June 23, 2024

The Ducks reached back to their NHL beginnings to celebrate their home opener Sunday, wearing a version of their original eggplant-and-jade Mighty Duck uniforms that was so splendidly designed, you could squint and picture Paul Kariya at the dawn of his Hall of Fame career zipping up the left wing to embarrass yet another hapless goaltender.

It was the first of 15 times the Ducks will wear their throwback jerseys this season as they celebrate their 30th anniversary. The nostalgia trip, enhanced by plum carpet arrivals and a brass band, was fun. “They’re cool,” coach Greg Cronin said of the limited-edition uniforms.

But the Ducks’ 6-3 victory over the Carolina Hurricanes before a standing-room-only crowd of 17,278 at Honda Center was more than an amusing look back. It also was a peek at a potentially bright future that has been a long time crystallizing for the Ducks, who have missed the Stanley Cup playoffs each of the last five seasons.

With first-round picks from four straight drafts in their lineup — 2023 pick Leo Carlsson would have made it five but he’s injured — the Ducks jumped on Carolina for three goals in the first period and held on for their first win after a season-opening loss to defending Stanley Cup champion Vegas on Saturday.

Russia-born defenseman Pavel Mintyukov, who moved to North America in 2020 to advance his career and was drafted 10th overall by the Ducks in 2022, scored the first of what figures to be many NHL goals, highlighting the riches the Ducks have stockpiled through the draft after so many years of dismal regular-season performances.

“They’ve done a nice job here drafting and scouting defensemen because we’ve got a bunch coming,” Cronin said of the young defensemen.

Mintyukov is 19. Defenseman Jamie Drysdale, who set up Frank Vatrano for the Ducks’ second goal, is 21. They combined with veteran defenseman Cam Fowler and 22-year-old rookie defenseman Jackson LaCombe to score five points, key contributions from a rookie-heavy blueline corps that could accelerate the Ducks’ climb back toward respectability. LaCombe’s assist on Mintyukov’s goal represented the fifth time in NHL history a defenseman had scored his first NHL goal on an assist from a defenseman who recorded his first NHL point.

Ducks rookie defenseman Pavel Mintyukov celebrates after scoring his first career goal against the Hurricanes.

Ducks rookie defenseman Pavel Mintyukov celebrates after scoring his first career goal against the Hurricanes on Sunday.

(Jae C. Hong / Associated Press)

“It is a big responsibility to be on this team. A big honor,” said Mintyukov, who was voted the top defenseman in the junior-level Ontario Hockey League last season.

It’s an honor he seems to be carrying well.

“You need as many young guys as you can that can play in the NHL. These guys are 18, 19 or 20 years old. It’s not easy to play in this league. This is a man’s league,” said Vatrano, who completed his fourth career hat trick via an empty-net goal with less than two minutes left.

“It’s only two games into it, but they’ve been holding their own and they give us a breath of fresh air out there.”

Compared to Mintyukov, Vatrano is practically ancient at 29. But he nicely balanced the kids’ feats while helping the Ducks hold off Carolina, which had beaten the Kings in a nine-round shootout Saturday but found the energy to stage a late pushback Saturday.

Teuvo Teravainen scored twice for Carolina against Lukas Dostal, the second on a power play early in the third period, and Martin Necas cut the Ducks’ lead to 4-3 with a power-play goal at 15:29 of the third. Taking too many penalties has been a perennial problem for the Ducks, no matter the jersey they wear. It made for some nervous moments until Fowler scored into an empty net with 1 minute and 57 seconds left and Vatrano found the empty net with 1:19 left to put the game out of reach.

“It’s great to get a hat trick but it doesn’t mean anything if you don’t win the game,” Vatrano said. “Top to bottom, goaltending, defense, forwards, a lot of milestones tonight throughout the team. It wasn’t an easy game [Saturday]. We had to play another good team tonight. We battled throughout that entire 60 minutes.

“It’s still early in the season. Obviously, it’s great getting those wins under your belt real early, but it’s the second game of the season and we’ve got to keep building off of that and take it game by game.”

The Ducks were the last NHL team to launch their season, which could have made them impatient. Cronin said the wait worked in their favor because it allowed the young players to get more practice and video review time.

“We had that week where we could just hammer home the little details that we need to really, I think, create a visible identity,” he said. “For me it was actually a blessing to look at the video and practice and share with the players what we need to do to be successful as a group.”

Cheers and applause seeped out of the Ducks’ locker room and down the corridor after the game as players celebrated their first win. They gave Cronin, 60, the game puck as a reward for his first NHL coaching victory, but afterward, he didn’t seem emotional.

“I’m not really that big on those things,” he said. “It’s a nice symbol of my first win and I’m already on to practice on Tuesday.”

They’re not the Mighty Ducks anymore. Nor are they mighty. But their performance against Carolina showed they could be competitive, at least, and that’s a start.

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