It was bound to happen at some point.
The Anaheim Ducks got about as close as a team can to reaching the Stanley Cup Final last season…without actually reaching the Stanley Cup Final. They pushed the eventual champs to seven games in the third round, going to overtime in three of those contests. If not for a bounce here or there, they might have eliminated the Chicago Blackhawks. Instead, they had to enter the offseason a little earlier than they had hoped — left to wonder what could have happened if one or two things had gone differently.
They also entered the summer with high expectations for this season. After all, they had wrapped up the 2014-15 campaign with a Western Conference-leading 109 points. And they hadn’t even lost a playoff game in regulation until Game 6 of the Conference Finals. Coming off a pretty dominant run, they were poised for even bigger and better things this time around.
Then they added Carl Hagelin via trade in June, with the hope that his speed would make the offense even more dangerous. Oddly enough though, the exact opposite seemed to happen.
The Ducks stumbled out of the gate in a big way, winning just once in their first ten outings. The team that had stacked up 62 victories (counting playoffs) just a year ago wasn’t even able to pick up their second win of 2015-16 until November.
On top of that, scoring became an issue. In 2014-15, Anaheim finished 11th overall with a 2.78 goals per game average during the regular season. And in the playoffs, Bruce Boudreau’s group led all contenders with 3.56 goals per game. As recently as three weeks ago, the Ducks were averaging just 1.85 goals per game. That’s less than the Buffalo Sabres were putting up when they were slogging through the bottom of the standings a year ago.
Still, this lineup seemed too talented to just sleepwalk through 82 games without at least making some sort of push. Entering play Friday, they’d won five straight and seven of their last eight. And in that stretch, they’d averaged 3.75 goals per game.
Going back even further, Anaheim had picked up points in 13 of the previous 16 contests — going an impressive 12-3-1 in that time. Suddenly, a playoff spot that seemed like nothing more than crazy talk a month or two ago looks like a very realistic possibility.
So what exactly is working for the Ducks now?
First and foremost, the goaltending has been masterful most of the year. Back when they couldn’t find ways to pick up wins, Frederik Andersen was at least keeping them in games. Even in their dreadful October, he posted an impressive 0.932 save percentage. Whatever hopes the club had seemed to hinge on the play they were getting between the pipes.That’s when John Gibson stepped in and provided an even better performance in net. Long considered one of — if not the — top goalie prospects in the world, the 22-year old has delivered on his potential in a big way. In 20 starts, he’s 12-7-2, with a 1.92 goals against average, a 0.923 save percentage and four shutouts. That alone was good enough to get him to the All-Star Game last weekend, while pulling Anaheim out of the bottom of the standings in the process.
To that end, it would appear the goaltending that the Ducks have been getting shouldn’t waver much down the stretch. That gives them a nice foundation to work from, as does the fact that no one in the Pacific has really pulled away. The Kings seem to be comfortably tucked into first for now, but there’s been so much volatility throughout the rest of the division that it has enabled Anaheim to hang around in the race, despite their first half struggles.
It also enabled them to hang on to Boudreau, rather than mix things up behind the bench mid-season. His long-term future in Orange County might very well be determined by what happens over the next couple months, but the organization’s patience to stick it out with Boudreau appears to at least be paying off.
As does their decision to trade Hagelin to Pittsburgh for David Perron. Since joining the Ducks on January 16, the 27-year-old winger has piled up three goals and five assists in just six games. He’s given them the additional top six scoring option they so desperately needed, and he hasn’t been the only one making the offense work lately.
Over their 7-1 stretch, Corey Perry notched four goals, while five other players — Ryan Kesler, Hampus Lindholm, Rickard Rakell, Jakob Silfverberg, and Perron — have posted three apiece. Ryan Garbutt has added two goals and an assist in four games since coming over from Chicago and, even though Ryan Getzlaf has still struggled to find the back of the net on his own, he did tally his first 5-on-5 goal of the season on Thursday. He’s also registered eight assists in his last eight games.
Is the offense fixed? We’ll need a bigger sample size than this to truly know that. Even with their recent surge, the Ducks are still averaging just 2.16 goals per game on the season — good for last in the NHL. But that speaks more to their sluggish start than anything else.
All that matters now is that the scoring seems to be contagious up and down the lineup, and they’re still getting the sort of goaltending that will give them a chance to win most nights. That makes them a legitimate threat to at least find their way back to the playoffs in April.