LOS ANGELES – It was midway through the third period on Saturday night when Anaheim Ducks coach Bruce Boudreau was convinced of it.
He had some inklings earlier – during practice, at the start of the game – but with the Ducks leading the Los Angeles Kings by two goals under the night skies at Dodger Stadium, something clicked about the way Jonas Hiller was playing:
“I said, ‘It doesn’t matter [what they do], they’re not gonna beat him tonight,’” Boudreau admitted. “I just had a feeling that no matter how many good looks they had, he was on.”
Hiller made 36 saves in the 3-0 Ducks’ victory, winning the first NHL outdoor game in California in front of 54,099 fans.
Thirty-six was an important number in Hiller’s last appearance for the Ducks, too: The number of minutes he lasted in a loss to the Winnipeg Jets on home ice, giving up three goals before getting the hook.
“I wasn’t really happy with how I played in the last game, I knew I wanted to make sure I was ready tonight,” said Hiller, who improved to 23-6-4 on the season and 1-0-1 against the Kings.
That focus allowed Hiller to push out all the distractions he’d otherwise face in a game that featured fireworks, a sand court volleyball game, KISS concerts and a baseball stadium full of boisterous fans.
“Once you’re in the game, you’re focused on stopping the puck. But during TV breaks, you’re able to get the whole picture, and it’s an incredible experience,” he said.
Boudreau saw Hiller’s mental toughness as a response to his effort against the Jets.
“He came out and said he wasn’t focused when he got pulled the other night. It made him want to play this game on a big stage. He made a couple of saves early and the penalty shot cemented he was on his game,” said the coach.
The first-period penalty shot against Anze Kopitar saw the Kings star flub his chance into Hiller’s pads.
“It seemed like he wanted to go first on the breakaway. He tried to go backhand and lost the puck a little bit,” said Hiller.
“I was glad it wasn’t a great shot.”
The conditions in the outdoor game were a challenge for Hiller. The humid Los Angeles air caused him to sweat more than usual, so he hydrated more often. But the outdoor rink itself wasn’t a hindrance.
“It didn’t bother me too much, with the lighting. It was after sunset, so you didn’t have to worry about the glare from the sun,” he said. “On the ice, I normally see where I’m at by where my blue paint is, in the crease. So that didn’t bother me.”
Both teams didn’t make “nice plays” due to some of the less-than-perfect ice. The puck was moving slower than normal, which may have limited quality chances against Hiller.
But the Kings still had their shots at Hiller. And he turned back all 36 of them.
It was enough to make Boudreau consider coaching a third outdoor game in the NHL. On one condition.
“If the outcome’s the same,” he deadpanned.