On a team blessed with size and brawn, three of the Ducks' smallest forwards were their biggest players Sunday.
Officially, left wing Andrew Cogliano is listed as being 5 feet 10, right wing Kyle Palmieri at 5-11, and center Nate Thompson the behemoth of the bunch at 6 feet. Those measurements might be accurate when all three are on skates.
But while the giants populating the top lines of the Ducks and Chicago Blackhawks neutralized one another Sunday in the opener of the Western Conference finals, the smaller guys on the Ducks' third line stole the show by scoring their second and third goals in an impressive 4-1 victory at Honda Center.
"This is the time when everyone's got to play big in a way and everyone's got to do their job," Cogliano said. "We can't rely on the big guys to score every goal."
What Cogliano, Thompson and Palmieri lack in stature they make up for with energy, paying attention to detail, and exerting sheer will. That was the case Sunday, when their impact far exceeded their physical size and gave the Ducks more scoring depth than the Blackhawks could handle.
"We have a lot of big guys. They establish the forecheck and possess the puck," said Palmieri, who scored his first goal of this season's playoffs on a sliding, lunging attempt at 4:17 of the second period. "We play it a little differently and try to use body position and speed, and we were able to do that tonight."
Coach Bruce Boudreau put the trio together during the Ducks' second-round series against Calgary, motivated more by the idea of moving right wing Jakob Silfverberg up to the second line with Ryan Kesler than with the idea of creating a spark between Palmieri and Thompson. The switch worked better than he might have anticipated, as Silfverberg contributed a goal and an assist Sunday and is tied for second in postseason scoring, with 13 points.
But playoff protocol being what it is, Boudreau was careful not to look too pleased after Sunday's game and repeatedly insisted his team will have to play better Tuesday in Game 2 and in the rest of this series in order to succeed. In many ways, he's right.
Usually sure-handed defenseman Francois Beauchemin and center Ryan Getzlaf each committed ghastly turnovers, forcing goaltender Frederik Andersen to be sharp against a 16-shot barrage in the first period. Andersen's fine work made sure the Blackhawks had to play from behind for the first time in two playoff series, a position that's not their strength.
But Boudreau's stern resolve against dishing out too much praise melted when he was asked about the performance of his third line. "By far the best," he said, unable to hold back a smile.
Thompson, 30, was acquired by the Ducks last summer from Tampa Bay for fourth- and seventh-round draft picks. He made a mark this season as a penalty killer and faceoff specialist and carried out his penalty-killing duties well on Sunday by playing 2 minutes 21 seconds during the Ducks' three disadvantages, the second-most short-handed time played by any of the team's forwards. He was sidelined for their first-round series against Winnipeg because of an upper-body injury and was an impatient patient.
"I'm not a good watcher. I was pacing every game," he said. "I didn't sit down, I think, the whole first round. I was itching to get back, that's for sure."
His offensive contributions this season were modest — five goals and 18 points in 80 games — but he displayed solid offensive instincts Sunday by setting up Palmieri's goal and by converting the rebound of a shot by Cogliano for the Ducks' third goal, at 12:05 of the third period. His reaction after his goal mixed fist-pumping with pure primal screaming in ways he didn't plan.
"Whenever you score a big playoff goal maybe you black out a little bit and don't realize what you're doing when you're celebrating," Thompson said.
"It was a good game for us. I thought we were good getting in on the forecheck, creating turnovers in the neutral zone, just doing a lot of good little things and whenever you're doing good little things, it usually creates a good offense."
Those little things had a big impact Sunday.