Anyone who thought that tonight’s matchup between the Hawks and Ducks would be touted as a Western Conference final preview, let alone one between the two teams with the collective best records ever after 25 games is a damned dirty liar. That includes you, Bob Murray, put your stupid hand down.
Since the besting the Hawks in the skills competition a month ago, the Ducks have just refused to go away. In fact, in the 16 games since, the Ducks have only failed to gain a point once, a 5-2 beat down at the hands of the Kings all the way back on February 25th. Suffice it to say, if not for the Hawks and their performance the first half of the season, the Ducks would be dominating headlines league-wide, and Uncle Barbecue would be a mortal lock for the Jack Adams. And there’s still time for them to close the gap and overtake the Hawks, with tonight being a key game if they hope to do so.
Over the last three games, and for tonight as well, they’ve been doing it without the the now-cap-busting chief pecker on the roster, Corey Perry. But the Orange County Waterfowl have hardly missed a beat without him and his 24 (9G 15A) points, taking 5 of 6 available standing points in his absence. Chief among the reasons for that has been Jonas Hiller’s resurgence, who seems to finally have gotten over the yips or vertigo or whatever it was that was bothering him to come back at or near his once-all-star form. He’ll get the start tonight, and has a 7-4-0 career record against the Hawks in 14 starts, with a .929 save percentage. That stat line should tell you that it’s either feast or famine when Hiller takes on the Hawks, as he either stands on his head, or gets yanked from getting shelled. Either way, Hiller faces on average 32.9 shots per start against the Hawks, which is a tall order for any goalie.
In front of Hiller at forward, the Ducks are kind of still doing it all by committee, though Captain Scro Ryan Getzlaf conveniently is having a resurgent year just in time to break the bank with an 8-year monster deal of his own. Getz has 11G and 22A, and is far and away the Ducks’ scoring leader even Perry is in the lineup. Twitter whiner Bobby Ryan and the geriatric Finns Saku Koivu and Teemu Selanne are on just about their usual paces, with Selanne continuing to score irritating goals well into his 70s. But one of the real surprises has been Andrew Cogliano, whose speed has been finally put to use in a two-way role under Gabby in Orange County, and he’s responded to the tune of 18 points and a +16 rating.
The Ducks’ blue line still continues to impress despite the fact that it looks like it shouldn’t. Long-time CI man-crush Francois Beauchemin hasn’t stopped garnering Norris attention, and shares a team, conference, and defensemen lead in +/- with the shockingly not-terrible Sheldon Souray at a gaudy +19. Bryan Allen adds additional physicality on the back end. Cam Fowler (GET IT?), whom the Hawks did not see in February, now aids Luca Sbisa in puck moving responsibilities.
The Ducks boast the league’s best power play by percentage at 24.7%, but are only 12th in actual power play goals scored with 20, meaning that they don’t get a lot of opportunities to do so. Conversely, their penalty kill is in the bottom third of the league at 24th with only a 78.6% kill rate, having allowed 21 goals against. So discipline will be a key for the Hawks tonight, and capitalizing on the opportunities that the Ducks will certainly give them on the advantage. On the kill, limiting the time and space of Souray’s rocket launcher from the point will be paramount.
As for our Men of Four Feathers, they’ll once again be without the services of Marian Hossa, who was last seen favoring his shoulder at the end of the first period in Colorado. As a result, Gorilla Salad has wormed his way back into the lineup, thought it’s not exactly clear where he’ll end up tonight. At practice Quenneville intimated that he might go with the Saad-Toews-Kane unit that incinerated the Avalanche on Monday, though that would leave a deafening sucking sound coming from the second line with Dave Bolland, Jimmy Hayes, and god knows what else. It seems as though Q learned his lesson after splitting up Bickell, Shaw, and Stalberg, and they figure to remain together. And tonight will be probably one of the harsher tests of Brandon Bollig’s will and desire to actually play hockey as he has the last three games, as the Ducks don’t shy away from the extra-curriculars.
The Hawk blue line will remain the same as it’s been with Michal Rozsival paired with Nick Leddy on the third pair. Hopefully Brent Seabrook’s benching on Monday night provided the kick in the ass he needed and a return to form can be expected. He’ll need to against Deeez Duuucks, as in addition to cannonballing their way into defenders behind the goal line on the forecheck, they’ve now been encouraged to fire from any and every angle since Gabby waddled up behind the bench. Hjalmarsson, Oduya, and Leddy will be the Hawks who will most need to make a concerted effort in absorbing a hit to make a play, as they’ve all shown the tendency to cough the puck up when under duress in the past. Corey Crawford once again gets the call in the cage tonight.
For all the build up this game is receiving, its result portends to very little both immediately and down the road, as a Ducks regulation win can’t leapfrog them past the Hawks, nor does it portend to assured demise in May. However, a Hawks win does get them a step closer to the next mileposts of clinching a playoff spot, the division, and home ice, all of which are approaching more rapidly than it normally feels like given the schedule. This will be the Hawks last game on their brief four-game road trip, and they’ll be off for the next five days, their longest break of the season. Empty the tank. Let’s go Hawks.