ANAHEIM -- Western Conference First Round … Second Round … Conference Final. The Anaheim Ducks have gotten closer to their goal in each of the past three seasons.
Though they've also failed dramatically each year in their attempt to reach the Stanley Cup Final, the Ducks remain one of the conference's top contenders. They've won the Pacific Division three seasons in a row and have at least 50 wins in each of the past two, when they finished with 116 and 109 points.
The Ducks hope a couple of new faces combined with a solid foundation will get them over the final hurdle this season.
Here are four reasons for the Ducks to be optimistic:
Key players in their prime: When Anaheim signed center Ryan Kesler to a six-year, $41.25 million contract extension July 15, it further underlined that the Ducks' championship window has their cornerstone players in their prime.
"That group is not satisfied until we win a Stanley Cup, and when we do win the Stanley Cup, I don't think we're going to be satisfied then either," Kesler said after signing his contract. "We're going to want to win another one, and we have the group to do it. … We were one game away from going to the Final. That experience will help us next year."
Kesler, 31 on Aug. 31, drastically changed the dynamic for Anaheim in his first season by giving opponents matchup problems at center, and as an agitating force to deal with after forward Corey Perry. By all accounts, Kesler was a good fit in the dressing room.
"I felt more comfortable with voicing my own opinion, and battling with the guys night in and night out," Kesler said. "You become a family and I definitely feel a part of the core group now."
With 736 NHL games, Kesler's remaining best years are sooner, along with 30-year-olds Perry and captain Ryan Getzlaf, and not later when their contracts expire in the next decade.
Hampus Lindholm's development: Lindholm last season morphed from a skinny, teenage-looking boy into a muscular force who looked like the defenseman of the future for Anaheim.
Lindholm's partnership with Francois Beauchemin might have been the Ducks' most reliable. Lindholm continued to display the puck-moving and skating skills that approach those of one of his idols, Oliver Ekman-Larsson of the Arizona Coyotes.
Lindholm's plus-54 rating in his first two NHL seasons led defensemen and ranked fourth overall. Lindholm, who turns 22 in January, must go on without Beauchemin, who signed with the Colorado Avalanche as a free agent.
Carl Hagelin could be the guy up front: The forward essentially fell into Anaheim's lap when the Ducks acquired him in a trade with the New York Rangers at the 2015 NHL Draft.
Hagelin, one of the NHL's fastest players, was second on the Rangers with 16 even-strength goals. He's an excellent penalty-killer who can play the left side, so it's likely coach Bruce Boudreau will try him on the first line with center Getzlaf and right wing Perry.
"You see who's in the Finals and you see how we got beat," general manager Bob Murray said. "The speed element of the game is getting bigger and bigger, so we have to move along with the times and we got a guy who can really skate. So we're quite excited about that."
Matt Beleskey filled that role last season and finished with an NHL career-high 22 goals, but the Ducks lost him to the Boston Bruins in free agency and have had little success auditioning others there. Maybe Hagelin can finally fill that void long term; he sounded eager after signing a four-year, $16 million contract on Aug. 14.
"I'm extremely motivated," the 27-year-old said. "I'm ready to head over there now. I just want to leave right now. I feel like I can start playing hockey."
Nothing gets them down: Anaheim redefined resiliency last season by winning an NHL-record 18 games when trailing at any point of the third period. It also set an NHL record with 33 wins in one-goal games, and their 50 comeback wins during the past two seasons led the NHL.
The Ducks repeatedly said coming from behind was not their preferred method of victory, but poise became their identity and it's a big part of their regular-season success.