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Gibson eager for bounce-back season with Ducks

Goalie counting on lessons learned from Anaheim's 2018-19 struggles

by Tom Gulitti @TomGulittiNHL / Staff Writer

When John Gibson reflects on last season, the Anaheim Ducks goalie understandably can't get past the worst stretch of his NHL career.

From Dec. 18 to Feb. 9, Anaheim went 2-15-4 to fall from 19-11-5 to 21-26-9 and end any realistic chance it had of qualifying for the Stanley Cup Playoffs. It was a frustrating time for Gibson, who went 2-10-4 with a 3.68 goals-against average and a .891 save percentage during the slump, but also an educational one he believes will help him.

"Anytime you lose 19 of 21 games, I don't care who you are, you're not going to be happy," Gibson said at the NHL Player Media Tour in Chicago last month. "Obviously, you never want to have a season like that, but I learned a lot throughout it. That was probably as bad a stretch as you can have or anybody's ever seen, so I think if you make it through that you can learn a lot not just in hockey but in life in general."

At the beginning of his seventh NHL season, which the Ducks open against the Arizona Coyotes at Honda Center on Thursday (10 p.m. ET; PRIME, FS-A, FS-A PLUS, NHL.TV), Gibson is still learning and striving to be among the game's elite goalies. 

"It's cliché, but each and every game I go out there and I try to do my best every night," said Gibson, who is expected to start Thursday after leaving the Ducks' preseason finale against the Coyotes on Saturday for precautionary reasons. "The last few years, I keep trying to take steps forward each year and hopefully I can continue that and take another step forward this year."

Some would argue that Gibson has already arrived. Despite that rough stretch last season, he finished 26-22-8 with a 2.84 GAA, a .917 save percentage and two shutouts on a Ducks team that was last in the NHL in scoring 2.39 goals per game and 25th in allowing 33.2 shots per game.

"He keeps them in games they shouldn't be in and he steals games they have no business winning," said NHL Network analyst Kevin Weekes, a former goalie who played 11 seasons in the League. "He's one of the best in the business."

Gibson sometimes gets overlooked. He was selected as the Ducks representative at the 2019 Honda NHL All-Star Game at San Jose and was voted to the NHL All-Rookie Team in 2015-16, but for the Vezina Trophy, presented annually to League's top goalie, he's received two votes in his career -- a second-place vote in 2015-16 and a third-place vote last season.

The NHL Network had Gibson 10th in its rankings of the League's Top 10 Goalies Right Now.

"I would say he's underrated," Vegas Golden Knights forward Jonathan Marchessault said. "Some games, if it wasn't for him, it would get out of hand. He's good, but I also think he gets better with a lot of shots like that. I think some goalies almost get better when they get peppered than when they get only like 22 shots or something. But it just fits well in his style."

Video: NHL Network's countdown begins with Gibson and Rinne

Stylistically, Gibson's (6-foot-2, 207 pound) athleticism and improvisational skills make him stand out during a time when some other goalies rely heavily on technique. This sometimes results in spectacular saves that make the nightly highlight reels such as his diving backhand glove stop on Chicago Blackhawks forward Patrick Kane last season.

"He's definitely got a unique style, more old school," Washington Capitals goalie Braden Holtby said. "He'd be the closest thing to the Dominik Hasek kind of style that you'd get nowadays."

Ducks center Adam Henrique also sees in Gibson a bit of his former New Jersey Devils teammate, Martin Brodeur, who like Hasek is in the Hockey Hall of Fame, because he is sometimes unconventional in stopping the puck.

"He's so athletic," Henrique said. "Like some have mentioned Hasek, it's similar to Marty where he's kind of got that blend of styles and athleticism to do whatever it takes to make the save."

Weekes said Ducks goalie coach Sudarshan Maharaj, who worked with Weekes during his playing days, has worked with Gibson on fine-tuning some parts of his game without restricting his natural ability too much.

"The game has evolved where things are lot faster and I think John is a nice mix of reading the play, being a little bit unorthodox and just using what he thinks is going to work in the moment, not plugging himself into a standard save, which has always proved to be the thing that really sets guys apart." said Ryan Miller, who is beginning his third season as Gibson's backup with Anaheim. "He's grown up in the modern game, so he knows how to read that modern game. 

"He comes up with a lot of big performances because I think he has kind of that blend."

Henrique admitted he didn't know a lot about Gibson before he was traded to the Ducks by the Devils on Nov. 30, 2017. But he quickly noticed his competitive nature.

"He doesn't like to be scored on even in practice," Henrique said. "He'll make these crazy saves with his glove behind his back in practice and that's the same goalie he is during games."

Video: Top 10 saves of 2018-19: Gibson

That drive has fueled Gibson, the Ducks' second-round pick (No. 39) in the 2011 NHL Draft, throughout his development. Vancouver Canucks forward J.T. Miller has known Gibson since each was 12 years old and growing up in the Pittsburgh area and watched him progress throughout their time as teammates USA Hockey's National Team Development Program in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

They were also teammates on the U.S. teams that won gold at the 2010 World Under-17 Hockey Challenge, the 2011 IIHF Under-18 World Championship and the 2013 IIHF World Junior Championship, when Gibson posted a 1.36 GAA and a .955 save percentage in seven games.

"When he was with the national team, the big tournaments we played, he was setting records, and you just knew this guy was special," Miller said. "He's so big, super athletic, super laid back. It's unique. Goalies, you have to be kind of different to be in there, but he was about as normal and laid back as possible."

Gibson's laid-back personality doesn't preclude him from wanting a bigger leadership role in a Ducks locker room that is evolving under new coach Dallas Eakins and without mainstays such as Corey Perry (signed with the Dallas Stars) and Ryan Kesler (out for the season following hip surgery).

"Definitely," Gibson said. "I'm not the most vocal guy or whatever, but I just try to go out there and lead by my play and try and bring it every night."

That brings us back to last season and that exasperating 21-game stretch when the Ducks sandwiched losing streaks of 12 games (0-8-4) and seven games (0-7-0) around consecutive wins against the Minnesota Wild and the Devils and Gibson felt helpless at time in trying to find a way out of it.

"[Gibson] was probably the main reason why were in (the playoff race) the first half of the season," Henrique said. "He covered up a lot of our mistakes. What happened in the second half certainly wasn't because of him."

With his focus on getting the Ducks back to the playoffs, Gibson prefers now to look for the positives in last season, the lessons he learned that might be useful the next time he and the Ducks are going through tough times.

"I just remember talking to some of the older guys, like (Kesler) and those guys, and they said they'd been around hockey for a long time and they've never had anything as bad as what happened last year as far as losing streaks and everything like that," Gibson said. "They said, 'If you make it through this, especially earlier in your career, you should be able to handle just about any adversity that's thrown your way throughout the rest of your career.'" Independent Correspondent Kevin Woodley contributed to this story.

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