For all the Ducks' faults, they're playing like champs
OTTAWA -- They have been thuggish and undisciplined and borderline self-destructive. And those are some of their better qualities.
But beneath the Anaheim Ducks' wart-festooned exterior beats the heart of a champion.
Playing without their best player, Chris Pronger (suspended), and top forward, Chris Kunitz (injured), the Ducks displayed admirable mettle by riding out a miserable first period and beating the Ottawa Senators 3-2 in Game 4 of the Stanley Cup finals Monday night.
The victory gives the Ducks a 3-1 series lead and the opportunity to win their first-ever Stanley Cup at home on Wednesday. Of the 28 teams that have taken a 3-1 series lead in the Stanley Cup finals since 1939, only one has failed to win a championship and that was 65 years ago.
If the mark of a champion is being able to defy the logical, to win when it appears losing makes more sense, to turn chaos into order, then the Ducks are that kind of team.
"Again, it just proves the point that our players have found a way to reach back and give more when it's asked of them," Anaheim coach Randy Carlyle said.
Where do we begin? How about the beginning?
The Senators rolled seamlessly from their Game 3 victory into Game 4, controlling the puck and the game's tempo. Following a well-worn pattern, the Ducks found themselves in penalty trouble, taking their first of four first-period penalties at the 58-second mark. The Ducks did not register their first shot on Ottawa netminder Ray Emery until well past the midpoint of the opening frame and were outshot 13-2.
The Senators were rewarded for their diligence late in the frame as Ryan Getzlaf was whistled for goaltender interference even though replays showed he tried to step around Emery. With the Senators on a four-on-three power play, Peter Schaefer fed captain Daniel Alfredsson at the side of the net. By the time the puck settled into the back of the net, the score clock at Scotiabank Place read 0.3 seconds.
"I think we were pretty down. And obviously we took the penalties and that makes things pretty frustrating, especially the amount of times we talk about being disciplined," said Ducks forward Andy McDonald, who is playing his best hockey of the playoffs in this final series. "And the message was that we have to be a lot smarter in the second and get in on the forecheck and get our game going and gain some momentum.
"I think the message worked," McDonald said in what was a monumental understatement.
If you believe in something called momentum, then you might have imagined the Senators emerging in the second period prepared to close the deal and even the series. Except momentum ignores other factors -- like character and resiliency, two things the Ducks, for all their faults, possess in large doses.
Emerging from the dressing room with a vastly different personality, the Ducks seized control of the game, dominated puck possession and bottled the Senators in their own zone, forcing them into penalties while maintaining their own composure.
By the midpoint of the period, the Ducks were outshooting Ottawa 8-1 and evened the game when, at the end of a power play, veteran Todd Marchant fed McDonald, who waited patiently, moving laterally across the front of the crease before finding the back of the net through traffic.
One minute later, McDonald took advantage of a rare miscue by Ottawa defenseman Anton Volchenkov, who overplayed McDonald's rush and allowed him to beat Emery with a deft move giving the Ducks a 2-1 lead.
"That's a hockey player stepping up and playing desperate and executing at a very high level for his teammates," Carlyle said of the twin goals.
Sometimes there are moments in a hockey game that naturally lead from one to another. Sometimes there are moments that stop as if broken and are followed by something completely different. And so it was after Dany Heatley's tying goal with two minutes to go in the second period that the Senators found themselves on another four-on-three power play early in the third period. They buzzed around the Ducks' net, but could not take advantage of what appeared to be another momentum swing in their favor.
Just over three minutes later, Dustin Penner jumped onto the ice to start a line change. Ottawa defenseman Chris Phillips had gone to his bench with a bad skate blade while teammate Wade Redden was caught out of position in the neutral zone. Penner suddenly found himself on a two-on-one with veteran Teemu Selanne and snapped home Selanne's pass to give the Ducks a lead they would not relinquish.
It was his first goal in 12 games and nearly didn't happen as Penner and Selanne almost collided at the Ottawa blue line.
"It was a set play," Penner joked.
In the best games -- and this one was compelling right until the snakebit Penner scored 4:07 into the third period -- victory is determined as much by willpower as style and scheme. Teams push and push and push, and then find themselves being pushed and pushed and pushed. The team that can find enough will at the end to make the final shove is the one that goes home victorious.
In the end, the Ducks pushed harder.
"They made a little adjustment in the second period and we started forcing the play," Ottawa coach Bryan Murray said. "But other than that, there was no reason to play the way we did in the second period. We started breaking down. They got two-on-one chances. Guys that don't normally make these plays, they tried to make tonight and they got caught and it burned us."
Strangely, the Ducks were the team that had every reason to flinch on this night.
Without Pronger in the lineup, veteran Sean O'Donnell was forced to play nearly 24 minutes -- significantly more than his usual allotment. O'Donnell, Francois Beauchemin and Scott Niedermayer rarely left the ice, but when they did take a breather, unheralded Kent Huskins, a 28-year-old rookie from the Ottawa Valley town of Almonte, did his part by playing 17:31 along the blue line and was a plus-2.
"It's amazing, the guy playing in the Stanley Cup finals, 17 minutes in a crucial game. He earned that opportunity with the hockey club," Carlyle said.
After the Penner goal, the Ducks simply closed the vise. They allowed only six Senators shots in total in the third and didn't take a single penalty after they gained the lead. In the final seconds as the puck skittered into the Ottawa zone, it was forward Travis Moen who somehow beat the entire Senators team into the zone to close out the final seconds.
After the game, someone asked the unemotional McDonald what he was thinking.
"Not too much," McDonald said. "Just we're going to enjoy it here probably for the next couple of minutes. But this game's over and we have get ready for the next game."
Spoken like a champion, or someone who's on the verge of becoming one.
Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com