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Ducks brace for tough stretch against top West teams

by Curtis Zupke

ANAHEIM -- Anaheim Ducks center Ryan Kesler doesn't like to use the cliché phrase "measuring stick." Coach Bruce Boudreau would rather not look past any game other than the next one. So leave it up to young defenseman Cam Fowler to say out loud what is probably on the minds of the Ducks regarding their next five games.

"It's certainly going to be challenging," Fowler said.

Starting Sunday against the San Jose Sharks at Honda Center, the Ducks will be tested by some of the best in the Western Conference. They will also play at the Chicago Blackhawks, St. Louis Blues, Dallas Stars and Colorado Avalanche. All five teams were in the Stanley Cup Playoffs last season.

"You look at this trip as one of the toughest we'll face all year," Fowler said. "Those are tough buildings to go in and play. You look at all those teams; they're not only playoff teams, but they play really well at home, and all of them have a different style too. Dallas is fast and they come at you in a variety of ways. St. Louis is big and strong, so you get a different sense of how we'll do against different matchups. We're looking forward to it. It's going to be a good test for us."

Even Boudreau had to concede that "It's going to be really interesting."

The Ducks got off to a 7-1-0 start, matching last season's franchise-record start. After a season-opening loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins, the Ducks won seven in a row before losing 4-1 to the Sharks on Sunday.

They had allowed one or zero goals in four straight games before Sunday, and that's a notable change. Anaheim was ninth in the NHL in goals against last season, but general manager Bob Murray said defensive lapses were largely the reason why the Ducks had to come from behind to win 26 times, the most in the League since the 2005-06 season.

Anaheim's defense was also exposed in a Western Conference Second Round series loss to the Los Angeles Kings. The Ducks vowed to learn from that, and so far the maturity has manifested in better protection for goalies Frederik Andersen and John Gibson. Anaheim is allowing 28.3 shots per game, 11th-lowest in the League.

"The last couple of games we've been really good defensively – sound, protecting the house," Kesler said prior to the game against the Sharks. "The first couple of games we were lax, giving up 40-plus shots, but right now I like our defense."

Kesler, acquired from the Vancouver Canucks during the summer, is another reason for Anaheim's strong start. A faceoff specialist, Kesler has helped the Ducks win a league-best 56.0 percent of their draws, and those extra possessions translate to more offensive zone time.

Kesler has also, as expected, provided more advantageous matchups for the Ducks, who can switch off with Kesler and captain Ryan Getzlaf at center. Boudreau has also had Kesler and Getzlaf play on the same power-play unit.

"It's tough to get shots when you're playing D-zone a lot and you're chasing the puck around and it seemed like when we did have it, we didn't get shots," Columbus forward Scott Hartnell said after a 4-1 loss to Anaheim last Friday.

"But they have a puck-control team, and their big guys, I think, outplayed our big guys and we've got to learn from that. We've got to play with the puck more. It just seems like we were chasing it the whole night."

Kesler has taken pressure off Getzlaf, whose average ice time has dropped from 21:17 last season to 20:06 this season. Kesler's is also down, from 21:49 to 19:37.

Offensively, Anaheim continues to roll. Getzlaf and Corey Perry each matched a franchise record for the most points through the first eight games of a season (12). The Ducks' power play, ranked 22nd last season, is clicking at 23.1 percent (9-for-39) through Sunday

So will all of this translate into victories against puck-possession Chicago? A brawny St. Louis? The game against Dallas is the first since the Stars nearly took Anaheim to Game 7 in their first-round series last spring.

Some of Anaheim's numbers come with a caveat. Including Sunday, Anaheim will have played teams on the second night of back-to-back games three times. Nor have they played a road game against a Western Conference team.

But Kesler said it hasn't been an easy ride. He came to Anaheim because it's a contender, and he's getting exactly what he thought from the opposition.

"I knew the team they were coming here, and I knew [from] playing against them, we knew were going to get a good game every night we played them," Kesler said. "Being on this side now, every team comes in here and gives us their best shot. It makes our team better. It doesn't allow us to take nights off. I think when we don't have our game, we find ways to win, and that's the sign of a great team."

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