Throughout this roller coaster ride of a season, the Anaheim Ducks have stayed dominant in one (surprising) part of their game: defense.
Heading into the final game of the regular season Sunday in Washington D.C., the Ducks are the NHL’s best defensive team. They have surrendered the fewest goals against per game, and are top five in fewest shots against per game. Anaheim is showing the commitment to defense that is an integral part of aspiring championship teams.
One big reason for this is Anaheim’s league-best penalty kill, currently with an 87.1 percent success rate. Anaheim has a great shot at leading the league in PK percentage for the first time in franchise history.
The penalty kill was the lone bright spot for Anaheim during the first few months of the season. Without their usual high-scoring offense, the Ducks had to put extra focus on shutting teams down in order to squeak out victories.
This was one of the main factors that helped the Ducks claw their way out of the Western Conference basement—their goal scoring has fluctuated, but the penalty kill has helped keep the defense strong throughout the year. The combination of Ryan Kesler and Jakob Silfverberg has been key to this effort; often the PK starts with Kesler winning a d-zone draw and Anaheim icing the puck.
Freddy Andersen and John Gibson have also done their part. It’s often said that the goaltender must be the best penalty killer if a team is to be successful while down a man, and Anaheim’s tandem has been one of the league’s best.
The d-men in front of them haven’t hurt the cause; Anaheim’s young core have continued to impress. Cam Fowler has shown flashes of an elite number one defenseman while usual partners Simon Despres and Kevin Bieksa bring the hitting game. Sami Vatanen is a nightly threat with his booming shot from the point, and the pairing of Hampus Lindholm and Josh Manson offer a rare blend of goal scoring and nasty physical play.
In past years Anaheim has been known as more of an offensive team, often relying on their dominant top line to outscore opposing teams. It comes as no surprise that his new committment to defense followed consecutive big game losses to superior defensive teams; LA in 2014 and Chicago in 2015. In both cases those teams would go on to win the Stanley Cup.
Stanley Cup-winning teams are built around strong defensive play, and the Ducks have only to look at their 2007 team to see evidence of this.
The most important players in that Cup run were the defensive core: two Hall of Fame defensemen, Scott Niedermayer and Chris Pronger, as well as goaltender J.S. Giguere and the checking line of Travis Moen, Sami Pahlsson and Rob Niedermayer.
This season, the emergence of Rickard Rakell has helped take some of the scoring load off of Ryan Kesler, which allows Kesler and his line to worry primarily about shutting down opposing teams’ best players.
Kesler has won the sixth most faceoffs in the league, and his 58.5 win percentage is second to Jonathan Toews among players who have taken over 500 draws, per NHL.com. Kesler’s line does its best work in the offensive zone, often keeping opposing top lines hemmed in their own zone with a ruthless forecheck.
Cup or Bust
The NHL playoffs are upon us, and with that comes a chance for Anaheim to make up for past failures. The Ducks are well experienced with the fact that regular season triumphs do not equal playoff success, and the players know they must continue to execute if there is to be a parade in Anaheim in June.
Anything short of a Cup win will be considered a failure, as Anaheim’s renewed defensive play is designed to propel the team over the hump.