Frederik Andersen was the surprise starter. Jonas Hiller was the surprise finisher. And somehow the Anaheim Ducks managed to rattle Jonathan Quick just enough to come away with a hard-fought 3-2 win on Thursday night in Game 3 of their Western Conference semifinal.
The Ducks closed the gap in the best-of-seven series to 2-1 on the strength of two power play goals from Corey Perry and Teemu Selanne. Anaheim had been one-for-eight with the extra man through the first two games of the series.
Hiller came off the bench cold and stopped seven of eight shots to earn his second win in relief during these playoffs. Andersen, tabbed to start more as a team wake-up call than a condemnation of Hiller's play in Games 1 and 2, was sharp through the first 50 minutes, allowing only a power play goal to Jeff Carter before suffering an apparent injury to his right knee.
Anaheim also lost first line winger Matt Beleskey after he was hammered awkwardly into the boards by Dustin Brown. But the Ducks persevered, playing at a faster tempo, getting bodies to the net and going into lockdown mode during a tense third period that tested their depth and their defensive commitment. They took a few shots and survived. And now we have a series.
Some observations from tonight's game:
• These Ducks love to migrate. They were 3-0 at Staples Center this season and boasted the NHL's second-best regular-season road record (25-12-4). You could see that confidence right from the start. The Staples Center isn't the most intimidating building in the league, but the Ducks took the fans out of the game quickly, getting the better of the early play to go along with Perry's opening goal. After that, they settled into their heavy but disciplined style that leaves a trailing opponent with little room to breathe...at least until the third period, when the Kings began asserting themselves. Anaheim was outshot 12-5 and outplayed by a wide margin in the final frame before Ben Lovejoy scored the eventual game winner at the 17:05 mark. The unheralded defender, snagged off Pittsburgh's roster for a fifth-round pick, swiped the puck off the stick of Drew Doughty, fed a streaking Andrew Cogliano and finished off a two-on-one with a wrister that surprised Quick, high glove.
• You know a lot will be made of Perry's stick snapping in half just as he was about to bury a 30-footer into the empty L.A. net, especially after Richards scored at the other end only moments later. Plenty of fans love to see Perry fail. Outside of that equipment malfunction, though, he was the best player on the ice tonight, by far. Perry was engaged from the start, nearly connecting on a slick redirect in front of Quick just seconds before he opened the scoring on the power play, and consistently earning his space in the crease. He was terrific on the defensive end, too, bulldozing Doughty to end one of his offensive dashes in the second and racing back to tie up Jarret Stoll just before he could finish a slick pass from the corner in the third period. Those last two plays won't make the highlights, but they were critical in maintaining Anaheim's lead in crunch time.
• There's a definite risk to employing rookie Sami Vatanen in a game like this -- he was almost burned on an offensive blueline turnover that led to a scoring chance for L.A.'s Justin Williams in the first--but there was plenty of reward, too.Vatanen's game had quite a bit of Torey Krug in it tonight. Like the Boston rookie, he's a smaller defenseman with an unshakeable confidence in his offensive skills, and when he had the puck on his stick, Anaheim tended to move north quickly. His patience juiced a power play that's been ineffective all series, and he made a couple of smart pinches that led to scoring chances. After the game, Boudreau said he thought Vatanen was the best player on the ice for either team. Might be a little over-the-top with his praise, but the kid earned his ice. He deserves a long look the rest of the way.
• Here's the soon-to-be-famous Beleskey hit that sent Doughty head first into the Anaheim bench. What a beauty.
• Yes, they blew their chance to take a stranglehold on this series with a win, but there still was a lot to like about the Kings' effort tonight. Quick was solid despite making just 19 saves on 22 shots. He was aggressive, stayed upright, and was economical with his rebound control. While he might like to have Lovejoy's goal back--he didn't quite have his line right on that sizzler--he had no chance on the first two scored by the Ducks. The Jeff Carter-Tyler Toffoli-Tanner Pearson line was dangerous, especially in the second half of the game. When they had their feet moving, Anaheim's defenders were forced to play chase. They didn't finish, but they were buzzing. But the brightest spot might have been Richards' goal, his first of the postseason. He's been struggling, both with and without the puck, always seeming to be half a step behind the play. Tonight, he was all Swiss precision, winning 11 of his 16 draws and making a special play on his goal, bunting a Pearson rebound out of the air and past Hiller to draw the Kings to within one at 3-2. If that one gets him going offensively, L.A. is a different team.
• Not that it was all "good game, boys" and juice boxes for everybody. The Corsi Kids will like the 56.5 percent rating that the Anze Kopitar-Marian Gaborik-Dustin Brown combo put up tonight, but L.A.'s top line failed the eye test. Kopitar did chip in with an assist on Carter's goal, stretching his scoring streak to 13 games (8-12-20), but he had little jump at five-on-five. The trio combined for six uneventful shots and struggled to generate any speed through the neutral zone--something they'd managed with ease through the first two games. Coach Darryl Sutter has to be more aggressive in finding the right match-ups for them in Game 4.
• Ducs coach Bruce Boudreau said after the game that both Beleskey and Andersen were day-to-day with lower body injuries. Not sure I'm buying that diagnosis on Beleskey. It looked more like a shoulder problem after the way he slammed into the boards. Andersen was reported to be walking around without a limp or any apparent discomfort after the game, but Hiller's strong finish makes it more probable that the veteran gets another start and the rookie is given another couple of days to heal up. The Ducks and Kings meet in Game 4 at 9:30 p.m. ET on Saturday in Los Angeles (9:30 p.m. ET; NBCSN, TSN, RDS)