So what if these Ducks are for real? That isn’t meant to be an insulting question. They had a fantastic regular season, but we’ve seen that twice before, each time before playoff flameouts. They rolled through the first two rounds in the West, but they faced a pair of creampuffs. Their Game 1 win over the heavily favored Blackhawks came after an awkwardly long layoff for both teams, and the triple-OT Game 2 was too wild and too exhausting to draw too many conclusions. In some (very superficial) ways, last night—on the road in Chicago, coming off a heartbreaking loss—could have been viewed as their first real test.
The Ducks scored first, they scored last, Frederik Andersen continued his stellar run, and they hung on through an intense third period to come away with a 2-1 win, a 2-1 series win, and, no matter what happens on Saturday, home-ice advantage once again. It was a relatively straightforward affair compared to the drama of Game 2, but if you’re looking to distill this outcome to something the Blackhawks did wrong and the Ducks did right, look to a pair of personnel decisions made hours and months before the puck dropped.
The first was Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville’s curious decision to sit rookie Teuvo Teravainen and deadline acquisition Antoine Vermette in place of Kris Versteeg and Joakim Nordstrom, and shuffle his bottom two lines. He denied that anyone was injured, saying only that after the triple-overtime game, “we just wanted to get some fresh legs in there.” Those fresh legs didn’t get too much action—the two combined for two shots on goal and just 20:37 of ice time, with Nordstrom’s fourth line barely leaving the bench as the game wore on.
Nordstrom did play a crucial role in the gamewinning goal, scored in the last minute of the second. He came out to challenge Ryan Getzlaf just under the blue line, dropping to a knee and completely leaving Simon Depres alone in the right circle. Depres, with a fantastic look from a bad angle, didn’t miss. No wonder Nordstrom only got 51 seconds of ice time after that.
Despres’s very presence on the Ducks was the second pivotal personnel decision. Acquired from Pittsburgh at the deadline in an absolutely burglary of a deal for Ben Lovejoy, the 23-year-old defenseman has won admirers among his teammates as they’ve gotten to watch him play. “For a guy you didn’t know too much about, he’s a really good player,” Andrew Cogliano said.
He’s not there to be a scorer, and doesn’t need to be to contribute. He’s formed a formidable pairing with Cam Fowler, who can’t stop gushing about the chemistry the two had from their very first game together. Last night, Despres played more than four minutes on a penalty kill that went 5-for-5 and limited Chicago to just a single shot on goal. He was tapped by Bruce Boudreau to play the final minute of the game, with Anaheim desperately clinging to its lead.
So it was Despres, just getting his stick into the mix as Patrick Kane’s potential tying shot with eight seconds left went barely wide.
Chalking Anaheim’s win up to Despres’s play or Chicago’s loss to Teravainen’s and Vermette’s absences is too simplistic, and ignores all the choices and actions that go into a one-goal game. But it’s telling enough that not much else immediately jumped out. The Ducks appear every bit as composed and confident as the Blackhawks, and are able to do it without shuttling healthy scratches in and out or riding their top two D pairings to the point of exhaustion.
I’m still not certain what we have with these Anaheim Ducks, or how much we should ascribe to the level of competition they’ve faced. I’m only sure that they’re now being tested against the best, and like every other test they’ve taken so far, they’re passing.