GLENDALE, Ariz. — If you polled NHL fans for the biggest storylines this season, the Anaheim Ducks’ franchise-record 15-3-1 start would barely register a blip.
Between the lockout-shortened schedule, the Chicago Blackhawks’ historic run, Ryan O’Reilly’s contract holdout, Lindy Ruff’s firing, the Coyotes’ continued ownership saga and realignment talks, the Ducks are, well, flying under the radar.
“I don’t have a problem with that,” Anaheim defenseman François Beauchemin said, laughing. “They can talk about the Blackhawks the whole season if they want to. I know we’ll be trying to find them somewhere down the road.”
There are numerous reasons to believe that may happen. Anaheim’s scoring has been remarkably balanced, with 11 players having notched four goals or more after Friday night’s 3-2 win over Minnesota, making the Ducks the league’s second-highest scoring team at 3.32 goals per game.
The defense has benefited greatly from the additions of Sheldon Souray and Bryan Allen, the offense has benefited from the infusion of some youth in the form of Kyle Palmieri (seven goals), and 30-year-old rookie goalie Viktor Fasth has risen from World Championships fame to NHL stardom, back-stopping the Ducks to nine wins with a .926 save percentage and a 1.92 goals against average, both of which ranked seventh in the league before Friday’s games.
The Ducks have also shown an uncanny ability to rally from deficits – they are 8-2-1 when allowing the first goal – and they have nine one-goal victories.
”A good sign is that we have been finding a way to win the games and come from behind. That makes this team really strong,” ageless wonder Teemu Selanne said. “It’s a good feeling when you have that confidence, but we can make these games a little easier by having better starts and playing 60 minutes.”
That would also make it a little easier on their goaltender. Few NHL fans had ever heard of Fasth before this season because he had not played in North America. He had two standout seasons with AIK of the Swedish Elite League and he helped Team Sweden earn a silver medal with three shutouts and a 1.71 goals against average at the 2011 World Championships to win tournament MVP honors.
“I had no clue if he’d be any good,” coach Bruce Boudreau said. “I honestly thought, ‘OK let’s bring this guy in and let’s try to get by for a year.
“His credentials were good in Sweden, but I’ve seen other goalies coming out of some European countries that didn’t have as much success as you would have thought. The Toronto media built (Detroit goalie Jonas) Gustavsson up as the second coming, and he’s been fairly average.
“But after watching Viktor play in the minors … and win some games for us when we weren’t playing our best, we think he’s the real deal – at least we’re hoping he is.”
If erstwhile starter Jonas Hiller can return to form after missing time with a strained muscle in his lower body, the Ducks could boast one of the league’s best goalie tandems. Hiller allowed two goals on 33 shots in Friday night’s win.
Anaheim’s torrid pace and the lockout-shortened season have the rest of the Pacific Division on red alert a bit sooner than expected. That group includes the Coyotes, who won the division last year but sit last in the Pacific, 10 points back of the Ducks as Anaheim comes to town for the first of three consecutive games against Phoenix (the final one is in Anaheim) in a bizarre twist of the lockout-induced schedule.
“It is a little bit like a playoff series where after each game there are subtle tweaks you want to make to try to get an advantage or to correct issues that might be in the game,” Coyotes coach Dave Tippett said. “It makes it fun as a coach because you dig in and you have to find ways to make your team better but by playing the same opponent.”
Anaheim’s start might seem surprising because the team has a history of poor starts since it raised the Stanley Cup in 2007. But keen observers might have been clued in. After a 6-13-4 start last season that led to coach Randy Carlyle’s firing and Boudreau’s arrival, the Ducks were the NHL’s fifth-best team after Jan. 1, going 24-15-6 but still missing the playoffs due to the huge hole they had dug. They actually stormed through a 24-game stretch at 17-3-4 but tailed off after being eliminated from playoff contention.
Philosophical changes by Boudreau were at the fore of that surge.
“We’re more aggressive in our forecheck and in the offensive zone,” said Beauchemin, who has spearheaded the league’s second-ranked power-play unit (28.8 percent). “And in the neutral zone, when he came in, we started playing a 1-3-1 which was different from the trap we had used.
“Everybody really bought into those changes and the guys just started playing better. When you have success with it, it feeds the fire.”
Boudreau was hired by the Ducks just days after being fired in Washington due to the Capitals’ sluggish play and a rift with star Alex Ovechkin. He admits that experience eroded his confidence.
“I’m the same way as a lot of players. When you lose your job sometimes you start to doubt yourself and the way you do things,” Boudreau said. “When I came here I just told myself ‘do what I do. Don’t change the way you approach the game and see how they respond.’
“I just wanted them to believe they were a good team. With the way things have gone so far, I can go home and say ‘I know I’m on the right track. I know I’m doing the right things.’”
There might also be a sense of urgency fueling the Ducks’ play because time may be running out for this current group. Star forwards Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry and Saku Koivu are all in the final year of their contracts, while the 42-year-old Selanne could always be in the final year of his career.
“Nobody knows on that one,” Boudreau said. “But the contract talk has never entered the room that I know of. Maybe they’re doing a good job of keeping it quiet but our guys have been very focused.”
Can the Ducks sustain it? There are some doubters. For starters, Anaheim is converting a torrid 12.6 percent of its shots this season. Since the start of the 2005-06 season, only one team in the NHL scored on 12 percent or more of its shots over a full season; only a few have managed better than 11 percent.
The Ducks also don’t generate a lot of shots. They manage 27.6 per game, which is 25th in the league. And how long can the 30-year-old Fasth maintain that gaudy save percentage?
“Those are stats, and that first one is an interesting one, but I don’t put a lot of stock in them,” said Boudreau, noting that his team’s low shot-total is partially due to a puck-possession philosophy in the offensive zone. “I think one of the things – the main thing – is we’ve got to stay healthy. This month is such a crazy month as far as how many games we play (17 games in 31 days), that it will probably be more difficult.”
Not that the schedule is bothering the Ducks at the moment.
“When you’re winning, you actually want to play more games, play every other night,” Beauchemin said. “This is fun. That’s why we play this game in the first place.”