Injuries and call-ups left the Ducks' American Hockey League affiliate near the bottom of the Western Conference - and 29th in the league. The uphill climb to return to playoff contention needed to begin then, before their season reached its halfway mark.
"I think, even when we were at the bottom of the standings, we knew what we had in the locker room," goaltender Kevin Boyle said, reflecting on that low point. "We knew the type of talent and culture we had in the locker room, and we knew we wouldn't be there for a long time. It took everyone coming together and buying into that feeling to turn it around and go on a little run."
"It was a real good test for our group early," Gulls captain Jaycob Megna said during his recent exit interview. "We knew we were a good team. It was a question of figuring out how we needed to play. Every year that I've been here, we've had that little growth stage where we needed to figure things out, and we did."
Their resurgence began almost immediately. San Diego posted a club-record 15-game point streak from December 14 through January 16, the longest in franchise history and the fourth-longest streak in the AHL during the 2018-19 season. They gained 62 points in their final 47 games to pass three different teams and punch their ticket to the Calder Cup Playoffs.
San Diego's season came to an end on Monday, in Game 6 of the AHL's Western Conference Finals, the culmination of an admirable postseason run. San Diego lost to the Chicago Wolves - the Vegas Golden Knights affiliate - in a tight series, one that featured two separate overtime games.
Head Coach Dallas Eakins says the team's mindset and commitment during those tough early months - and the choice his players made while sitting near the bottom of the standings - played a major part in his team's success.
"It goes back to the group we had at the time," he said, shortly after the Game 6 loss. "I think it goes to some of the changes that Bob Murray made and the buy in of the group. The group got tight. I'll go back to it, I've never experienced a real team like this that loves each other so much. They support each other through the adversity of being in last place to scraping and clawing to get in the playoffs to playing 11 overtimes and getting here to today. It's amazing.
"Tonight's not a successful night, it's painful, it's hurtful, it's disappointing and it's all of those things because the tightness of the group. We just needed a bounce or two to make it in the Finals."
The sting of a loss will mask an otherwise outstanding season for the Gulls. They ended the regular season tied for third in the Western Conference in road wins, collecting an impressive 18 wins away from Pechanga Sports Arena. San Diego scored 122 goals on the road - a new club record - while twice posting seven-plus game road win streaks.
The Gulls also tied a club record with a seven-game home point streak and recorded six straight wins at home during the season.
"It wasn't all just rainbows and sunshine the entire season," forward Chase De Leo said during the team's exit interviews. "We had to compete. Obviously, the odds were against us for a bit. I think we proved to ourselves - and the league - we weren't just ok being in that position. We wanted to climb to the top, and we did a good job showing that."
The pipeline between San Diego and Anaheim continued to produce NHL-caliber players, some making an immediate impact in the show. Twenty-four different players appeared in a game for the Ducks and Gulls this season, the most to appear in games for both the NHL club and primary affiliate. Included in those names are Sam Steel, Max Jones, Troy Terry, Max Comtois, and other players who left their mark on the Ducks and their fans.
"We have a lot of good prospects here," Comtois said following the team's postseason run. "I think the future is bright in Anaheim. We have a good team (here). It's amazing how everybody cares about each other. It was amazing being here, and I'm looking forward to improving with them and hopefully reaching the NHL with them."
Continuing their growth in the market, San Diego once again led the league in attendance, with an average of more than 9,000 fans per game. Since they entered the AHL four years ago, more than 1 million fans attended a game, with the average crowd of 8,969 leading the Western Conference and ranking second among all clubs to the Hershey Bears, the Washington Capitals affiliate.
"This is a great place to play," veteran center Adam Cracknell said during his exit interview. "California hockey is coming up, it's starting to pick up and hopefully it is around San Diego. It is a hockey town. We saw that around playoffs with the fans. People are starting to see who we are, notice who we are."
The Calder Cup Playoffs further highlighted San Diego's on-ice and off-ice impact.
The Gulls defeated the San Jose Barracuda in four games (3-1) in the First Round, and then eliminated the Bakersfield Condors, the top seed in the Western Conference in the Pacific Division Finals in six games (4-2) to reach their first Western Conference Finals. Guided by a mix of veteran and rookie scoring - and strong work in net from Jeff Glass and Boyle - San Diego totaled more playoff series wins (4) in their franchise history than any other Pacific Division team. It marked just the third time a Ducks AHL affiliate reached the Conference Finals, and the first time since 2008.
When the final buzzer sounded on their season, San Diego recorded the most playoff wins (9) in a single postseason in franchise history while also pushing themselves into the lead among all Pacific Division clubs, with 17 postseason wins topping the 15 by the Texas Stars. Highlights included a four-overtime win against the Condors - ending the AHL's fifth-longest game - and a shutout of the Wolves in Game 2.
San Diego finished the postseason leading the AHL in playoff attendance (8,036 average) and total attendance (64,290) in their eight postseason games.
All the numbers and stats underline what Eakins considered the perfect roster for an AHL team.
"I've coached in this league a long time and for me, the makeup of the group should be an absolute template for the league," he said. "We've got super high-character people, we've got veteran players who are not only trying to get better every day but are doing their best to mentor our young guys. We have guys in the middle-age range that are still trying to get better every day and that are pulling their weight. And then we have very young rookie prospects who are high-character guys. They weren't about themselves, they were about the team. I'm not sure that you can put together a much better template to develop and win in this league than what our management did."