CHICAGO -- See if this scenario sounds familiar: There is an NHL team that just completed an incredible run of success to vault to the top of the League standings as the Olympic break approaches.
Yes, that team in 2014 is the Anaheim Ducks, which won 18 of 19 games before losing Friday to the Chicago Blackhawks. The Ducks still lead the Blackhawks by four points for the top spot in the standings and have won 19 of 22 games as they prepare to face the rival Los Angeles Kings on Thursday night and as the 2014 Sochi Olympics draw near.
This is almost the exact same situation from four years ago for the Washington Capitals, who used a 14-game winning streak to surge to the top of the NHL as the Vancouver Games beckoned.
"It is very similar," said Ducks center Mathieu Perreault, who bounced between Washington and its American Hockey League affiliate, the Hershey Bears, in 2009-10. "In Washington it was the same thing. We would get production from throughout all of the lineup, fourth line, third line. It seems like every night there is a line that steps up and gets big goals."
The biggest link between the two teams is Bruce Boudreau, who was the coach in charge of the high-flying Capitals back then and is at the helm of the Ducks in 2013-14.
While the situations appear similar, Boudreau sees plenty of differences.
"I think it is a different group, so I already do things differently because the people are different. It is a little bit easier," Boudreau told NHL.com. "If you remember, [Alex Ovechkin] came back and was hardly a shell of what he was before the Olympics. I don't know if anything like that is going to happen. I don't think that's going to happen here with this group. I think they're really well focused. When you get a guy like Saku [Koivu] who decides not to go to the Olympics so he can rest up and focus for our team, then that tells you something.
"We don't have two first-year goalies. We only have one, and Viktor [Fasth] will be ready next week so we don't have the inexperience that we had in the nets. I think our veteran defense here, even with guys like [Ben] Lovejoy and [Cam] Fowler who are fourth-year guys, is a little bit different than what we had in Washington."
The 2009-10 Capitals fashioned one of the best regular seasons in NHL history, gobbling up 121 points, the most by a post-1967 expansion club, and earning the franchise's first Presidents' Trophy. The 14-game streak was the highlight, and it culminated with a thrilling overtime victory on Super Bowl Sunday against the rival Pittsburgh Penguins on national television with the District of Columbia otherwise shut down because about two feet of snow had blanketed the region.
Washington lost the final three games before the Olympic break, but finished 13-2-5 after everyone returned from Vancouver or vacation and easily secured the top spot in the Eastern Conference. What followed was one of the largest upsets in NHL history, as the eighth-seeded Montreal Canadiens rallied from a 3-1 series deficit to stun the Capitals in seven games.
Jaroslav Halak had a series that won't soon be forgotten in Quebec. He was pulled in Game 3 and didn't even play in Game 4, but in Montreal's four victories (Games 1, 5, 6 and 7) he was transcendent. Halak stopped 176 of 181 shots in those four games, including each of the 45 he faced with Washington's vaunted power-play unit at work.
Boudreau certainly hopes the final outcomes are different for the two teams, and one lesson he learned in particular still sticks with him.
"I'm still convinced, and I've never done it since, that when we didn't get home until 7 in the morning after Game 4 and I just said, 'No practice,' and we cancelled practice," Boudreau said. "I know now that those guys were too young to understand to get up, get some exercise in. I guarantee they lounged around the house all day. They woke up, ate, went back to bed, ate and stayed in all day and did nothing. Our first period in Game 5 was horrendous and that gave [the Canadiens] life."
The Canadiens scored twice in the first period of Game 5 and hung on for a 2-1 victory, before taking early leads and parking the bus in Games 6 and 7 as well. Montreal went on to the upset the defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins before losing to the seventh-seeded Philadelphia Flyers in the conference finals.
The Capitals dominated the Canadiens for long stretches, attempted 59.2 percent of the shots (Corsi for percentage) in the series in all situations, and 67.6 percent at even strength in the final two contests.
Slow starts did cost them. Montreal had 61.9 percent of the shot attempts (13-8) at even strength in Game 5 by the time the Canadiens had a 2-0 lead, 84.6 percent (11-2) at even strength by the time it was 2-0 in Game 6 and surged to a 17-9 lead in that category (65.4 percent) in Game 7 as well.
That Washington team, like some of the high-powered editions of the San Jose Sharks and Ottawa Senators of recent memory, was deemed a failure, a meteor that burnt out too quickly. Boudreau has been asked about that team recently because of the Ducks' recent streak, and time has allowed him to think of it more fondly.
"It's only when people bring it up," Boudreau said. "If I look back on that year and then I say, 'Well, we only had 15 [regulation] losses that year.' I'm saying now, 'We've got [nine regulation] losses and we're more than halfway done with the year.' I didn't appreciate the 54-15-. I don't think anybody appreciated it for what it was. It was one of the highest point totals in League history. Because we lost in the first round, everything was sort of lost with what we did right."
"I'm still convinced, and I've never done it since, that when we didn't get home until 7 in the morning after Game 4 and I just said, 'No practice,' and we cancelled practice. I know now that those guys were too young to understand to get up, get some exercise in. I guarantee they lounged around the house all day. They woke up, ate, went back to bed, ate and stayed in all day and did nothing. Our first period in Game 5 was horrendous and that gave [the Canadiens] life."
-- Ducks coach Bruce Boudreau on the 2010 Capitals' first-round playoff loss to Montreal
The 2013-14 Ducks are indeed more experienced than that group of Capitals. There are five players on the team who have won the Stanley Cup, and another veteran (Koivu) who teammates would love to help lift the Cup for the first time.
That Capitals team had a respected veteran looking for his first championship in Brendan Morrison, but no one on the roster had reached the pinnacle of the sport.
"It is very similar to what we had in Washington that year, but I think we have a little more leadership, older guys on the team that we didn't have back then," Perreault said. "The guys were all young in Washington, like [Ovechkin], [Nicklas] Backstrom, [Mike] Green. I was young. But now here we have guys like Saku, Teemu [Selanne], [Ryan] Getzlaf, [Corey] Perry, and I think our leaders are doing a really good job in the room. That's maybe the one difference I notice from Washington."
This group of Ducks is also deeper, and Perreault is one of several newcomers who have played well and given the once top-heavy Anaheim roster a different look. General manager Bob Murray traded away one of the team's best players in Bobby Ryan, but the new additions plus the steps forward taken by several young players have had a significant impact.
The Ducks of 2012-13 were a surprise juggernaut in the first half of a shortened season before looking more like what people expected in the second half. This group of Ducks might still be earning more points than the numbers indicate they should, but they have earned their place among the League's elite.
"We're scoring more than last year. We have more balance," Boudreau said. "Corey Perry didn't have a good year last year and now he's got 27 goals. That's a big difference and now there's so much more focus on the balance of the four lines. I think our depth at center too -- [Nick] Bonino was a first-year guy last year and we didn't have a fourth guy like [Perreault] -- so those are four guys that can play. [Andrew] Cogliano is having a breakout year even though it is his sixth year.
"The other thing, and this is no disrespect to Bobby Ryan at all because I think he's great player, but there was no fit. On the power play for example, how do you get all of them on at the same time? You couldn't. Somebody always had to be left off. Now we have one unit and another unit. It has made it a little bit easier."