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Ducks, new coach face daunting opener against Knights

The Greg Cronin era starts for the Anaheim Ducks when they begin their 30th-anniversary season with a bang on Saturday, opposing the defending Stanley Cup champion Vegas Golden Knights in Las Vegas.

Cronin, 60, takes over for Dallas Eakins, who went 100-147-44 in four seasons as head coach of the Ducks. Anaheim finished with an NHL-worst 58 points (23-47-12) last season after losing its final 13 games (0-11-2).

The schedule-maker certainly didn’t do any favors for Cronin, a 36-year coaching veteran at the college and professional level who spent the past five years as head coach of the AHL’s Colorado Eagles. The Saturday night contest is the first of a back-to-back that concludes with a Sunday home opener against the reigning Metropolitan Division champion Carolina Hurricanes.

Cronin, who had previous NHL assistant-coaching duties with the New York Islanders (1998-2003, 2014-18) and Toronto Maple Leafs (2011-14), set a goal for his young team: making the postseason for the first time since 2017-18.

“We’re trying to make the playoffs,” Cronin said. “We’re not playing for consolation prizes. We’re playing this year to make the playoffs. That’s our goal. … As we saw last season, Florida gets in the playoffs (on) the last day and they go to the Final. So, our job is to make the playoffs.”

Cronin will have some of the NHL’s top young talent to work with in 22-year-old center Trevor Zegras, who had 23 goals and a team-best 65 points last season, 26-year-old right winger Troy Terry (23 goals, 61 points), 20-year-old center Mason McTavish (17 goals, 43 points) and 21-year-old defenseman Jamie Drysdale.

Anaheim, the last Western Conference team to play its season opener, will be facing a Vegas team that is off to its fifth 2-0-0 start in its seven seasons of existence.

The Golden Knights opened their season on Tuesday with a Stanley Cup banner-raising 4-1 victory over the Seattle Kraken, then followed with a 4-1 road victory over the San Jose Sharks on Thursday night.

Eight different players have scored goals for Vegas and both goaltenders, Adin Hill, who went 11-4-0 with a 2.17 goals-against in the Stanley Cup playoffs, and 2023 All-Star Logan Thompson, have been impressive while splitting starts.

The Golden Knights showed just how deep they are on Thursday in San Jose. Jonathan Marchessault, the Conn Smythe Trophy winner after scoring 13 goals in the Stanley Cup playoffs, and Jack Eichel, who led the postseason with 26 points, combined for just one assist — by Eichel — in the win.

“I think that’s one of the strengths of our team,” center Nicolas Roy said. “I think we can roll four lines, and we know anybody can score some goals.”

Nicolas Hague and Roy scored 53 seconds apart late in the second period to give the Golden Knights a 3-1 lead. But it was the team’s final goal early in the third period, by defenseman Brayden Pachal, that had the locker room buzzing afterward.

Pachal, a 24-year-old undrafted free agent who has spent most of the past four seasons playing in the AHL, scored his first goal in his 14th NHL game. He snapped a wrist shot from the edge of the right circle through traffic and past the blocker of Kaapo Kahkonen.

“The boys were super excited,” Pachal said. “I came in (the locker room afterward) and there was a lot of hooting and hollering and a lot of congratulations. It’s a dream come true.”

Anaheim went 1-2-0 last season against Vegas with the victory coming in a shootout, 3-2, on Dec. 28 behind 49 saves from John Gibson and shootout scores by Zegras and Terry. The Ducks’ most recent victory came on March 17 against the visiting Columbus Blue Jackets, 7-4.

–Field Level Media

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