence creates a huge problem, especially for the powerplay unit. Fowler plays more minutes than anyone else on the roster and is clearly one of their best 200 foot players. That pairing of Brandon Montour and Fowler was heavily relied on, so how do you fill the gap? The young guns are going to have to stand tall and Lindholm and Manson are going to have to pick up a bit more ice time. Montour will be paired up with veteran Francois Beauchemin in the meantime, which will be Beauch’s last run for a Stanley Cup as he plans to retire after this season’s playoffs are said and done.
Young Ducks Marcus Pettersson and Andy Welinkski are currently the third defensive pairing and the two have collectively played only 29 NHL games in their careers. Both call ups from the San Diego Gulls, these guys have a good chance of seeing some ice time in the playoffs as it is possible that Bieksa misses a game or two in the first round after undergoing hand surgery to remove scar tissue.
They’ve done it all season, they clawed their way back, but playoffs is a whole different game. So how do they win? How do they avoid another post-season heartbreak?
Fish or Fowl? Norcal or Socal?
After wrapping up the regular-season winning their last five games, the Ducks will face the San Jose Sharks in the first round and hope to keep the hot streak going. The Sharks, on the other hand, are coming of a rather disappointing stretch to the end of their season, winning only one game in their last six. This is going to be an interesting series. My guess is it goes to a Game 6 or 7 and it will be close. The Ducks record against the Sharks this season is 1-1-2, and all but one decided in a shootout.
I give the Sharks the upper hand in this one with injuries still an issue for Anaheim, but if the Ducks are firing on all cylinders, they can definitely get the job done.
Getzlaf has been absolutely stellar all season, showing no signs of slowing down, unlike his line mate Corey Perry. Getzlaf only played in 56 games this season due to injury and still managed to put up 61 points, and 10 points in his last 10 games. Leading the charge, he will have to continue that momentum into the post season, and as an elite NHL center, he shouldn’t have a problem doing so.
The Sharks have two incredibly dangerous lines up front. Centered by Joe Pavelski and Logan Couture, those top-two lines can do a considerable amount of damage.
Couture had a career high in goals this year in San Jose, topping out at 34 goals, Pavelski had 22. Youngster Timo Meier has really come into his own this season, proving his keep and securing his spot on that roster. These depth guys are going to have to really come through, for both clubs as San Jose has also taken a hit with a major injury in Joe Thornton. “Jumbo Joe” is “doubtful” to start off this series as reported by Kevin Kurz of The Athletic, but Pavelski, Brent Burns and Evander Kane will most definitely give the Ducks a run for their money.
Never count out Burnzie. I mean, he is a Norris Trophy winner. He logged 24 points in 24 playoff games in the Sharks 2015-16 playoff run. He’s one of those guys who you can just see it. You can see how badly he wants the Cup and how he leaves everything on the ice in the playoffs. As we all know, he’s a guy who likes to shoot the puck as well. 332 shots on goal this year, and Kane is not far off with 307. So whether it is Miller or Gibson in goal for the Ducks, I would expect to see over 30 shots a night form the Sharks.
The Ducks have not played the Sharks since the acquisition of Kane. San Jose got a lot faster and a lot more deadly with the trade for Kane. He’s put up 9 goals in 16 games with the Sharks and he’s going to be a challenge to contain for the Ducks as well. In his 9 year career he’s never played in a playoff game so you can bet he’ll be eager and ready.
Rickard Rakell secured his rightful spot on the top line this season and has all eyeballs glued to him game in and game out. What he is able to do at full speed is incredible and the kid is incredibly underrated in the NHL. Leading the Ducks in goals (34) and points (69), his second consecutive 30 goal season, and in his last playoff run with Anaheim he put up 13 points in 15 games, coming in clutch when they needed him. “Rak City,” alongside Getzlaf, should be a force to be reckoned with for the Sharks and I could see them having trouble containing them the way that they have been playing.
Is “Kesboss” still in there? Kesler missed 37 games recovering from hip surgery this season and he has not been the Kesler that everyone knows and loves – or hates – depending on who you’re a fan of.
At 33 years old, hip surgery isn’t that forgiving and it is extremely noticeable. That being said, Kesler turns into a beast during playoffs and another one of those guys who you can just tell – that no one wants the Cup more than him. He is going to have to pick it up and be performing like his old shutdown self if they stand a chance of getting past the first round. That second line has been hot with Jakob Silfverberg and Andrew Cogliano combining for 11 points in their last 5 games, so if Kesler can catch fire, the Ducks already strong center depth will be that much more dangerous.
After much criticism earlier in the season, Nick Ritchie is starting to come into form, contributing much more than just brute force. Four goals last year in the postseason, the Ducks will be looking to players like Ritchie to be a big hitter as well as bank a rebound here or there.
Adam Henrique and Kase both hit the 20 goal mark and continue to impress. Kase is another one of those players who is incredibly underrated. Maybe it’s a west coast thing, but nevertheless, he’s going to be incredibly valuable to this hockey club in years to come and heading into the playoffs. His speed and finesse are going to need to be utilized against a team like San Jose.
A concern I would have for the Sharks is their endurance to handle the physicality in their own zone. The Ducks finished 7th in the league in hits this season whereas the Sharks held 29th. Anaheim logged 569 more hits this season than the Sharks, and I could see San Jose getting worn down physically from guys like Ritchie and Manson. Remember when the Flames pulled Johnny Hockey in the 2015 playoffs because he was taking too much of a beating from the Ducks? The Ducks know the Sharks have speed on their side and Anaheim thrives when they are able to control the pace of the game, so I expect to see a ton of physicality coming from the Ducks bench.
Derek Grant has slotted in well as fourth line center and has pretty much replaced Antoine Vermette. I would expect to see Vermette or Jason Chimera put on the left wing of that fourth line and J.T. Brown on the right side. Although he is an exciting kid to watch, I don’t think Troy Terry gets to see any playoff ice unless he gets put in due to an injury elsewhere.
Say what you want about Randy Carlyle, but he is a Stanley Cup winning coach and he’s rolled with the punches of injury after injury as well as a changing NHL. Carlyle has been known for that kind of “rough and tough, dump and chase” hockey, and over this past season we’ve seen him put together lines and situations that have speed and finesse as well and grit and physicality to keep up with the times. Credit where credit is due, I don’t think there are many coaches in the league whose team can go 300+ man-games lost to injury and still be in the position for a playoff run.
Special Teams Battle
One thing that is going to be a difference maker is special teams. The Ducks powerplay has been rather disappointing this season, finishing 23rd in the league at 17.8%, the Sharks hold the 16th spot at 20.6%. Their penalty kill is much better at 5th in the league at 83.2% but the Sharks again have the upper hand with that too and hold the second spot with 84.8%.
For two teams who play a similar style of hockey, this is going to be huge. Whoever decides the series is going to have to win games 2-1, 3-2, and those power play goals could mean all the difference in the world. This is why being without Cam Fowler is such a huge hit to the Ducks roster. Even if he comes back, will he be 100%? Manson and Lindholm are going to have their work cut out for them defending Pavelski and Couture. Martin Jones should be getting the start for San Jose and has a stellar record in the playoffs (.925 sv%) despite his disappointing performance in their final regular season game.
The tale has remained the same for the Ducks for many seasons now; on paper they have everything they need to succeed, but the execution of that talent seems to fall short every year. This season every single guy on the ice is going to have to be performing at the top of his game if they stand a chance without Gibson and Fowler, if they remain out. Miller will have to stand on his head night in and night out, Kesler will have to turn on beast mode and the momentum of this club is going to have to stay hot.
Speed and depth are the name of the game in today’s NHL. For either of these teams to succeed, they need to roll four lines that can do damage and their depth players to be standing up tall. This series could honestly go either way, and it is going to be a dogfight to the finish.
Will the Ducks overcome their injuries yet again? Are the Mighty Comeback Kids revived? The Ducks are one of those teams that you can never really count out. I wouldn’t bank on them, I honestly don’t see them making it very far, especially if these injuries keep key guys out, but stranger things have happened.
The playoffs are a completely different game and we’ve seen it before – if you can get in, you can win.