ANAHEIM, Calif. – Being right back in the hunt for a Pacific Division title may be nice, but the Anaheim Ducks have bigger ambitions.
In what was once considered to be a lost season, the Ducks have been the hottest team in the NHL since Christmas, going 22-4-2 over that stretch to pull back in the Pacific championship race after trailing the division-leading Los Angeles Kings by as much as 15 points as recently as Jan. 2. But Sunday’s 4-2 win closed the gap between the teams to just two points, a remarkable accomplishment considering the Ducks started off 2015-16 by going 1-7-2. But thanks to eight wins in a row, perhaps none bigger than this one, the Ducks are once again the hunters and have realistic hopes of winning the division for a fourth straight time.
While that’s nice and all, Anaheim only has one thing in mind right now: the Stanley Cup.
“We notice it, standings are posted everywhere, but I’ve said repeatedly in the last couple weeks, it’s just about playing,” Anaheim captain Ryan Getzlaf said after dispatching Los Angeles. “We’re trying to get our game to where it needs to be on a consistent basis and we’ve been doing a good job of that lately.”
There’s plenty of reason for the Ducks to not put too much stock into winning the division. After all, three straight Pacific titles have resulted in Game 7 losses on home ice in the playoffs, including 2014 when the Kings defeated the Ducks in the second round en route to winning their second Cup in three years.
But the Ducks recent rise in the standings can’t be ignored. Once worried about even making the playoffs, the Ducks posted their best month in franchise history in February, going 12-1-1. Their current eight-game winning streak is the second-longest in franchise history, trailing only a 10-game win streak in December 2013.
Three months ago now feels like three seasons ago.
“[The division title] is right there, we can see it in our sights.”said Anaheim forward Corey Perry, who posted his ninth career hat trick Sunday. “But at the same time, we’ve just got to keep playing our game, do what we do and keep working hard. When you’re chasing them for first in the division, these points mean everything and you‘re jousting for a playoff spot. We’ve put ourselves in a good spot just to keep pushing forward.”
In front of a sellout crowd of 17,174 at Honda Center, Sunday’s installment of the Freeway Faceoff had the intensity of a playoff game, right down to the black-and-silver-wearing Kings fans trading chants with their orange-clad counterparts. If this on-ice matchup was any indication, these teams will not only have a dramatic race to claim the division crown this season, but also another epic playoff clash. Perry opened the scoring for Anaheim in the first period, but Alec Martinez responded shortly after to send the Kings to the locker room knotted at one. Tanner Pearson made it a 2-1 game in the second before Perry added his 25th of the season, playing the puck off the glass behind the net and putting it past L.A. goalie Jonathan Quick. Perry then finished off his hat trick in the third before David Perron closed out the scoring for the Ducks with a power play goal at 5:53.
It was a hard fought win to close the gap, but more important for Anaheim, it was exactly the type of game the Ducks will need to keep winning if they want to accomplish their true goal this season.
“We’re obviously cognizant of where we are in the standings but I don’t think it’s the end all-be all,” Anaheim coach Bruce Boudreau said. “We just want to play good. That was a playoff game out there today and both teams played like it.
“We’re near the top of the mountain but we’re not at the top of the mountain, so we’ve got to keep persevering.”
With two more scheduled meetings between them this season—one on Saturday and another on April 7—and now just two points apart, the Freeway Faceoff finally means something beyond just Southern California bragging rights. Since the then-Mighty Ducks of Anaheim joined the league in 1993, the teams have cultivated the natural rivalry, but with neither franchise having regular season success at the same time, their games were exciting for the local fan bases, but lacking significance on a much larger scale.
At the beginning of this season, it looked destined for more of the same: the Ducks‘ struggles allowed the Kings to roll out to a lofty lead and perhaps their first Pacific title in 26 years, but thanks to Anaheim’s resurgence, the race to the division crown is now one of the more exciting division races entering the stretch run.
“There’s no running away with this thing, we’re going to be in a battle here till the end,” Getzlaf said.