<
>
Insider

Stars aligning for stealthy Anaheim Ducks

3/13/2013

When a team like the Chicago Blackhawks starts off the season on an incredible run -- shattering franchise records, capturing the imagination of hockey fans across an entire continent and bringing the sport back from the abyss of a lockout -- other developments sometimes get overlooked.

Like, for instance, the Anaheim Ducks were pretty much keeping up the entire time.

Chicago's incredible start means the Blackhawks don't have to worry much about clinching a spot in the postseason, but the top spot in the Western Conference has evolved into a two-team horse race.

Anaheim beat the Minnesota Wild 2-1 on Tuesday night, winning again after allowing the first goal of the game when Luca Sbisa broke a tie game with 3:04 remaining. It was the Ducks' fourth consecutive win, a current streak topped in the NHL only by the Penguins (six). They improved to 8-2-3 on the road and their home record (11-1-0) is just as dazzling as Chicago's (11-1-1).

While we all can make an easy case for the Blackhawks as Stanley Cup contenders -- their experience, their depth on defense, their star power up front, their improved goaltending -- it's not a case made nearly as often for a Ducks team that sits just four points behind Chicago with a game in hand.

There's a hesitation to jump on the Ducks' Stanley Cup bandwagon when it's quite possible the stars are aligning perfectly for Anaheim to pull it off.

"We'll see in June I guess, right?" said Sheldon Souray when I suggested that this was setting up to be the perfect season for a team like Anaheim.

To understand why it's perfect, you have to go back to the summer. And a swimming pool in Finland.

It's the offseason and Saku Koivu is training underwater with resistance weights on his ankles and hands. As he's gotten older, the start of each season has been slowed by issues with his groin muscles and hips and he has learned that the pool is a great place to address these problems.

"It's good for cardio and good for deep muscles when you're older," he said.

Then he smiled, because yes, it sounded like the same kind of training done by senior citizens. Sometimes they were in the pool with him training.

"That's exactly what happened," he said. "I look and these [older] guys are doing it. I was more tired than they are. They're looking at me like, 'What is this guy doing here?' It's surprisingly hard to do."

The training and then extended time off during the lockout allowed his body to fully rest and prepare for a shortened season. At 38 years old, it was ideal.

Instead of having to overcome nagging injuries to start the season, Koivu came out fresh and his production showed it. He had 17 points in the first 18 games to start the season as the Ducks jumped out to their incredible start.

The lockout did more than just give the older bodies on the Ducks more time to prepare. It provided perspective.

Like many teams, the Ducks had a group of dedicated veterans who stayed local during the lockout, and the advantage of training in California was that they could get in a serious practice, then follow it up with a round of golf or two.

There was bonding with new teammates like Souray and also an extended mental break from hockey that doesn't happen very often over the course of an NHL player's life.

Souray, especially, found it rejuvenating.

"It wasn't like being in Edmonton or Calgary where it's like hockey, hockey, hockey -- everywhere you go people are asking about it. We had a chance to regroup," Souray said. "For an older guy, maybe it's just a break mentally. Not that we didn't want to be playing, because when we got to the rink we talked about hockey. It's a break. You get to take your kids to school every day. You get to go to some of their hockey practices and be there for some of their birthdays. Just some things that you miss."

Then suddenly, you start to miss hockey.

"It was the perfect amount of time," Souray said.

When Souray was weighing which team to sign with this summer as a free agent, he thought back to conversations he had with Koivu about the structure of the Ducks and what this team needed to return to contender status. They needed more grit on the back end, which he provided. They needed a big shot on the power play, which is in his arsenal, too.

And his analysis of the team kept returning to how much he liked how this group was structured. There were three tiers of talented players. At the top were the experienced veterans pushing to win one more time -- guys like Koivu and Teemu Selanne.

In the middle were star players in their prime like Corey Perry, Ryan Getzlaf and Bobby Ryan. And he liked the emerging young talent like Cam Fowler and Emerson Etem.

"We have all these world-class players who are in these different stages of their career and that was most appealing," he said.

It was a group that had underachieved the past couple of seasons, plagued by slow starts and then overextended during the second half of the season as every point became huge to dig out of their early-season holes.

It was a veteran group that found it hard at times to get up for games in November and December.

"The first half is so [crappy]," said Selanne, not mincing any words about what veterans think of the first portion of the NHL's usual marathon.

That wasn't a problem this season.

Selanne believes this team can capitalize on the short season and ride a wave of success right into the postseason.

"Everything is just to try and build the momentum in the playoffs," he said. Which the Ducks are currently doing.

It's a credit to the veterans and to the coaching job done by Bruce Boudreau, who has been a perfect fit in Anaheim. The freedom and flexibility he prefers to give a team is perfect for a group of veterans that doesn't need much interference from behind the bench. Boudreau isn't a system guy and Souray said there have even been times this season when he's simplified things even further in how the Ducks play, especially in the neutral zone.

And when one of the veterans approaches Boudreau about time off to rest during a condensed schedule, he's willing to listen.

"Every player is challenged. Especially older guys, the challenge is to recover from day to day, game to game," Selanne said. "You're never 100 percent. You're never fresh. Whoever is going to find the best job to recover has a big edge."

Boudreau, so far, has managed that perfectly, with his team showing few signs of wear despite its aging players.

There are certainly concerns about the Ducks, especially considering advanced stats suggest they're getting more bounces than other teams, as Cam Charron broke down earlier this week. Anaheim's team shooting percentage started the week at 11.8 percent, a league-leading number that will surely come back to earth. The Ducks' team PDO was at 1.045, again tops in the league. It's another sign that there's regression on the way.

And a more traditional ranking, the penalty kill, is concerning, as well. The Ducks had some big kills against the Wild on Tuesday night but still sit at 77 percent on the PK, which is No. 28 in the league. Teams with bad penalty kills generally don't go on long playoff runs.

But Anaheim remains the league's best team at even strength (1.50 5-5 F/A) and has the league's best power play, no small accomplishment. The Ducks also have two goalies in Jonas Hiller and Viktor Fasth more than capable of carrying them when some of the luck runs out.

Stanley Cup runs by the Penguins, Blackhawks and Kings in recent seasons have proven that it's a young man's game. Those were teams built around youth and young stars like Sidney Crosby, Jonathan Toews and Drew Doughty.

Young legs are better prepared to withstand the rigors of a long regular season and grueling playoff run. This season, one half of that equation is not necessary, something the Ducks are hoping to capitalize on.

"Teemu, Getzy and Perry -- they've had that success. It's been a while since they've had it but they're at a stage now where they're hungry for it again," Souray said. "Guys like Saku, [Toni Lydman] and I are at a stage where it's like -- we've got a group here right now that is motivated. So where that leads -- who knows?"