ANAHEIM, Calif. — It was a year ago when the Anaheim Ducks were presented with a goalie problem.
Well, problem might not be the right word. It was more like than an embarrassment of riches.
In John Gibson and Frederik Andersen, who had combined for the league’s lowest goals-against average in 2015-16, the Ducks had arguably the best tandem in the NHL.
Ritchie pitching in
John Gibson is not the only youngster who is playing beyond his years for the Anaheim Ducks during this post-season.
Nick Ritchie used what Gibson called a “heavy shot” to pick the top corner for his fourth goal of the playoffs in a 3-2 overtime win against the Nashville Predators on Thursday. The 21-year-old, who was selected 10th overall in 2014, has two game-winners so far in the playoffs.
“I usually tell him to shoot from the top of the circle because it’s pretty heavy,” Gibson said of Ritchie, who had 14 goals and 28 points in the regular season. “Sometimes it hurts. Yeah, he’s got a good shot. Not only is it accurate, but it’s pretty heavy. You guys might not be able to tell, but from my standpoint, experiencing it, it’s pretty heavy.”
Though this is Ritchie’s first taste of post-season hockey, he said an extended playoffs run two years in the OHL helped prepare him for this moment.
“I got a chance at the end of junior to play some meaningful playoff games with the (Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds),” said Ritchie, who scored 13 goals and 26 points in 14 playoff games that year. “And obviously I was pretty fortunate at the time to get some playoff action, where I didn’t really get that earlier in my junior (career). I guess it kind of prepared me.”
Michael Traikos, Postmedia News
The problem was boiled down to cost: With both contracts expiring last summer, the team had to choose one goalie over the other.
Anaheim ultimately went with the younger option, trading Andersen to the Toronto Maple Leafs for a package that included a first-round draft pick. It was a move that thrust Gibson into the starting job at the age of 23.
“It’s obviously exciting, but there’s pressure that comes with it,” said Gibson, who lost the starting job in last year’s playoffs after the Ducks lost Games 1 and 2 to the Nashville Predators in the first round. “You obviously want to prove to the guys and management that the decision they made was the right one.”
No argument there. While Andersen was spectacular in his first year in Toronto, leading the team to an unlikely playoff berth, Anaheim does not have seller’s remorse. If anything, with the Ducks six wins away from winning the Stanley Cup, Gibson has joined Pittsburgh’s Matt Murray as two of the top young goalies in the NHL.
“Obviously, with the situations with contracts and numbers and all those things get put to the test in the summer, the decision was made to stick with Gibby,” Ducks coach Randy Carlyle said. “And the decision looks like a good one right now, doesn’t it?”
Still, Gibson’s post-season hasn’t been without a few bumps along the way.
In the opening round against Calgary, he was pulled after allowing four goals on 16 shots in a come-from-behind overtime win over the Flames, sitting on the bench for all five of Anaheim’s goals. And, following a Game 1 loss to the Oilers in the second round, where Gibson gave up four goals again, Carlyle busted out an old line that he used when critiquing his goalie in Toronto: “One time I said he was just ‘OK’ and it got me in a lot of crap.”
Gibson’s biggest test, however, came in Game 6 against the Oilers when he was pulled after allowing three goals on six shots. It wasn’t just Gibson. The entire Ducks team had been awful in that 7-1 loss. Still, with Game 7 just two days later, there was some concern whether Gibson would be able to bounce back.
“I think it helped that that entire game almost didn’t even seem real,” Ducks defenceman Cam Fowler said of Game 6. “It was one of those games where you scratch your head after and say, ‘How did that even happen?’ But he’s a guy who doesn’t get fazed by the moment or the situation. He doesn’t overthink things.
“He knows he belongs there and is a starting goaltender and a really good one, so you knew he was going to bounce back with a really good performance, which he did in Game 7 and he’s just kept that momentum going.”
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Gibson stopped 23 of 24 shots in that elimination game. Since, in four games against the Predators in the Western Conference final, he has played his best hockey of the playoffs, recording a .935 save percentage.
“It’s only one game,” Gibson said of his second-round hiccup against the Oilers. “I think the longer you play in the playoffs and the more you play, you’re bound to have an off night, whether it’s a couple of individuals or the team or whatever. I said from Day 1, it’s how you rebound and follow it up. And I think since then I’ve obviously done a good job.”
Said Carlyle: “With Gibby, there’s the first two series, Calgary and Edmonton, where we thought that in the situations that he was presented in the most stressful time or most intense time, he played his best hockey. So, that’s where you see the growth and you see the competitiveness inside where he doesn’t normally display them outwardly. But he definitely is a competitor inside.”
That he’s doing it at an age when most goalies are plying their trade in the minors or as backups might not be surprising to those who watched Gibson win gold for the U.S. at the 2013 world juniors. Either way, he’s a big reason why the Ducks are entering Game 5 with the series tied 2-2.
“There’s no surprise,” Fowler said. “He’s always had that ability. He’s a confident kid. No matter what the situation is, he’s never overwhelmed. He’s been amazing for us. He’s kept us in hockey games. He’s helped us win hockey games. He seems really confident, so he’s dong a great job for us.”