Rickard Rakell was the overtime hero, scoring at 5:12 of of the extra frame to clinch Anaheim's thrilling 5-4 victory over Winnipeg Monday night.
Here are three thoughts after the Ducks took a commanding 3-0 series lead:
1. This was playoff hockey at its finest
Nine goals, four lead changes, 105 hits and zero passengers. If there is any ground for complaint after this feral tilt, it's that the overtime lasted barely five minutes.
What a game. What a series.
This was everything that sets the pursuit of the Stanley Cup apart from any other playoffs. The action was relentless, with momentum turning on a dime, the courage of the combatants constantly under challenge and the result up for grabs until the final shot.
And the crowd. Oh, that crowd! After 19 years of waiting they arrived in full throat, ready to cheer on the home team. They roared for the anthems. They roared for hits. They roared for an Anaheim icing!
It had to have been the most vocal crowd of the season. And it was rewarded with one of the best games of the year. Certainly the best of these playoffs so far.
The Ducks got a brilliant performance out of Frederik Andersen, who stopped everything he saw and a few that he didn't. His patience and composure was the difference in the contest, and justified the faith placed in him by coach Bruce Boudreau. Winnipeg got a nearly equal performance out of Ondrej Pavelec, who had no chance on any of Anaheim's goals, especially Rakell's net-front tip of Francois Beauchemin's point blast in OT.
While Anaheim had its share of heroes, the star of this contest was Winnipeg's top line. Challenged by coach Paul Maurice to step up after two relatively quiet games in California, the trio delivered a tour de force that on most nights would have guaranteed a win.
Captain Andrew Ladd set the physical tone, delivering a game-high 12 hits. Blake Wheeler gave the Jets a 3-2 lead midway through the second and was consistently engaged along the walls and in front of Andersen. And Bryan Little ... that may well have been his finest, and most heartbreaking, game as a Jet. He was dialed in from the drop of the puck. He won 18 of his 27 draws. He landed six shots on net, tying Ladd for the game high. He scored a devastating goal in the third, pouncing on a brutal Cam Fowler giveaway in the high slot and putting a career's worth of frustration into a slapper that might have killed Andersen if he'd gotten in the way of it.
But the enduring image of Little from this game will that skyward gaze of frustration after he was robbed by a diving Andersen from point-blank range in OT. It was a chance that could have turned around the series. Instead, it will go down as the what-if moment when their season ends.
His agony offered the perfect counterpoint to Rakell's elation. Hard not to feel a little sorrier for the loser than happy for the winner after this one.
2. The Ducks remain indomitable
Three games. Three come-from-behind third periods. Three wins.
It might not be an ideal formula, but it's working for the Ducks in this series.
It's remarkable how resilient this group is and how comfortably it stays within its structure when behind. Then again, it's something the Ducks have been doing all season. The Ducks led the league with 12 wins after trailing when entering the third period, a pattern of success that clearly informs their play during the postseason. They simply hammer away at their opponent's defenses until they get their desired result.
Monday night's hero was Ryan Kesler, a player brought aboard last summer specifically for heavy games and key moments like this. The big center, who developed his game in Winnipeg with the AHL Manitoba Moose, was fully engaged from the start. He made a cross-crease feed that found a streaking Jakob Silfverberg who tied the game late in the second, then had the favor returned with 2:14 left in the third, allowing him to snap home the one-timer that sent the game into the extra frame.
Another night, another last-minute hero. There's always somebody ready to step up for this team.
3. Discipline problems continue to haunt Dustin Byfuglien
A reckless cross-check cost Dustin Byfuglien a four-game suspension late in the season and almost derailed the team's bid for a playoff spot.
So much for learning from his mistakes.
On a night when the rest of his team bought in to Maurice's pleas for discipline, Winnipeg's star defenseman showed little, potentially costing his team the series as a result.
Byfuglien was all high-risk in Game 3 and his decisions directly led to two Anaheim goals. With the clock winding down in the first, he made a decision to lead the rush out of the zone. Instead he turned the puck over and was caught flatfooted in the neutral zone while Fowler tied the game with 5.4 seconds remaining. It was an inexplicable and inexcusable decision with a lead to be protected.
But it was a breakdown in the second period that could come back to haunt him. Byfuglien blew his coverage on Corey Perry early in the second, allowing the sniper enough time to blast a shot past Pavelec and give Anaheim a 2-1 lead. Instead of skating away he stuck his leg in front of Perry and then punched/shoved him from behind, sending him crashing to the ice.
It didn't quite match Dale Hunter's legendary ambush of Pierre Turgeon on the cheap shot scale, but it was an ugly and dangerous play. Byfuglien received a two-minute minor for roughing and given how quickly Perry bounced up, it's likely that's where the discipline ends. That said, a fine wouldn't be out of the question. It was a garbage move and shouldn't be ignored by the league.
Bonus thought: There's a fine line between clever and stupid
Unfortunately, too many folks in Winnipeg crossed that line Monday night.
The MTS Centre crowd has always had a knack for getting under the skin of opposing players with their creative chants. Among their greatest hits: Serenading Ryan Miller with “silver medal,” Alex Ovechkin with “Crosby's better” and the entire San Jose Sharks roster with “who's your captain?”
Corey Perry made for a predictable target tonight, but the chant of “Katy Perry” struck an ugly note. Using a woman's name to insult a player might be old hat, but just because that sort of thing has gone on forever isn't a valid reason to keep doing it.
Unless of course they believe that women really are inferior to men.
Comedy is good. Sexism isn't. We can do better, can't we?