If the Anaheim Ducks were a baseball team, they would have all been wearing swimming goggles and drowning each other in beer and champagne. Thankfully, though, hockey teams exhibit a little more restraint upon learning they’ve clinched a playoff spot.
The Ducks officially punched their ticket to the post-season Thursday night, but you’d have never known it by the by the mood in their dressing room after their 6-5 overtime loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs. It was an eerily empty and quiet place, with captain Ryan Getzlaf left to explain how a very big team that fancies itself a legitimate Stanley Cup contender can lose two games to a couple of Eastern Conference bottom feeders and give up 10 goals in the process.
On a night when they clinched a playoff spot, they played the kind of game that would get them annihilated in a playoff game. Their puck management was atrocious at times, they gave up three power-play goals and their goalie posted a .769 save percentage. If the Ducks think they can get away with playing that way against the San Jose Sharks, their probable first-round opponent, they’re kidding themselves. Fortunately for the Ducks and their fans, they’re under no such illusion.
Since going on a tear that included a franchise-record 11-game winning streak and a run in which they earned at least a point in 20 of 21 games, the Ducks have been a very ordinary 3-5-0 with 23 goals against. One positive is they have nine games to get things in order, starting Saturday night in Ottawa.
“I don’t want to say we’re not competing,” Getzlaf said. “We’re not executing and we’re not up to the pace of play. We’re holding onto the puck too long and we’re giving up four goals, five goals. That’s way too many goals against to compete in this league.”
Another bright spot is the fact that the Ducks are so big and so talented that when they decide to impose their will on a game, they’re almost impossible to stop. That much was evident against the Leafs when the Ducks scored four goals, two at even strength, one on the power play and one shorthanded, in a span of just 9:23. “When we’re getting the puck in deep and we’re finishing checks in their zone and we’re winning the battles below the circles, usually there’s not a lot of play in our end,” said Ducks coach Bruce Boudreau, “which is why the shots against have been so low against us this year.”
Boudreau is right about that. No team has given up fewer shots than the Ducks have this season. In terms of their shot attempts percentage in close games, the Ducks are trailing only the Los Angeles Kings, the NHL’s poster boys for possession hockey this season. All that is good. Perhaps the Ducks are coasting a little. Since their winning streak, they’ve pretty much known they had a playoff spot locked up and they’ve been pretty sure they’re going to be playing the Sharks in the first round of the playoffs. Boudreau also acknowledged there has been a lull in their play since the torrid pace they set through late January, all of February and early March.
“There are a lot of veterans on our team that have been to wars and the most important thing is the playoffs,” Boudreau said. “Yeah, you want to get up for every game and you hope they get up for every game, but malaise is a good word. We’re going through a funk is another word.”
The Ducks were without Ryan Kesler who rushed back to Anaheim to be with his family on a personal matter. The Ducks are undoubtedly a better team with him in the lineup, but Getzlaf was disappointed by the response they had to losing him at the last minute. “It’s professionalism,” Getzlaf said. “We go through so many things throughout the year. Everybody has families, which we understand. We had guys who had opportunities to step up in those minutes and I didn’t think we executed as a group.”
Everything here is relative. This is a team that started 1-7-2 out of the gate and almost managed to get their coach fired. If not for Bob Murray actually taking a reasoned approach, there’s a very good chance someone else would be behind the Ducks bench right now. But like their play of late, that start was an anomaly. The Ducks are expected to win. And they will once they find their game, which starts with playing better from their own goal crease out. Getzlaf had a good term for it. He called it, “being stern on pucks.”
“We can say whatever we want about it, but the fact is we have to be playing good hockey going into the playoffs,” Getzlaf said. “There are no excuses. We’re professionals here and we’ve got to play. We have to be able to show up and execute our system a little bit better than we are.”