The 2007 Stanley Cup final was on everybody’s mind Saturday afternoon at the Honda Center and why not? The Ottawa Senators were in town for just the third time since they memorably played for the championship almost five years ago against the Anaheim Ducks of Brian Burke, Randy Carlyle, Scott Niedermayer, Chris Pronger and J.S. Giguere.
Even though the principals have largely changed for the Ducks, the results weren’t any better for the visiting Senators. In a tightly played afternoon game, the Ducks received goals from Corey Perry, the reigning NHL most valuable player, as well as defenceman Lubomir Visnovsky to defeat the Senators 2-1 before an announced crowd of just over 15,000.
The regulation loss marked the first time in their last 12 road games in which the Senators had failed to pick up a point, an amazing run of success away from home that was capped by Thursday’s 4-1 victory over the powerful San Jose Sharks, the first time in eight years they’d picked up a victory at the Shark Tank.
Alas, it was not to continue against the Ducks, who are a Western Conference also-ran at the moment, but playing far better hockey of late, as most of their core players - from goaltender Jonas Hiller on out - have awoken from a first-half slumber.
Hiller, who played in last year’s NHL all-star game, has been particularly sharp in recent outings, after just an awful beginning to the season. In his last seven appearances, Hiller has stopped 154 of 163 shots, for a .945 save percentage and a 1.42 goals-against average. But Hiller got some help from his defence too - the Ducks blocked 22 shots compared to 10 for Ottawa.
“They had maybe six goalies out there sometime,” was how Ottawa coach Paul MacLean assessed Anaheim’s shot-blocking prowess. “That’s the nature of the league right now, a lot of people block shots. You just have to continue to put pucks at the net and not get frustrated.”
“If this was football, you’d say the game was won in the trenches,” added Ducks coach Bruce Boudreau, who raised his record behind the bench to 10-9-3 since replacing Randy Carlyle as the team’s coach back in December.
“We paid the price doing what we had to do to win, and we were opportunistic.”
An example of the Ducks’ opportunism came on Visnovsky’s goal at the 17-minute mark of the second period, which was both pivotal and a complete fluke and stood up as the winner.
On the play, the Ducks routinely cycled the puck behind the Sens’ goal, working it back to Visnovsky on the right point. Visnovsky’s shot bounced off goaltender Craig Anderson, up in the air. At that point, defenceman Erik Karlsson took a swipe at it and deflected it slightly to one side, where it ricocheted off Anderson’s left shoulder and dropped gently over the goal line to give the Ducks a 2-0 lead.
Chris Neil closed the gap for the Sens at 8:51 of the third period, breaking Hiller’s shutout bid by converting his own rebound after Nick Foligno won a battle with Ducks defenceman Sheldon Brookbank to get a centring pass out in front of the net.
Perry’s 22nd of the season at the 6:15 mark of the second period opened the scoring for the Ducks and was his eighth goal in the past nine games, as the NHL’s only 50-goal scorer from a year ago is starting to heat up again.
“It was a tight game throughout,” said Senators captain Daniel Alfredsson. “The difference is they got up two goals. [On Perry’s goal]we win a faceoff, they beat us to it, they get a fortunate bounce out in the shot, and then a good bounce on their second goal. I thought the game was pretty even throughout 40 minutes and we knew we were going to have to give a good push in the third, and we did.
“Overall, it’s frustrating when we come out as we did in the third and weren’t able to get the tying goal. Disappointing.”
For the Ducks, they now have earned 15 points in their last 16 games, which represents their longest point streak since the fall of 2008. In that stretch, the Ducks have outscored their opponents 33-14.
“Defence and goaltending is what wins you championships,” Boudreau said. “Offence will come. You’re not going to score five goals every night. To defend a team like that, when they are playing like they are, it was pretty special. It was a great game by both teams.”
Because of an injury to Matt Beleskey, the Ducks promoted left winger Mark Bell from their AHL affiliate in Syracuse, marking his since NHL appearance since Apr. 5, 2008, back when he was a Toronto Maple Leaf. Bell had played two seasons for Kloten in the Swiss League before Anaheim general manager Bob Murray signed him to a two-way contract at the start of the year. Murray was with the Chicago Blackhawks when they originally drafted Bell eighth overall in the 1998 entry draft.
Bell played sparingly for the Ducks in Saturday’s game, getting just three shifts in the first period (2:20 of ice time), two in the second (2:00 of ice time) and one in the third (lasting all of 25 seconds). Still, playing career NHL game No. 446 was a special moment.
Bell described his NHL return as a “long road” back.
"It’s pretty sweet to get the win, and then to be a part of it, and to be here with these guys," he said. "I don’t know what else to say. I can’t put any emotions on it. There’s a lot of emotions going on. I’m appreciating it every minute I’m here.”
Boudreau said the Ducks' decision to recall Bell was based strictly on need, not sentiment. With Anaheim playing well again, the priority was on getting victories, not developing prospects.
“When we phoned down it was, ‘who’s the best player you’ve got,’” reported Boudreau. “And they said Mark Bell, So that was the simplest for me. If this was a team [the Ducks]that had 25 points at this stage, we would have said, ‘listen, let’s try Peter Holland. Let’s try this, let’s try that.’”
When Bell was asked if he thought this day would ever come, he considered the question and then replied: “You’ve got to be your biggest supporter. You don’t want to doubt yourself and there’s always some dog days when you’re coming through stuff like that.
“I tried not to doubt myself, but when you have some tough days it creeps in. But for the most part, I just believed in myself and my ability.”