A couple of quick goals Thursday night set the tone for a Kraken squad that’s had this upcoming stretch of games in its back pocket for months when it comes to its playoff push.
The visiting Anaheim Ducks are nobody’s idea of formidable, even though they offered some resistance at key points. But the Kraken, riding the two early goals from Jaden Schwartz and Matty Beniers, got a late power play marker from Daniel Sprong and held on for a 4-1 win that allows them to keep focusing on the playoffs ahead rather than teams behind them.
Alex Wennberg closed out the scoring with an empty-net goal as the Kraken improved to 41-25-8 and solidified their hold on the first wild-card spot in the Western Conference — five points ahead of the second wild-card holder Winnipeg Jets.
The Beniers goal was an especially welcome sight, demonstrating uncanny poise and above average stickhandling as he took a Jared McCann pass and calmly waited for young Ducks goalie Lukas Dostal to commit. Once that happened, Beniers stickhandled deftly around him and made a final move to tuck the puck home.
It was the kind of play Beniers was making earlier on this season before suffering a January concussion and then hitting a bit of a rookie wall common for college players not used to an 82-game NHL schedule. But he broke a monthlong scoring slump over the weekend against Nashville, then added his 21st of the season to increase his Calder Trophy bona fides and signal he’s still got something left in his tank with the playoffs approaching.
The Schwartz goal that opened the scoring just under eight minutes into the game was far more basic, taking a pass on-the-fly and unloading a slap shot from the top of the left faceoff circle. Dostal — a 22-year-old playing his 18th career game in parts of two seasons — had come out to challenge the shooter but not from the best angle as the puck eluded him to the short side.
And that was pretty much the game, considering the Ducks have lost six in a row while scoring just nine total goals that span as they vie for the best lottery odds of landing top prospect Connor Bedard in the July entry draft. Anaheim did make the Climate Pledge Arena crowd somewhat nervous when Brock McGinn scored with just 1:16 to go in a dull second period largely devoid of any action.
Derek Grant had centered the puck out from behind the net for McGinn McGinn to one-time past Martin Jones to suddenly make it a game again despite the Kraken’s 25-15 edge in shots.
But Sprong’s late marker with 4:18 to go and Wennberg’s empty netter got everyone breathing easy again. Jones logged the victory, his first since Feb. 28.
Had they been playing a better team, the Kraken might have found themselves rope-a-doped into some trouble. But that’s supposed to be the advantage of this stretch of schedule which — minus the formidable Los Angeles Kings on Saturday — is jampacked with lottery contenders.
Following the Kings contest, there will be three games against Arizona, another with Chicago and a final Northwest rivalry road clash with the Vancouver Canucks next Tuesday. Though the Canucks are playing much better lately, as are the Coyotes to a lesser degree, they still are nothing like some of the East Coast behemoths that have given the Kraken problems since the All-Star break.
The thought since early this season was that if the Kraken ever made it into April within striking distance of the playoffs this part of the schedule would represent a built-in finishing kick. The fact Thursday’s win has them entering the final two weeks of the season seven points up on Calgary and eight ahead of a Nashville squad also vying for the last conference wild-card spot means they won’t even need the remaining “easy” schedule portion to punch their inevitable playoff ticket.