In order for the Anaheim Ducks to return to the Stanley Cup Playoffs after a one-year absence, there are several key players who will need to have big seasons.
Cam Fowler, beginning his third NHL season and still just 20 years old, suffered something of a sophomore slump and needs to take the next step in his development.
However, the Ducks' fortunes ultimately hinge on the man between the pipes, Jonas Hiller. The 30-year-old Swiss goaltender rebounded from a season marred by health concerns to play the most games in the NHL at his position, but had an up-and-down campaign much like his team and posted a career-low .910 save percentage.
"With whatever I went through at the end of last year, I'm definitely happy how it went this year for me personally," Hiller said in a player profile posted last month on the Ducks' official website. "I showed that I am able to play at the highest level in this League and I think I can play better. I'm already excited for next year."
In 2010-11, Hiller was coming off a career-high 30 wins and appeared set to obliterate that as he racked up 25 victories prior to appearing in the All-Star Game in Raleigh, N.C.
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His season was quickly derailed, however, as vertigo symptoms surfaced soon thereafter, limiting him to three appearances and one win the remainder of the regular season. Hiller, who finished with a .924 save percentage, couldn't participate in the playoffs, and the Ducks were dispatched in the first round by the Nashville Predators in a six-game series.
The good news for Hiller and the Ducks was his symptoms cleared during the summer and didn't recur despite his heavy workload. At one point Hiller set a franchise record by starting 32 consecutive games as Anaheim furiously tried to climb out of a deep hole in the standings that caused the team to fire coach Randy Carlyle two months into the season and replace him with Bruce Boudreau.
Hiller ended up playing in 73 games, with a 29-30-12 record and a 2.57 goals-against average that was almost identical to the previous season. He seemed to find his best rhythm during that 32-start stretch, going 14-3-4 at one point while allowing more than three goals in a game just once and surrendering two or fewer 14 times.
"I definitely have a little better understanding of my body and how to take care of it, to listen to my body and not just try to work through it when something is aching," Hiller told Adam Brady of the Ducks Blog in early March. "With massage or treatment, you can get rid of stuff before it really gets serious. Bruce has also given me the opportunity to take my rest on certain days and certain practices. That definitely helps to stay sharp, especially mentally, which is almost as tough as staying ready physically."
Anaheim signed veteran Swedish goalie Viktor Fasth over the summer, a key move that should allow Hiller to rest a little more often this season. He's still the undisputed No. 1, though, and if he can re-establish himself as one of the elite goalies in the League -- an accolade he had earned two seasons ago before the vertigo issues surfaced -- then the Ducks will again be a force in the Pacific Division and Western Conference races.