By Kyle Shohara
After a postseason run unexpectedly cut short at the hands of the Chicago Blackhawks in the Western Conference Final, the Ducks held their end-of-the-season exit interviews today at Honda Center.
It’s a day that has a last-day-of-school vibe to it, save for the jubilation and pomp that normally comes with the “official” start of summer vacation. Instead, the Ducks reflected on a season that could’ve had them competing in the Stanley Cup Final tomorrow night against the Tampa Bay Lightning.
“We came up short, but we didn’t quit,” said Ryan Kesler, last summer’s big offseason acquisition. “We kept battling until the bitter end. I’m proud of everybody in that room. We lost to a good team. Should we have ended it in Game 6? Absolutely. Game 7 was anyone’s game at the beginning, but they were better than us. That’s one game.”
Kesler says the team’s failure to put away the Blackhawks in Game 6 will serve as another learning experience for a club with such high expectations. The 30-year-old emphasized the need for mental toughness as the team heads into the offseason.
“As a group, we need to get mentally stronger, learn from this and come back hungry and [ticked] off,” Kesler said. “We want to get back there. This group isn’t done. We’re good enough. We were good enough this year, but it just didn’t happen. You need a lot of things to go right to make it. I’ve been to the dance once, and it wasn’t just because we were a good team. We got lucky sometimes and we got goals at the right time. We were mentally strong. We need to be stronger, mentally, as a group.”
“When you go through those things, the only way to gain [experience] is to go through it,” said Ducks captain Ryan Getzlaf. “Hopefully our guys learned some lessons again this year. I learned some things. We can get ready for the next season and approach next year with the same attitude we had at the start of this one; on a mission to get back to have that opportunity again.”
Kesler, who has one year left on his contract, says this team has what it takes to go all the way – something he wants to be a part of.
“This locker room is one of the closest locker rooms I’ve been in,” said Kesler, who before coming to Anaheim spent his entire career in Vancouver. “This team is a very close-knit family. I’m happy here. This team is going to be destined for great things. I want to be around for it.”
Pending unrestricted free agents Francois Beauchemin and Matt Beleskey also expressed their desire to return. Beauchemin, who turns 35 on Thursday, says his mind has been made up for some time.
“That’s no secret to anybody,” Beauchemin said, on returning. “I’ve said it all year, I hope to come back. We haven’t discussed anything yet, but hopefully it’ll happen in the next few weeks.”
Beauchemin credits most of his on-ice success this season to his overall health. Last summer was one of the few he had that didn’t involve rehabilitation, and aside from a week-long bout with the mumps early in the season and a broken finger in late November, Beauchemin served as a dependable D-partner for 21-year-old Hampus Lindholm.
“This year, for the first time, I felt great all year,” Beauchemin said. “It was probably one of the best years. You can tell on the ice when I’m healthy and when I’m hurt. I’m looking forward to next year because of that.”
Lindholm drew high praise from Beauchemin, who says the soft-spoken Swede is destined for big things.
“He’s done great things, taken great steps this year,” said Beauchemin, nearly 14 years older than Lindholm. “Hampus has a really good work ethic and works out every day. We like to go out there in practice and challenge the forwards. It shows in the game.
“We had a lot of communication on the ice, and I think that helped him. Playing against the other team’s best lines, you get confidence from doing that. His offensive abilities will always be there, but defensively you can always be better. That’s what we tried to work on all year long, and Hampus did a great job with that.”
Lindholm says he knows there was more to give in Games 6 and 7 vs. Chicago.
“If you lose to someone, you want to feel like you [left] everything on the table, but in this case, we didn’t live up to our standards,” said Lindholm. “That’s going to bug everyone this summer, but it’s going to be the fuel for us to get better and be even stronger next year. We have to look ourselves in the mirror, on how we prepared, what we did, and what we can do better.”
Beleskey, 26, can parlay a career-setting season into a lucrative long-term contract if in fact he hits the open market come July 1. But Anaheim is the only place he’s called home for the better part of seven seasons after being selected in the fourth round (112th overall) of the 2006 NHL Draft.
“I’ve always loved being here in Anaheim, and I still do,” said Beleskey, who racked up 22 goals in the regular season (eight of which served as game-winners) and another eight tallies in the postseason. “I’m always optimistic and hoping for the best, so we’ll see what happens.”
Beleskey was candid when asked what was going through his mind during the days surrounding the trade deadline. “My biggest worry was leaving this team and watching them win the Stanley Cup,” he said. “It’s something I’ve been a part of here for seven years now. You never want to leave a group like this. There’s definitely a tug because you see us climbing in the right direction. It’s always on your mind.”