Ducks’ defense takes a hit as Vatanen day-to-day with upper-body injury

Anaheim’s Sami Vatanen has been a standout this season, but the 24-year-old could be on the shelf after being knocked out of Wednesday’s game in the first period. Vatanen is the Ducks’ go-to blueliner on the power play and penalty kill, and he’s third on the team in scoring.

Say what you will for Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf, but one of the most impressive players on the Anaheim Ducks this season has been 24-year-old blueliner Sami Vatanen. But the Ducks got some bad news Wednesday, as Vatanen was forced to leave Anaheim’s contest after the first period.

While no specifics of the injury have been released, it appears Vatanen’s injury is related to a hit he took from Colorado Avalanche center John Mitchell with less than three minutes remaining in the period. Mitchell was forechecking when he was bumped by Anaheim’s Nate Thompson, which caused Mitchell’s elbow to come up and connect with Vatanen’s chin. The Ducks defenseman spun to the ice, and he left the bench shortly thereafter:

Vatanen did return to the ice in the waning moments of the period — he skated 37 seconds on a Ducks power play — but once the second frame began, Vatanen was nowhere to be found. Anaheim then announced that Vatanen would not return to the contest, as he had suffered what the team called an upper-body injury.

When asked about Vatanen’s status post-game, Ducks coach Bruce Boudreau would only offer up an explanation of “day-to-day,” saying Vatanen would be re-evaluated Thursday.

At this point in the season, it won’t be any help even if Vatanen is only out for a few games. Those few games could, realistically, be the difference between the Ducks finishing first in the Pacific Division or landing in either second or third place. The Pacific is incredibly close right now, with only four points separating the third-place San Jose Sharks from the first-place Los Angeles Kings, who have 84 points. Anaheim is sitting at 83 points.

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Vatanen has been a crucial part of the Ducks’ special teams. He averages the highest time on ice per game of any Anaheim defenseman on the Ducks’ third-ranked power play, skating nearly three minutes per outing with the man advantage. But Vatanen has shown he’s just as adept on the penalty kill, too. He logs the third-most minutes of any player on the Ducks’ top-ranked penalty kill, and his 2:16 average per game is the highest of any blueliner in Anaheim.

None of that is to mention Vatanen is having a career year. Through 66 games, he has nine goals and 37 points, matching his career-high set in 2014-15. Vatenen is the third-highest scorer in Anaheim behind only Getzlaf and Perry, and his 18 points with the man advantage are second-best on the team.

Best-case scenario is Vatanen is good to go Friday against the St. Louis Blues, but if he’s out much longer, there would be cause for concern in Anaheim.