ANAHEIM, Calif. — According to Anaheim Ducks head coach Randy Carlyle, Friday’s game against the Edmonton Oilers is the most important game of the season.
“He says that a lot, just so you know,” laughed Ryan Getzlaf after the team’s morning skate. “It’s Game 2. We’re in the playoffs, every game is the most important game.”
The coach’s mantra takes on a bit more meaning now. For the first time in the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs the Ducks are trailing in a series.
In playoffs of season past, Anaheim would hit the panic button when the first signs of adversity came about. Not so much now. A loss Friday night means Edmonton heads home with a two game advantage.
“We’re confident in our game. We’re confident in our ability,” said a monotone Ryan Kesler. “There’s no panic right now. We’ve got to win the next one.”
The Ducks will have to do so without the services of defenseman Kevin Bieksa. The veteran blue liner sustained a lower-body injury in Game 1. Per Carlyle, the defenseman “should be available late in the series.”
In the first round sweep of the Calgary Flames, Bieksa registered four assists. He’s been one of Carlyle’s favorite defensemen this season because of his grit and tenacity that falls right into the coach’s prefered playing method.
Among the Ducks faithful, Bieksa’s inability to play is either a blessing or a curse. It depends largely on who Carlyle elects to replace him. The coach has two options: Korbinian Holzer or Sami Vatanen.
Vatanen has been out since the first game of the Calgary series when he sustained an upper-body injury. He has practiced with the team since Monday and is optimistic he could draw in soon.
In Vatanen, the Ducks get an offensive defenseman. He has a booming shot and speed that would allow him to keep up with the flying Oilers. Downside is that he’s small. He’ll still play a physical game, but he’s not the same kind of physical that Bieksa was.
However, Carlyle wants to replace like for like, he’s going to go with Holzer. That’s also what Edmonton coach Todd McLellan expects Carlyle will do.
“Nothing happens in a 24 hour period to revamp or retool your game,” said McLellan when addressing whether or not he’ll need to prepare his team differently with Bieksa out of the lineup.
“Holzer, who I expect to play, is an experienced defenseman. He’s played down the stretch. He played games against us. He’s had experience. I don’t think it changes dramatically. Their game plan will continue to be the same.”
There is a possible curveball the Ducks could throw. The team could elect to put in both Vatanen and Holzer, and sit rookie d-man Shea Theodore.
Theodore had a tremendous series against Calgary, scoring two goals and three assists. He was leaned on in large part due to the absence of Cam Fowler and Vatanen.
Fowler returned in Game 1 against Edmonton, and Theodore’s responsibilities shifted somewhat. It didn’t help his partner, Bieksa, left in the second period due to the injury. That caused Theodore to be the odd man out, often playing with different partners each shift. In all, it was a tough outing for the rookie blueliner.
Both Holzer and Vatanen left the morning skate at pretty much the same time. Theodore was one of the last guys on the ice, but that could mean nothing.
Outside of the defensive change on the Ducks side, both teams didn’t hint at any other major changes made in the off-day.
Ryan Kesler will continue to annoy Connor McDavid. And Kesler will continue to be annoyed at being asked about McDavid
by the Canadian media. “I’m not going to answer that question,” said a flat Kesler in response to a question about how McDavid has ‘accepted’ the Anaheim center’s game.
The only area of emphasis on both sides is discipline in what is still expected to be a physical game.
Edmonton burned Anaheim twice on the power play in five opportunities. The Ducks capitalized on the Oilers once in three tries.
Carlyle wouldn’t take the bait when asked about officiating. Instead, he was somewhat empathic to the officiating crew’s plight.
“If we, as a hockey club, could go out and make as many mistakes as the officials do, we’d have a pretty good game,” said Carlyle. “So, let them do their job. Yes, they’re not mistake free, but neither are we. And if we can hold ourselves accountable to the number of mistakes that we made and they equal the number that the officials made in the game, I think we’d be much further ahead.”
That doesn’t mean he’s letting his team off the hook. All throughout the regular season and the playoffs Carlyle has been preaching discipline. When asked if his players weren’t listening, Carlyle said with a laugh, “Well, I guess. What do you think? … We’re just harder headed than some, I guess.”
The message was the same in the Oilers locker room.
“Discipline is a huge part of every game and every series,” said (a much more grown up) Milan Lucic. “We’ve talked about it, especially after last series. We also talked about keeping our competitiveness and our finished checks and our physicalness up as far as the series goes, but definitely trying to keep it under control where you’re not spending the whole night in the box.”
That includes the stuff after the whistle. The Ducks are notorious when it comes to post-whistle shenanigans and trying to goad players into taking penalties.
“The first one [the officials] don’t see, but they always see the second one,” added Pat Maroon. “So you’ve got to find ways to not get involved and not get engaged and just play hard.”
Maroon knows better than anyone on Edmonton the tendencies of the Ducks. He spent the better part of four and a half seasons with the team before being dealt to Edmonton last year. A noticeably much more svelte Maroon has blossomed playing primarily on a line with McDavid and notorious Duck-hunter, Leon Draisaitl.
In addition to shutting down McDavid, Kesler’s line has to figure out a way to stop Draisaitl, too. In Game 1, he had four points; giving him a total of 12 points in six games against Anaheim this season. The opportunity for Maroon to get revenge on his former team is now while the checking line is distracted by his linemates.
The Oilers know they can’t rest on their success in Game 1. Something they learned the hard way against San Jose in the first round.
“We just played a six game series where we were down after Game 1,” said McLellan. “We know how we responded, how well we played that next night, so we know what Anaheim is going to come after us with.
“We also know and learned, or at least I believe we have, what it’s like to be up and you get a little too comfortable, and it ends up being seven-nothing. So, we have experience now. We can draw on it, and it doesn’t guarantee results one way or the other, but at least you have something to draw on.”