Ducks goaltender Viktor Fasth stops a shot by Blackhawks winger Patrick… (Charlie Arbogast / Associated…)
It’s only March, but the morning skate before the Ducks’ matchup against the Chicago Blackhawks on Wednesday at the Honda Center had a strong playoff feel. There was a sharper than usual sense of anticipation for the Ducks (21-3-4), who rank No. 2 in the NHL, and for the Blackhawks (24-2-3), who have been No. 1 on the strength of a league-record 21-0-3 start.
The heightened emotions were a welcome difference in a lockout-condensed schedule that jams too many games into too few days and forces players to plow through the crowded stretches of the season. A standing-room-only crowd was expected, which would be the Ducks’ sixth home sellout this season.
“For athletes that grow up it’s the kind of game you want to play,” Ducks Coach Bruce Boudreau said. “The best in one against the best in another record-wise, and when you’re dreaming, when you’re a kid, these are the kind of games you dream about.”
The Blackhawks entered the game with a five-point lead over the Ducks, who have a game in hand. Each team will be missing a key player: Chicago winger Marian Hossa has an upper-body injury, and Ducks right wing Corey Perry will finish serving a four-game suspension for an illegal hit to the head of Minnesota’s Jason Zucker.
Corey Crawford (13-2-3, 1.79 goals-against average and .929 save percentage) was expected to start in goal for Chicago. Jonas Hiller (10-2-3, 2.52, .911) was expected to start for the Ducks.
“This whole week has been something that we looked at and said it’s going to kind of define us and show us where we’re at,” Ducks defenseman Sheldon Souray said, referring to Wednesday’s game and upcoming home games against Detroit and San Jose.
“We know this part of the schedule is tough but it’s also a little bit of a measuring stick of where we’re at. You look at our record and we’re however many points we are behind Chicago and it just tells you how good they are. Not that you need any extra motivation, really, especially in a shortened season like this, but they’re the best team in the league and we’re trying to get to be one of those teams, one of the top teams, a respected team, and that’s Chicago right now.”
Forward Andrew Cogliano said he expected a playoff-type atmosphere. “They’ve had such a good season and we’re right behind them,” he said. “There’s added incentive. I don’t think you want to get too far ahead of yourself and get too energetic or too ramped up but I think overall it will just be a fun game to play in terms of the fans and the building.”
Boudreau shared that anticipation. “I know the city of Anaheim is excited about Chicago coming to town,” he said. “And I know there’s a lot of transplanted Chicago people that come to our games all the time, so I think there will be a little buzz in the air.”
The key will be harnessing that energy and not getting overly emotional. Boudreau said he talks often to his team about controlled emotion and he believes players are listening because the team’s penalty minutes are down. Through Tuesday’s games the Ducks averaged 11.2 penalty minutes per game, ninth-lowest in the league and the same number the Blackhawks averaged. The Ducks ranked 21st last season with an average of 12 penalty minutes per game.
Boudreau also had some high praise for Chicago winger Patrick Kane, who ranked among the NHL’s scoring leaders with 16 goals and 37 points.
“Obviously something’s happened where he’s totally changed--not the way he plays, he’s always been a great player--but the consistency of his game, game in and game out this year has been pretty fun to watch if you’re not a hockey player on another team,” Boudreau said. “Every night he’s coming to play. He’s getting more like Jonathan Toews every day, who comes to play every night. And when both of them are coming to play every night it’s a difficult duo to stop, especially when they’re on different lines.”
Kane, after some initial joking about being compared to the ever-serious Toews, said he considered Boudreau’s comments a compliment.
“You always want to be consistent in your game and what you bring to the table every night, so it’s definitely been one of my goals from the start of the season to do that,” Kane said.
He also said the Blackhawks don’t consider this just another game.
“We’ve been playing pretty well all year, obviously, and faced these guys once and lost in a shootout,” he said. “I think it is kind of a measuring stick to see how close these teams are together and where we compare to them. They’ve had a great season. They probably would have a lot more attention if we haven’t had the season we’ve had. It’s a good measuring stick, but at the same time we want to prove ourselves and show that we’re the best team in the West.”
Check back later for more coverage.
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