ANAHEIM — Even for teams hanging around near the bottom of the NHL standings there are unexpected wins in the final month, or failing that, a bright spot surfacing to ease fan angst, at least temporarily.
Those moments have been harder and harder to find for the Ducks this week, practically requiring a search party. And it was not much different on Thursday night in their 3-2 loss to the Winnipeg Jets at Honda Center, their third straight loss and fifth in the past six games, as the Jets erased a 1-0 deficit with a first-period goal by forward Mason Appleton and a second-period goal by forward Kyle Connor.
The game-winner came at 10:47 of the third with center Adam Lowry tipping in defenseman Brenden Dillion’s pass past Ducks goalie Lukas Dostal. Dostal made 30 saves.
The Ducks had tied the score at 2-2 on Frank Vatrano’s third-period, power-play goal from just inside the blue line at 5:40, which was his 18th goal of the season.
“There was a pass and the guy was basically alone on the side,” Dostal said of the game-winner. “I knew there was a guy behind me. You can’t open the short side. … I didn’t really want to cheat on the play. I just felt it might go back door but it’s my responsibility to take a shot in that situation.”
So about those recent rare bright spots:
• On Tuesday, it was forward Nikita Nesterenko making his NHL debut.
• On Thursday, it was defenseman Cam Fowler scoring his 10th goal of the season to make it 1-0 at 11:41 of the first period – a knuckler getting by Jets goaltender Connor Hellebuyck – and it was Fowler’s 43rd point, a career-best. Fowler had 42 points during the 2021-22 season and is one goal from matching a career-high, set in 2016-17.
“If you even look at the power-play struggles this year, there’s probably a few more lost points there he could have,” Ducks defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk said. “He’s been tremendous. He’s been the leader on the back end. Takes a lot of pride in his game in the defensive zone and knows what his role is as an offensive defenseman.
“It’s been great to see. He’s someone I kind of grew up with in the league and someone I watched play and became great friends with along the way.
“I love when you can’t count old dogs out. They keep breaking their marks.”
Fowler started the season with one assist in his first 15 games. Contrast that to the run of offense he is on now – points in 14 of the past 15 games.
“He’s been unbelievable,” Ducks coach Dallas Eakins said. “It’s really interesting when you think about Cam’s year. I’m super proud of him. I hope that he’s proud of himself to have a career year in a year like this.”
The bright spots of the week happened to be bookends – the newest Duck (Nesterenko) and the longest-tenured player on the team (Fowler).
Nesterenko didn’t score in his debut on Tuesday against Calgary – but caught the attention of the coaching staff with his play. He had a team-high four shots on goal, tied with Vatrano. But for a young player, one of the keys to sticking around is reproducing that same effort night after night. His ice time against the Jets was 13-plus minutes and he did not record a shot on goal.
“I’m just expecting ups and downs,” Eakins said of Nesterenko after the morning skate on Thursday. “We still see ups and downs with Z (Zegras) or MacT (Mason McTavish) or (Max Jones).
“I’m just looking for that kid to really use his hockey sense. What comes naturally to him.”
McTavish already has set a good template for Nesterenko (and others) to follow.
“I said, ‘If you want to get off to a really good start here just follow McTavish around,’” Eakins said. “If you can get on the ice at the same time he does before practice and then leave the ice when he and Zegras leave. Z will stay there all day working on his skills, his shot. That does become contagious through the room.
“… They will be our future leaders and that’s how things will be better.”
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