Despite a 3-0 loss to the Colorado Avalanche at Pepsi Center on Wednesday, the Anaheim Ducks hold the NHL lead with a 25-5-3 record since the League paused for its three-day Christmas break from Dec. 23-25.
The current run is a far sight from the 12-15-6 record Anaheim compiled to start the season, a mark which kept the Ducks one point ahead of the Columbus Blue Jackets for last place.
On the surface, the Ducks appear to be two different teams, but the underlying numbers haven't really changed, revealing what Anaheim has really been this entire season.
In reality, the Ducks have always been one of the top six teams in the League but just couldn't get any puck luck in the opening months.
Going into the season, it was universally believed the Ducks were among the top Stanley Cup contenders. Coming off a third straight season atop the Pacific Division, and having taken the eventual Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks to the limit in a seven-game series in the Western Conference Final, the Ducks were seen as one of the teams to beat.
They had great coaching, the top-line duo of Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry, and a solid young lineup that was bolstered with the summer acquisition of veteran defenseman Kevin Bieksa and forwards Carl Hagelin, Shawn Horcoff, Chris Stewart, and Mike Santorelli.
For those reasons, and others, the Ducks were a popular preseason pick to win Stanley Cup.
Despite these high expectations, the Ducks began the season with one win and four out of a possible 20 points in the first 10 games. In those 10 games, Anaheim was shut out five times and managed fewer than two goals in seven games. By Christmas, the Ducks were last in the NHL with 61 goals scored, 12 fewer than Philadelphia Flyers.
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Since that point, Anaheim has scored 101 goals, No. 5 in the NHL. Almost half of the additional scoring has come on the power play, which has improved from No. 27 in the League before the Christmas break to No. 1 since. At an individual level, Getzlaf scored one goal on 62 shots before the break, and has nine goals on 67 shots since then, and center Ryan Kesler doubled his scoring from 12 points to 24.
Anaheim's post-Christmas success has been achieved without a coaching change, without any meaningful changes to the health of the team, and essentially with only one significant roster change. The Ducks acquired forward David Perron and defenseman Adam Clendening from the Pittsburgh Penguins for Hagelin on Jan. 16.
So what explains Anaheim's turnaround? Puck luck.
Though it seems outrageous that a few bounces can explain such a radical transformation, it's not as crazy as it sounds. With an average of five goals scored in any NHL game, it's easy for a few tips, deflections or blind saves to derail a team's scoring, even during the course of two or three months.
That's why hockey statisticians often look at shot attempts when the traditional goal-based metrics don't make sense. There are usually more than 80 combined shot attempts per game, making it impossible for a few bad breaks to artificially skew the picture for long. The higher volume of data and reduced reliance on puck luck make these shot-based metrics far more consistent and predictable.
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In this case, the Ducks ranked No. 11 in the NHL with 1,509 shot attempts going into the Christmas break, and rank No. 11 with 1,414 shot attempts since. The big difference is their even-strength shooting percentage has improved from 5.0 percent early in the season, which was last in the League, to 7.0 percent since Christmas, which ranks No. 17.
It's possible this improvement is a result of the Ducks finding ways to get more screens, rebounds and odd-man rushes, but history suggests it's far more likely the inevitable reversal of their bad fortunes.
So who are the real Ducks? Based on their consistent possession numbers, Anaheim is the No. 6 ranked team in the NHL, and has been all season.
The team's SAT, which is the percentage of shot attempts they take during its games, was 52.8 percent prior to Christmas, which ranked No. 7 in the NHL, and an almost identical 53.0 percent since then, which ranked No. 5.
Based on preseason expectations, their past success, and even their current position in the NHL standings, Anaheim's shot-based possession metrics have likely been an accurate reflection of their true talent level all season long.