PHILADELPHIA – Anaheim Ducks forward Rickard Rakell can’t help but smile these days.
Following Anaheim’s 4–1 win over the Philadelphia Flyers on Tuesday, Rakell walked around the Ducks’ locker room grinning like a kid in a toy store right before Christmas. And why not? He scored the first two goals in the win and during the last several weeks, he’s helped spur a sluggish Anaheim offense that has now scored 31 goals in its last eight games.
Now Rakell and the Ducks are finally rolling after a historically bad start to the season that saw them take 18 games to ring up their 31st tally.
“It’s just confidence, we’re practicing hard everyday and everybody’s feeling good and knows what their role is on the team,” the 22-year-old Swede said after downing the Flyers. “In the beginning of the year, I don’t know what it was, but we’re getting our goals in now.”
After Anaheim was embarrassed in Pittsburgh on Monday, Rakell, who had a –4 rating in the 6–2 loss, came out firing against Philly, beating goalie Steve Mason for his 12th and 13th goals of the season. Coming into the 2015-16 campaign, Rakell only had nine in 93 career NHL games.
“I’ve never been –4 before, so [the loss in Pittsburgh] was a very frustrating game for me,” Rakell says. “You never want to lose like that, and everybody was excited to turn it around and we showed we can come back and play a good game.
“I just wanted to prove to my teammates and coaches that I’m better than that.”
In the same way that Rakell proved to his teammates and coaches that he’s capable of more than his sorry display in Pittsburgh, the Ducks are proving to the rest of the league they are better than their early season struggles suggested.
Coming off a playoff run last spring where Anaheim fell just one game short of the Stanley Cup Final, the Ducks’ start was perplexing. SI’s preseason pick to hoist the Cup not only stumbled out of the gate at 1-7-2, but coach Bruce Boudreau found himself on the hot seat, captain Ryan Getzlaf scored only once before Christmas—an empty netter—and five-time 30-goal scorer Corey Perry didn’t find the back of the net in his first 11 games.
At the time, Boudreau continually spoke of the need for “consistency” during his press conferences, but his words are finally coming to fruition, as Tuesday’s win was Anaheim’s eighth in its last 10 games.
Even though the Ducks still sit near the bottom of the league in scoring, at 2.25 goals per game, that number is no longer representative of their recent play. Since January 13, Anaheim has been held to only two goals twice, both losses, during an 11-game stretch. But unlike at the beginning of the season where one loss turned into several, Anaheim has rebounded by not only lighting the lamp, but winning the next game after a loss.
“That’s what you do when you’re playing confident, you don’t let one game set you back,” Getzlaf says. “Coming out of Christmas, we took a breath, relaxed and started buying into the defensive system that we had to play because we weren’t scoring goals, so we were able to do that and now the goals are coming.”
While Anaheim sat in last place in the Pacific Division at Christmas break, the one bright spot at that point was its defense and penalty kill, which currently sits atop the league at 89%. The Ducks relied on their stout defensive game along with stellar goaltending from both All-Star John Gibson and Frederik Andersen to pull them out of the doldrums. They’ve frustrated opponents enough to create more offensive zone time and power play opportunities, which Getzlaf says is one reason why the Ducks are finally lighting the lamp.
Another reason for the offensive resurgence is the decision to split Getzlaf from Perry, who has ridden on his wing for the majority of his career, in order to put two of the league’s most dangerous weapons on the ice at separate times. The acquisition of winger David Perron in January, coupled with the emergence of Rakell has allowed the Ducks to break up “the twins”, and thus far it has worked wonders. In the nine games since Perron came on board, Getzlaf has 11 points, Perry has 10, Rakell has nine and Perron has eight, making this one of the NHL’s most dangerous two-line combinations of the last several weeks.
While the stats may be nice, Boudreau offers a simpler explanation for the Ducks’ recent resurgence.
“People that follow us know that we’d hit two or three posts a game and nothing was going,” he says. “Now, they’re going in a little bit. When you get those breaks and you’re still averaging over 30 shots a game, good things are going to happen.”
Even though Anaheim has finally started to look like the team many thought it would be heading into the season, the Ducks still have their work cut out for them in the competitive Pacific, sitting just five points ahead of Arizona for the division’s third playoff spot.
But if the Getzlaf, Perry and Co. continue their recent offensive tear, they feel confident they’ll be right back in the hunt for the Cup.
“We realize how the playoffs go and now you’re under 30 games left,” Boudreau said. “We’re still in a dog fight, so we really have to keep our foot on the gas.”