ANAHEIM, Calif. – Scott Niedermayer and Chris Pronger provided the template two years ago. Dan Boyle and Rob Blake are just trying to fit it before time runs out for their San Jose Sharks.
There’s little argument that Niedermayer and Pronger carried the Anaheim Ducks to the Stanley Cup title in 2007. The star defencemen repeatedly scored timely goals, delivered countless hits and played enough grinding shifts to make sure the club had at least one of them on the ice at every important moment.
“They’ve always had that, and I think it’s been their anchor for this franchise,” Blake said of the Ducks’ defensive star power Wednesday while the Sharks prepared for the crucial Game 4 in their first-round playoff series against Anaheim.
“They’ve built the team around that,” Blake said. “They have two guys that can really play, that can shut you down (defensively), but also provide offence, and that’s where they get a lot of their game.”
The Sharks never had such supremely talented defencemen in recent seasons, and many thought that absence was the reason they wilted so frequently in the playoffs.
San Jose general manager Doug Wilson dramatically addressed the problem in a 24-hour span last July, acquiring Boyle and Brad Lukowich from Tampa Bay one day after signing Blake.
Blake and Boyle were both major hits in the regular season – and after the top-seeded Sharks stumbled through their first two playoff losses, both veterans delivered.
They combined for three goals and two assists in the Sharks’ 4-3 victory in Game 3, keeping San Jose off the brink of elimination and gathering momentum for Game 4 in Anaheim on Thursday night.
For all the offensive talent of Joe Thornton, Ryan Getzlaf and their high-scoring teammates in this all-California series, both clubs depend heavily on what happens at the blue line for everything from their power-play success to their physical tone.
Five of the seven goals in the Sharks’ 4-3 win in Game 3 were scored by defencemen, including Pronger’s first goal of the series.
Three of Anaheim’s top five scorers in the series are on the blue line, including co-leader Ryan Whitney, while Boyle’s three-point game made him the league’s second-leading playoff scorer among defensemen.
“This series is really a battle of some of the top defensive players in the league,” Sharks centre Jeremy Roenick said. “That’s what it comes down to at some points.
“They’ve got more than just two amazing players on defence, but in all my years, I can’t remember seeing a defenseman with as much grit and pride and determination and competitiveness as Dan Boyle. He hates to lose like nobody else.”
Boyle scored two goals, assisted on another and relentlessly searched for even more points on nearly every shift of Game 3, showing much the same two-way hunger exemplified by Niedermayer during his remarkable 18-year career.
Boyle was an all-star for the first time in his career this winter, finally getting the attention his teammates have long thought he deserved.
“He’s been around,” Niedermayer said. “He knows what’s going on, and he tries to get up the ice any time he can. There’s probably not many guys that do it more than he does.”
While Niedermayer was the third overall pick in the 1991 NHL draft, Boyle wasn’t selected three years later.
While Niedermayer has four Stanley Cup rings and a Conn Smythe trophy, Boyle has one ring – and a few hard feelings about the franchise with which he won it.
Yet their approaches are strikingly similar: Both Niedermayer and Boyle prefer to create goals instead of spending time defending against them.
“When Scott Niedermayer and Dan Boyle are on the ice, both teams are playing with four forwards,” San Jose coach Todd McLellan said. “They’re both dynamic, and they skate and join the rush so well.
“We want to encourage that as much as possible.”
When asked what he and Blake provide that the Sharks might have lacked in past postseasons, Boyle doesn’t mention those timely goals or sharp passes.
“Just poise and a lack of panic – a low panic point,” Boyle said. “Hopefully that’s what we bring. (Blake) did a great job of stepping up last night.”
Blake scored the Sharks’ first goal in Game 3 and followed with the assist on Patrick Marleau’s power-play winner.
The 39-year-old longtime Kings defenseman postponed retirement – but kept his big house in Manhattan Beach – to join the Sharks in hopes of competing for another Stanley Cup ring.
After spending the previous two years across town from Niedermayer and Pronger, Blake admires the Ducks duo’s persistence even after they already hockey’s top prize together.
“These guys have been in a lot of playoff games over the last few years – more than Danny and I, that’s for sure,” Blake said.
Blake and Boyle both missed the playoffs last spring with Los Angeles and Tampa Bay, respectively.
Blake wouldn’t have had the chance to make Marleau the Game 3 hero if Corey Perry hadn’t been whistled for a hooking call moments earlier. Although Perry took responsibility for his extracurricular stick work, Pronger wasn’t ready to stop competing for Anaheim, the NHL’s second most-penalized team.
“He hooked the guy’s stick, but didn’t hit the guy’s hand with his stick,” Pronger said. “When you hook a guy’s stick, that happens 30 times a game. Are you going to call 30 penalties a game? I didn’t think that was a penalty.”