The Ducks have undergone massive and much-needed changes since they stumbled and fumbled their way to a non-playoff finish last season. They have a new coach, Dallas Eakins, a commitment to playing with a faster pace, and a pronounced emphasis on youth. They felt invigorated as they prepared to open the season on Thursday against Arizona, confident they had rebuilt their self-esteem as solidly as they had rebuilt their roster.
“This is a group that I feel can do good things that people might not necessarily see at the moment,” captain Ryan Getzlaf said Thursday morning. “But we’re going to have to keep our head down and focus on what we need to do and make sure that we play with energy and up-tempo hockey.”
The Ducks brought energy and young legs to face the Coyotes, dressing 16 players who haven’t yet celebrated their 30th birthday. Two of the 20-somethings who are among the Ducks’ most experienced players provided their offense and supported goaltender John Gibson’s 32-save performance in a 2-1 victory before an announced sellout crowd at Honda Center.
“We need to be a team that’s going to score by committee,” said defenseman Cam Fowler, who will be 28 in December and began his 10th NHL season by making a slick move and whipping a shot into the upper-right corner of the net to put the Ducks ahead for good late in the second period. “With all the skill we have, with our elite goalscorers, we’re going to have to rely on goals to come from different people at different times.”
Their first goal came from 29-year-old Derek Grant, their fourth-line center. As so often happens, the play began with a good save at the other end, in this case a right pad stop by Gibson on a shot by Alex Goligoski. Defenseman Hampus Lindholm moved the puck up quickly, and Grant skated into the offensive zone on the right wing. He passed to Devin Shore, on the left. Arizona goalie Darcy Kuemper stopped Shore’s shot but the rebound ended up on the right side of the slot, and Grant poked the puck into the net at 14:32 of the first period.
“Everyone played well today,” said Grant, who scored two goals in 31 games with the Ducks last season after they acquired him from Pittsburgh. “We have good depth throughout our lineup. We need everyone chipping in, in different ways, every night. If I can chip in with a goal that’s great, but there’s a lot of other things we’re worrying about out there. I thought the guys played pretty well overall.”
The Coyotes, touted as a potential playoff team based on their accumulation of young talent, pulled even at 9:03 of the second period on a one-timer by Derek Stepan, who was set up nicely by Phil Kessel. The Coyotes acquired the prolific Kessel, a two-time Stanley Cup winner, from the Penguins in June. He played in his 997th career game on Thursday and is one of only three American players to score 20 goals in 11 consecutive seasons, along with Patrick Kane and Keith Tkachuk.
But Fowler gave the Ducks a morale boost and the lead by scoring with 32 seconds left in the second period. The players the Coyotes had on the ice were nearing the end of a shift and were collapsing defensively, and Fowler read the play well.
“A lot of times I’d probably put my head down and try and blast that one,” Fowler said after his club-record ninth career game-winning goal by a defenseman, “but I saw the forward kind of cheating in my lane and I saw a little bit of open ice to the middle and I was able to create a little bit of separation there and just tried to get the puck on net. I didn’t have a whole lot of space. I was trying mainly to get it there and create some kind of havoc but I heard the crowd and I was happy to see that one go in.”
So was Eakins, who has encouraged his defensemen to move the puck up quickly to the forwards and to capitalize on their mobility by joining the rush. Fowler’s superb skating makes him well suited to do that. “Any time you can get one of those late in the period like that, it’s such a great feeling walking in the room,” Eakins said. “I thought we played much better in the second period and to get rewarded like that is big.”
Eakins got another reward later, in the locker room, when Getzlaf presented him with the puck as a souvenir of his first victory as the team’s coach. “I think it really shows how thoughtful not only our captain is, but our leadership group,” Eakins said. “I never expected that, and to be handed that after the game was truly an honor.”
It was Game 1 of 82 but was, in many ways, more than that. As optimistic as the Ducks were during training camp, as sure as they were that they’re on the right path, proving it on the ice was crucial. “I think if you come out on the other side of this, on the bad side, it could easily creep in to, ‘Oh, no, is this happening again?’” Eakins said. “So we certainly don’t want that, and so we’re able to build on some positivity here.’’