Thu. Jun 13th, 2024

I wrote in a preseason piece that the Anaheim Ducks’ first game of the season against the Columbus Blue Jackets was one of five games to circle on the calendar. Why? Not because of a rivalry, per se, but because it’ll feature two of the top three selections in the 2023 NHL Entry Draft – Leo Carlsson (second) and Adam Fantilli (third). When you consider that the Ducks surprised some folks when taking Carlsson over Fantilli, naturally, one’s interest in seeing them compete against one another is piqued, no?

Well, that’s what we have here tonight. Both Carlsson and Fantilli are slated to play and both are faces of an organization in desperate need of moving forward. Let’s preview the game by looking at storylines, personnel, and tactics.

More Shots On Net, Says Greg Cronin

Following his team’s loss to the Bruins the other night, Ducks head coach Greg Cronin seemed pretty displeased with the number of opportunities to shoot the puck that were passed on in favor of an extra pass or additional move. Among his comments on his team’s offense: “We don’t shoot it. As a team that doesn’t score a lot of goals, we have to shoot pucks […] if you get 40 shots on net, you’re probably going to score 4 goals if the guy has a .90% save percentage.”

Now, 40 shots a game isn’t exactly feasible, but he’s making a point. Which is that standard laws of statistics suggest that the more you shoot, the more chances you have to score. And the Ducks really do need to start scoring more. Outside of their win over the Hurricanes, they are struggling to figure out opposing goaltenders. An improved shot count game-to-game is encouraging, but until it starts leading to more goals, and wins, it’s almost a meaningless improvement.

Marquee Matchup: Carlsson vs Fantilli

Carlsson and Fantilli have arrived at the same place – foundational pieces of their respective franchises – through different avenues. Carlsson had an age-18 season in the Swedish Hockey League comparable to only a few in the history of Swedish hockey. Fantilli was similarly dominant, but on the NCAA circuit, where he led the University of Michigan to a Frozen Four appearance. He was the third freshman, after Paul Kariya and Jack Eichel, to take home the Hobey Baker Award as the NCAA’s top player.

Leo Carlsson, Anaheim Ducks (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

The top selections in drafts are always compared to one another. The Ducks surprised some by taking Carlsson over Fantilli which is why these two young players might be linked and compared on a deeper level as their careers develop. Both players are already making big plays. They’ve both netted their first career goals. All eyes will be on them when they line up against each other in the faceoff circle tonight. Stay tuned.

Player to Watch For Anaheim: Trevor Zegras

It may feel like a broken record talking about Zegras’ eventual breakout, but I’ll continue to predict it until it happens. In the last few games, he’s been all over the offensive zone, heaving shots at the net from all angles and positions. He’s itching for a goal. Sooner or later, he’s going to deliver one, and hopefully, they come in a bunch.

Related: 5 Ducks Games to Watch This Season

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He’s such a crafty and intelligent offensive player. Too much so to be held off the scoresheet for too long. With a single assist across five games, you can expect him to try and create opportunities for himself, but also look for his teammates to get him involved early, too. He needs the touches; when the puck is in his hands, good things tend to happen.

Player to Watch for Columbus: Johnny Gaudreau

Johnny Gaudreau is a good example of big things coming in small packages. Armed with great speed and a wicked shot, “Johnny Hockey” made his name lighting the lamp with the Calgary Flames. His first season in Columbus in 2022-23 was underwhelming. He had 74 points in 80 games, which is more than solid, but he finished minus-33 in plus/minus. His last season in Calgary? He was plus-64. He went from being on the ice for 64 more goals for than goals against, to being on the ice for 33 more goals against than goals for. A 97-point swing. Think about that for a second.

He has yet to score this season, which means his first is coming soon. He might look at the Ducks’ young defense as the perfect opportunity. Other than Fantilli, he’s a guy to watch in this one.

This Is A Pivotal Early Moment in the Ducks’ Season

We must call it like it is. The Ducks are on an early-season slide, and there is no prize for merely playing a hard-fought game, as they did against the Dallas Stars and Boston Bruins. Cronin has said as much. No, the Ducks need to start stringing together wins before they fall too far behind in a packed Western Conference.

Their chance for two points tonight comes against a team they can and should beat. Columbus was one of a small number of teams that were as bad as the Ducks last season. They added Fantilli. The Ducks added Carlsson. They lost Laine to injured reserve, the Ducks lost Jamie Drysdale to injured reserve. It won’t be easy, but the Ducks match up well against them. Expect Cronin’s postgame comments from the Bruins game to light a fire under the Ducks’ offense en route to a high-shooting, high-scoring victory.

Prediction: Ducks 4, Blue Jackets 1 (2023-24 Prediction Record: 3-2)

How do you see the matchup with Columbus playing out? Sound off in the comments below!

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