By Kyle Shohara
When Ryan Kesler scored on Nashville’s Carter Hutton last night in the third round of the shootout, the Ducks piled over the boards to congratulate him and goaltender Frederik Andersen in front of a jubilant Honda Center crowd. It was a sight Ducks fans have seen quite often thus far in the 2014-15 regular season.
The game was Anaheim’s 41st this season, or, in other words, the halfway mark of their 82-game campaign. The victory extended their lead in the Western Conference and NHL standings, moving four points ahead of the Predators, Blackhawks, Canadiens and Lightning.
It hasn’t been an easy road to the top, although their 26-9-6 record (58 points) might suggest otherwise. Their character, resolve and depth have been tested throughout most of the first half of the season. Whether it was an injury or illness, the Ducks were without key players in their lineup, but yet they found ways to win.
And now sitting above everyone in the standings, with almost everyone healthy (save for defenseman Eric Brewer), the Ducks begin their second-half charge toward the best time of the year – the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Although the Ducks co-lead the league in victories (26), the way in which they’ve earned them has been an ongoing storyline. Of those 26 wins, 20 of them have been decided by a single goal. The Ducks remain the only NHL team without a regulation loss in a game decided by one goal (20-0-6), and they’re second among NHL teams for winning percentage in one-goal games (.778). Ducks fans no longer have nails to chew on because 17 of Anaheim’s last 19 victories, including eight decided in the extra frame (four overtime, four shootout), have been decided by one goal.
Kesler, Anaheim’s big offseason acquisition and one of the team’s leading scorers, says having the ability to win close games is a sign of a confident team.
“Good teams know how to win those one-goal games,” he said after last night’s victory. “That’s how they are in the playoffs. Playoffs are one-goal games. If we know how to win them now, it’s going to make it that much easier in the playoffs.”
Kesler came within a game of winning hockey’s ultimate prize when he and his former team, the Vancouver Canucks, faced Boston in Game 7 of the 2011 Stanley Cup Final. Boston won, 4-0.
“It’s important to be able to win those one-goal games,” said Nate Thompson, a veteran whom the Ducks acquired from the Tampa Bay Lightning last June. “When it comes down to the playoffs, most of them are one-goal games, and you have to learn how to win those. It’s a good reason to win. We’re finding it out right now.”
WINNING IN THE FACE OF ADVERSITY
The Ducks also sit atop the league in a category no team wants to lead, and that’s man-games lost. Anaheim ranks first with 239, nine more than second-place Columbus and 35 more than third-place Colorado. Both teams are in 12th place in their respective conferences.
But the Ducks haven’t wavered, their ship remaining afloat despite injuries to key players like Francois Beauchemin, Ben Lovejoy and Corey Perry, to name a few.
“You can’t make excuses,” said Perry, who missed significant time due to illness (mumps) and injury (lower body). “It’s a matter of the will and the want, and we have a lot of that. There are guys who are coming in and stepping up, filling those holes. That just shows the depth we have in this organization. You look around the room and there are a lot of new faces because of injuries.
“When you have guys like that who can come in and play right away, that’s going to help us down the road.”
FIRST HALF EVALUATION
With 41 games under their belt, the Ducks took a moment to reflect on their first half performance.
“We’ve positioned ourselves where we need to be and where we wanted to be at the start of the season, and that’s first place,” said Andrew Cogliano, who hasn’t missed a game in his eight-year NHL career (581 games). “I still think there’s another level we can get to, and there’s another gear we have in terms of being a better team offensively, and special teams. There are parts of our game that still need to grow, but at the end of the day we’re in a good spot. Now it’s a matter of getting better.”
“We’ve had our ups and downs, but right now we’re trying to be consistent. We’re going in the right direction,” said Perry. “Guys in this room have really come together.”
“We’re pleased to be in first place, especially with what we’ve gone through this season,” said Thompson. “It’s a good first half, but we can’t be satisfied. Teams improve and games become a lot tougher in the second half. We can’t get complacent.”