Since winning their first Stanley Cup in 2007, the Anaheim Ducks have had a moderate amount of postseason success. Always dangerous, but almost always overlooked after the regular season. It took a sweep of Winnipeg for everyone to stop calling the Western Conference’s top seed the underdogs.
But after five-straight playoff wins, they’re looking like legitimate contenders. What’s changed? Aside from adding Ryan Kesler’s killer instinct, the Ducks have learned from past playoff failures.
"Losing two Games 7 at home, those are tough losses to have," defenseman Francois Beauchemin said. "It builds your mental toughness, your character. We all know it’s not easy. It gets harder as you go on. We try to dictate our play mostly by our physical game. That’s when we’re at our best."
The physical game is working exceptionally well, but so is just about everything else, including the power play. The power play was dismal all season, and most of last as well, but Anaheim’s 33.3 percent power play rate is tied for the best in the playoffs. And it seems as though it didn’t take much to jumpstart what was once the team’s most glaring weakness.
"Focus. Keeping things simple," Beauchemin said. "We’re finally getting some results on it and putting pucks at the net with traffic in front. Loose pucks, rebounds, power plays, you have to keep things simple. The tic-tac-toe, backdoor, perfect plays, you don’t get too often. It’s all deflections in front, rebounds, good screen."
A lack of focus didn’t just extend to the power play during the regular season. Anaheim ended on a bad note, slumping throughout the final two months. Hot start, cold finish seemed to be the pattern over the last few seasons. Who could blame them? When you have a 10-point lead on the rest of the league, it’s easy to start looking too far ahead.
But there’s no looking ahead now. With every game more meaningful than the last, the Ducks are taking the cliched, but effective, game-by-game approach. This season, they’re determined to break their own trend and become a true playoff team instead of just an also-ran.
"I think it was our fault during the year. We had a number of things, but I think the major thing was that a lot of the games didn’t mean much to us in the regular season because we had such a lead on everybody," Kesler said. "Not that we weren’t trying, but it wasn’t really an emphasis by the leaders, myself included. I think we’re all bearing down as a group and doing the little things that maybe we weren’t during the year and that’s good to see."
Pay very close attention to the play of defensemen Hampus Lindholm. You might be witnessing the start of something special. Coach Bruce Boudreau says Lindholm could be one of those rare, best-in-the-game type of players.
"When he’s in his mid-20s, he’s going to be as good as there is," Boudreau said. "You’ve seen some glimpses of it. On his backchecking, just how fast he can skate and catch guys. When he starts to really learn the offensive part of jumping and giving-and-goes and stuff, which takes a while – but he’s going to learn because he’s smart enough – then he will be a very, very dangerous player at both ends of the ice. Because he can defend right now…
"I don’t know what the saying is, but his future is bright."
One year ago, in this very same round and this very same building, much was made about a trio of goalies and which one would play which game. Jonas Hiller wasn’t the answer for the Ducks in last year’s Western Conference Semifinals, and it appears as though he still isn’t the answer for the Flames this year.
Flames coach Bob Hartley announced that he would start Karri Ramo over Jonas Hiller in Game 2. Things could change, but for now, it appears as though history is repeating itself all over again for Hiller.
Game 2 coverage begins Sunday at 7 p.m. on CNBC. "Ducks Live" will air on Prime Ticket following the game.