It was easy to overlook the Ducks’ acquisition of defenseman Simon Despres in the flurry of moves they made shortly before the trade deadline. It wasn’t immediately clear what General Manager Bob Murray had gained by sending Ben Lovejoy to Pittsburgh for Despres, who had averaged 16 minutes and 22 seconds’ ice time per game for the Penguins, though the team got younger — Despres is 23 to Lovejoy’s 31 — and slightly bigger by trading for the 6-foot-4, 214-pound native of Laval, Canada.
But from the moment he was paired with Cam Fowler, Despres had a feeling the two would mesh in ways that would allow each to reach a new level and propel the Ducks another step along the road to the Stanley Cup.
“The first game, I think we had a good chemistry,” Despres said. “Sometimes you can’t explain it.”
No long explanation is necessary. Their performances Thursday at the United Center illustrated why Despres has become so valuable to the Ducks and why he and Fowler are so effective together, with each contributing in many ways to the 2-1 victory that gave the Ducks a 2-1 lead over the Chicago Blackhawks in the Western Conference finals.
Despres led the Ducks in ice time at 23 minutes and 26 seconds and was credited with the game-winning goal when he took a pass from Ryan Getzlaf — who had gotten a pass from Fowler — and rifled a one-timer from the right circle past Chicago goaltender Corey Crawford at 19:03 of the second period. Fowler played one of his best all-around games in recent memory, racking up five blocked shots and dishing out three hits in addition to making Despres’ goal possible.
Despres, a left-handed shooter who has been playing the right side, downplayed his offensive exploits and credited teammate Corey Perry for distracting Crawford on his goal. “I’m not a goal-scorer. I just tried to hit the net and get it off as quick as possible,” Despres said of his ice-skimming shot.
But he took justifiable pride in being sent out by Coach Bruce Boudreau to protect that one-goal lead in the final minute of the game. He rewarded Boudreau’s faith by getting his stick in the way of a dangerous shot by Patrick Kane during a frantic last push by the Blackhawks, who lost their first home game of these playoffs after five straight wins.
“I like the confidence from the coach to put me out there,” Despres said. “I do my best to keep it that way and work hard and block shots and be a good defensive player. I’m a big guy and I have a long reach and I try to use that to my advantage.”
Winger Andrew Cogliano, always thoughtful and articulate, said the team’s acquisition of Despres proved why Murray had been voted the NHL’s top general manager last season.
“Nothing against Lovie,” Cogliano said of Lovejoy. “Lovie was a good player. Lovie was a very useful player for a long time. He did a great job for us. But Des, he’s a good player and I think he has a little bit more room to grow. I don’t think he’s reached his full potential. He’s big. He battles hard. He’s got a good stick. He could play physical at the right time.
“I think it was fitting for him to get a goal tonight because I think he was, I don’t want to say due, but he had good enough opportunities. And he’s been playing really good.”
Fowler credited their success to their strong relationship and innate feeling for the game.
“I think our style of play kind of complements one another,” Fowler said. “Skating is a big part of Des’ game. He’s a big, physical kid who can impose his will on some of their skilled guys. He has the ability to join the rush whenever he has the opportunity and that’s also a big part of my game, so I think we have a good understanding with one another about when it’s time to go and maybe when it’s time to sit back and make sure we’re solid defensively.”
They were more than solid Thursday. Because of that, the Ducks were able to gain new life less than two days after a triple-overtime loss in Game 2 that could have deflated and derailed them.
“It’s been a good run so far,” Despres said. “We haven’t done anything yet. We want to get to the top.”
If they get there, it will be because their acquisition of Despres proved to be a much bigger move than it seemed at the time.
Follow Helene Elliott on Twitter @helenenothelen