The Los Angeles Kings may have raised their Stanley Cup banner at the start of the NHL season last month, but barely a month into the lockout-shortened schedule, it’s the Anaheim Ducks who have flown to the top of the Pacific Division.
A surprise? Undoubtedly. The Ducks figured to be scraping for a playoff spot this season, but so far they have avoided a typically slow start, have overcome their own mistakes and are looking very much like a top contender in the Western Conference.
It’s early, of course, and there are no guarantees that their 9-2-1 start will lead to a strong finish, but the possibilities are intriguing. After a 3-2 shootout victory over the conference-leading Blackhawks on Tuesday in Chicago, the Ducks are 3-1 on a season-long six-game road trip and are 6-1 in their past seven games.
It hasn’t been easy sailing. Their past two wins have come as a result of shootouts, and both times they had to come from behind. Saturday night in St. Louis, for example, they fell behind by two goals, lost two third-period leads and still beat the Blues 6-5 in a shootout.
Those kinds of games can be frustrating for a coach, but the Ducks’ Bruce Boudreau has found a silver lining amid all the stress.
“The team doesn’t give up and never believes they can’t win,” Boudreau recently told the Los Angeles Times. “And that, to me, is a very important thing . . . That makes you believe that wherever you’re playing you have a chance to win.”
How are they doing it? Here are three contributing factors to the Ducks’ fast start:
1. Ageless wonder. Right wing Teemu Selanne is 42, but he’s playing like he’s 22. His 14 points (4 goals, 10 assists) through the first 12 games are his highest total to start a season since he had 14 in 11 games for the Winnipeg Jets in 1995-96 at age 25. During his hot stretch, Selanne had two four-point games in a 22-day span, making him only the third player 42 or older to accomplish the feat. The others, Gordie Howe (1971) and Tim Horton (1972), each did it once. Another key Ducks contributor is 38-year-old Saku Koivu, who is second to Selanne in scoring (4 goals, 9 assists, 13 points) and is tied for the league lead with a +11 rating. They’re getting older, but better, too.
2. Net results. The Ducks signed goaltender Viktor Fasth as a free agent last May, believing he would be a capable backup to starter Jonas Hiller. But Fasth has been better than that, and with Hiller sidelined because of a dreaded lower-body injury, the Ducks are relying on Fasth to keep the nets secure. The 30-year-old rookie, who was signed out of the Swedish Elite League, is 6-0 in place of Hiller, and his 1.74 goals-against average is tied for fourth best in the league. It’s no wonder that Fasth recently told the Orange County Register, “I’m what you call maybe a late bloomer.”
3. Style points. The Ducks hired Boudreau in November 2011 to replace Randy Carlyle, who took them to the Stanley Cup title in 2006-07. Boudreau led the Ducks to one of the NHL’s best records after the All-Star break last season and has them playing in the style he favors – fast and offensive. Although their first line has struggled, the Ducks are averaging 3.25 goals per game, third best in the league and a significant improvement over last season’s 2.45. The Ducks also rank seventh in power play efficiency at 23.1 percent, and although their penalty killing is a woeful 29th (69.6 percent), they killed two penalties in overtime to send the game to a shootout.