ANAHEIM — When he first got here, Cam Fowler moved in with Scott Niedermayer and family.
There are trophies in that house. Seven years later Fowler is putting together his own mantelpiece.
On Thursday, Fowler played more than 28 minutes in the Game 4 overtime survival test at Nashville, the one that tied the Western Conference finals, 2-2, with Game 5 on Saturday at Honda Center. He has topped 30 minutes twice and he averages 26:43. That would be second in the NHL to Erik Karlsson if Fowler, who missed the first series, had played enough to qualify. Fowler is also playing a team-high 51 seconds per shift.
He is out there dancing with stars every night. He is on the penalty kill and the power play. He is running the game now, which was Niedermayer’s role in four Stanley Cup seasons.
It’s not a fair comparison yet. But it does dampen the assumption that the Ducks lack the elite defenseman required to play for another Cup.
Each champion, they say, has to have a True One, whether it’s Duncan Keith or Drew Doughty or Nicklas Lidstrom.
But sometimes that title is bestowed in retrospect, a self-fulfilling prophecy. Pittsburgh’s Chris Letang was the defensive star of last year’s Stanley Cup run. He has missed this entire postseason and the Penguins are back in the Eastern Conference finals.
You can calculate the chicken-egg factor all you want. The point is that Fowler has done a lot of hard miles to get here.
He was thrust into the lineup at 18 years ago, in Randy Carlyle’s first team. He played under the sword of tough plus-minus numbers. He became tentative at times. Perhaps the trade rumors had an effect, as well as the return of the coach who first believed in him.
This was the season Fowler made the All-Star Game and scored a career-high 11 goals. He is 25, with a lot of ice time left.
“He (Niedermayer) always told me to be confident, to trust my skating,” Fowler said Friday. “It always starts with me being assertive with the puck, not having to think as much. Push the puck at both ends.
“You tell yourself you belong in that role, with big minutes, playing in all situations. You just need to play the same night in and night out.”
In Game 4, Fowler wound up with the puck after a turnover, just inside his blue line. His instinctive thought was to retreat behind his net and get his team aligned. But the Predators were trying to change lines without getting the puck deep enough. Fowler looked up and saw Rickard Rakell, lonesome as Hank Williams, standing on Nashville’s blue line.
“That’s a pretty easy play for a defenseman, finding a teammate all alone,” Fowler said. “He did the rest of it. He shot it across his body without a screen (in front of goalie Pekka Rinne). That’s tough to do.”
It gave the Ducks a 1-0 lead and solidified perhaps their best first period of the postseason.
Fowler was one of the highest-rated players in junior hockey. He had scored 55 points in 55 games for the Windsor Spitfires, who won 50 of 68 games. Ryan Ellis, Nashville’s impressive defenseman, was on that team, playing with Fowler on power plays, and so were Nashville’s Austin Watson and New Jersey’s Taylor Hall and Adam Henrique. Hall was the first-overall pick, by Edmonton.
The Ducks, picking 12th in the 2010 draft at Staples Center, didn’t concern themselves with Fowler. The picks kept coming and Fowler kept sitting in the stands. When Dallas chose goalie Jack Campbell, who is now in the Kings’ organization, the Ducks struck.
“We never dreamed he’d be there but he has not disappointed,” Carlyle said.
The No. 4 pick in that draft was Ryan Johansen. Columbus eventually dealt him to Nashville for Seth Jones.
Johansen is Nashville’s first-line center and has been a significant thorn for the Ducks, especially in the final minute of regulation of Game 4 when he cross-checked Josh Manson into the boards. That removed Manson from the spot he would have occupied, and Filip Forsberg got into that space and tied the score.
The Ducks, who had been herded into the box throughout the period, were furious, but managed to win, 3-2, in OT.
Then Johansen spent Thursday night in Vanderbilt Hospital with thigh surgery that will remove him from the postseason. Flowers from the Ducks are not forthcoming, at least not now.
Niedermayer? He’s still around. He spent most of the season in San Diego, working with young defensemen on the Ducks’ AHL team. His former guest has made his own room, and his board, too.
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