Ducks split opening weekend against Golden Knights and Hurricanes

Yannick Peterhans-USA TODAY Sports
The Anaheim Ducks bounced back from a loss on Saturday in their season opener with a win on Sunday in their home opener thanks to Frank Vatrano and others.

ANAHEIM, Calif. — Head coach Greg Cronin said he liked the effort from his team in Saturday night’s season opener––a 4-1 loss against the Vegas Golden Knights––but thought the execution was a little sloppy. “That was a game of inches for me on puck battles,” he said. “And (Vegas) won those battles. They’re a veteran team, they know how to win, they make plays.”

The scoreline didn’t fully represent the improvement in Anaheim’s play compared to last season. An empty net goal from Jonas Røndbjerg and a typical highlight-reel goal from Jack Eichel kept the Ducks from ever making it a close game, with special teams being the main difference.

Eichel’s goal came during a five-minute major penalty issued to Sam Carrick for elbowing Brayden McNabb and a Shea Theodore one-timer from the point––also on the power play––made it 3-0 Vegas. By that point, Mason McTavish’s goal to make it 3-1 felt almost like a consolation tally.

Anaheim Ducks center Mason McTavish (23) celebrates with teammates after scoring a goal against the Vegas Golden Knights during the third period at T-Mobile Arena. (Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports)

19-year-old Pavel Mintyukov made his NHL debut, paired with fellow Moscow native Ilya Lyubushkin. Cronin had high praise for the debutant, calling him “terrific” and lauding his physical play and fearlessness on the offensive end.

McTavish also had high praise for Mintyukov as well. “It’s always nice when a defenseman can (help create offensively).” McTavish’s goal on Saturday brought his career goals total to 20 as he looks to build off a rookie campaign in which he scored 43 points.

Cronin made it a point that he wanted to carry Saturday night’s effort into Sunday’s home opener against the Carolina Hurricanes, especially with such a quick turnaround. “We got to package that up and do it again tomorrow,” he said.

The team seemed to heed his words as they got off to a roaring start against Carolina, scoring three goals in the first period. The trio of tallies was topped off by a goal from Mintyukov, the first of his NHL career.

Anaheim Ducks defensemen Pavel Mintyukov (34) skates with he puck during the first period against the Carolina Hurricanes at Honda Center. (Yannick Peterhans-USA TODAY Sports)

The goal also marked the first career NHL point for Jackson LaCombe––who had the primary assist––and the 400th career point for Ryan Strome, who had the secondary assist. It’s just the fifth time in NHL history that a defenseman has scored his first NHL goal that was assisted by another defenseman who recorded his first NHL point.

The second line of Strome, McTavish and Frank Vatrano has already combined for nine points in two games. Vatrano potted three goals on Sunday night for the fourth hat trick of his career and looks to build off a 2022-23 season which saw him reach a career-high in points (41) and score 20+ goals for the second time in his career.

“It’s great to get a hat trick, but it doesn’t mean anything if you don’t win the game,” said Vatrano after the game. “It wasn’t an easy game last night (and) we had to play a good team tonight.”

Anaheim Ducks right wing Frank Vatrano (77) celebrates with Anaheim Ducks Center Ryan Strome (16) after scoring a goal during the second period at Honda Center. (Yannick Peterhans-USA TODAY Sports)

Carolina threatened in the third, coming within a goal after Martin Nečas converted on the power play. But Anaheim was able to ice the game away with a pair of empty net goals from Cam Fowler and Vatrano. Lukáš Dostál made 32 stops in net.

“It was a great start,” said Cronin. “We got in late last night and I was a little bit concerned about the energy level. I thought the crowd played a big role in getting us on our toes early.”

This marks the first NHL win in Cronin’s coaching career, but he downplayed the milestone. “I’m not really that big on those things,” he said. “It’s a nice symbol of my first win (but) I’m already onto practice on Tuesday.”

The Ducks are back in action on Thursday night at Honda Center against the Dallas Stars.