Lighting the Lamp, with Rick Ackerman
You can worship at the alter of the Pittsburgh Penguins (the favorite in Las Vegas to win the Stanley Cup at the beginning of the season) and extol the virtues of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. And you can put the Chicago Blackhawks on the cover of Sports Illustrated and crow about their record streak and sing the praises of Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews. You can even call Chicago the franchise that brought hockey back and claim the Hawks made the game matter again by saving the NHL from a lockout induced irrelevancy. As hockey pundits and fans alike jump on these bandwagons and all but guarantee one of them will hoist Lord Stanley's Cup, it would be wiser to regard the Montreal Canadiens (or the Boston Bruins) and tonight's visitors, the Anaheim Ducks, as the dark-horse, best bets to survive the playoff wars and duke it out for the NHL championship.
The Ducks (better called the Drakes due to gender considerations) were picked by The Hockey News, the bible of hockey, to finish 11th in the Western Conference (Montreal was picked to finish 13th in the East) in the 2012-13 Yearbook. Of course, this just proves The Hockey News is definitely not "the word" of the hockey gods and that the so-called experts (especially those at Sports Illustrated and ESPN) are just about as reliable as a 25-cent condom. Outside the glare of the spotlight on the Blackhawks, Anaheim has quietly put together the kind of season that was locally expected of the Blues. And, of course, it is mostly because of consistently superior goaltending.
Swedish rookie goaltender Viktor Fasth (sounds more like the name of a villain in a James Bond movie) has supplanted Swiss veteran Jonas Hiller with a sparkling 1.92 goals against average, winning 10 of 12 starts. He also sports a .929 save percentage, third best in the entire league. And it has nothing to do with poor play on the part of Hiller, who has won nine games (13 starts) with a 2.71 goals against average and a .905 save percentage. Nor does this dynamic duo get a lot of help from their defense or back-checking forwards as Anaheim allows an average of 28.4 shots against per game, only ranked 13th in the league. (The Blues allow 24/game against, best in the league.) St. Louis has faced both goaltenders earlier this season, scoring five goals (on 31 shots) against Fasth in a losing effort (5-6 in a shootout) in which Brian Elliott allowed five goals on 23 shots and two goals against Hiller (on 31 shots) in a 2-4 loss in which Jaro Halak allowed three goals against on 22 shots.
Anaheim's Pacific Division lead (a whopping 11 points ahead of Los Angeles) is abetted by a high-octane offense (ranked third best in the entire league), led by centers Ryan Getzlaf, Saku Koivu and Andrew Cogliano. Wingers Bobby Ryan, Teemu Selanne, Corey Perry and Kyle Palmeiri complement them nicely, although Perry will not play tonight due to his late, illegal hit to the head of Minnesota's Jason Zucker and immediate suspension for four games. As the Blues have found out twice now this season, Anaheim can score goals in bunches, coming from behind in both previous encounters with St. Louis. A 3-1 Blues lead was erased with three Duck tallies in less than two minutes in the second period of the game in St. Louis and a 2-1 Blues lead was overcome in Anaheim last week with two goals in the third period in a little over two minutes. And the Duck power play is quite potent, surpassing the Blues power play recently as the best in the league.
Anaheim also has one of the best coaches in the NHL in Bruce Boudreau. Even knowledgeable hockey fans would be surprised to learn that Boudreau played parts of eight NHL seasons with Toronto and Chicago, recording 70 points (28 goals) in 141 games. Originally selected by the Maple Leafs in the third round of the 1975 Entry Draft, Boudreau starred for the Toronto Marlboros, setting a then CHL record (broken later by Wayne Gretzky in 1978) 165 points (68 goals) in the 1974-75 season, adding another 44 points in 27 games leading the Marlboros to a Memorial Cup championship. Boudreau spent most his playing career in the American Hockey League, ranking the 15th all-time leading goal scorer with 316 and 11th all time point producer with 799. Another little known fact is that Boudreau appeared in the movie Slap Shot, wearing the number seven green sweater of the fictional Presidents hockey team. His coaching career began in the minors in cities including Fort Wayne, Biloxi (Mississippi Sea Wolves), and Hershey, where the Bears won the AHL Calder Cup championship in 2006. That success led to Boudreau being named the coach of the Washington Capitals in 2007. He won the Jack Adams Award as the NHL's best coach in 2008. In his third full season, Washington won the President's Trophy, but was upset by Montreal in the first round of the playoffs. After a hot start in 2011, the Capitals fell apart and after a dispute with coach-killer Alex Ovechkin, Boudreau was fired in November. Two days later, Anaheim hired him as head coach.
With only two points separating third and tenth place in the Western Conference earlier this week, the Blues are desperate to improve home-ice performance and take these two points from the Ducks. Revenge for two earlier defeats should be all the motivation the Blues need.