Is it too early to write the “what might have been story” of this year’s Ducks? Numbers don’t lie, and it’s plain that they have to win about 29 of their remaining games, OT lose seven, and lose outright only five times.
That’s just not going to happen. This is not the 1979 Montreal Canadiens we’re talking about. But nobody in the room is giving up yet, and at least four players and the coach said Tuesday after they beat Dallas that they’ve found the key: belief. Coach Boudreau after the game said, “I think they believe they can win.”
Earlier, Saku Koivu said, “The first half didn’t go the way we expected or wanted, but there’s nothing we can do about the past and I think there’s a lot of positive things in the last little while. Look at the last week and the last three games, and . . . we’re scoring goals.” He went on, “At this level, it’s a lot about the mental aspect of the game, and uh, when you kind of feel more confident, you feel more relaxed, and by that, you can add five to ten percent to your game, and that’s a huge difference.”
Teemu Selanne said the same. “It was a character win, but today it felt like we were a good team. Nothing would bother us, we could bounce back and find a way to win the game.” The biggest difference in these three games? “Confidence. Just try to do your job; don’t try to do too much. Just keep it simple, and work hard.”
Then he put in the zinger: “The confidence as a team that you’re going to win, that you know how to win, is a good feeling.”
And it’s for good reason that they hope, because with a static lineup and what can only be described as an uncertain goaltending situation, they’ve looked fabulous over the past three games, beating the Isles, Jackets, and Stars while scoring 16 goals and seeing two players (Perry Sunday and Koivu Tuesday) get hat tricks.
Still, enthusiasm is being tempered by realism. Selanne was asked whether they could salvage the season, and he said, “I can’t see any reason,” and bystanders thought it would end, “why we can’t come back,” but instead, it was, “why we can’t stay hot right now, and try to take a run.” He did comment, “We’re behind the eight ball, but it’s possible.”
Why is it suddenly working? On Tuesday, they got a one-goal cushion, then two, in a steady effort of a goal a period. Meanwhile, they protected their goalie, backup-turned-starter Jeff Deslauriers, called up from Syracuse after both Ellis and Hiller were hurt.
They let the Stars back in on two softish goals, both over the netminder’s right (catching glove) hand, to begin the third period. Those came within a minute of one another, and if there were ever a time to collapse, this was it.
They didn’t, but held, and responded with a goal at mid-period. Koivu got that one, the second of his evening, and he described it by saying, “When [Selanne] gets that speed, I don’t think there’s any defenseman that can stop him, and he took it wide, then dropped it and took both defense with him to the net.” Koivu said he called for the puck, but “we’ve played long enough together that [I knew he would take] it deep, and it opened it up everything for me.”
At this point, Dallas was off its game. The Stars had been outshooting the Ducks badly, but by the time of the Anaheim third goal, it was just a 24-20 advantage. The ending would see Anaheim finally pull ahead, 28-26. Anaheim scored goal four at near the fifteen-minute mark of the third, a redirection of a pass by Matt Beleskey from Cogliano.
And the score was run up by one when Dallas pulled their goalie, allowing Koivu to score his third on an empty net, the pass coming over from Selanne. In the post-game, the two were not interviewed together, but they gently ribbed one another, Koivu saying “He’s got enough of those [hat tricks]” and Selanne saying, when he found out that it had been nine years since Koivu’s only other one, “Then he won’t get another.”
Their coach was clear in his assessment of what the team has done in their longest winning streak since October (games 2-5, all wins): “Anytime you win three in a row, you’d like to win the three in a row the most recent, rather than won the first three and then lost the last three; it wouldn’t feel anywhere near as good.” He’s referring to the fact that they now go on the road with confidence.
“If you’re going on the road feeling good about yourself, with a ray of hope that a good road trip, anything can happen.”
These three wins, in a sense, are an increasing scale of achievement, culminating with the Stars. Boudreau commented further, “Taking nothing away from Columbus and New York, Dallas is a different echelon of team, and I thought we played pretty well against them.” And so he, like those in the room, seems not to have given up.
Those numbers, though—they’re grim. The rest of the West would have to stop winning much for the Ducks to catch them. And that’s hard to swallow in game 41, exactly the halfway point.
But if it’s over or almost so, there are still a lot of story-lines in Anaheim, among them:
1. They are terrible when they’re behind, and very bad in OT, winning only one in their seven opportunities. If that had been better . . . who knows what might be now? Maybe they can improve in the last half, for pride if nothing else.
2. Selanne has just scored goal 651, and he’s closing in on Shanahan (12th all-time with 656). In points, he’s 22nd, with Brett Hall having 1391 and Selanne at 1381. If he can get by Hull, he’s got Robitaille next, in 20th with 1394.
3. What will they do about goaltending? Hiller, it appeared to me on Sunday, pulled a groin or tweaked a knee. The coach said after the game that he hadn’t been feeling right all day, indicating that it had nothing to do with his lower extremities. Now, the story’s changed and it’s “lower body.” What’s true, and no matter what it is, what’s the answer?
4. What was Randy Carlyle doing eating dinner in the press room? My contacts told me he’s going to scout, the team figuring they’ve got to play him through next year so they might as well use him. But someone with the team told me in the hallway, “He requested a credential,” as if there was no official connection. Is there a story here?
The team now has a real test going to Canada for the weekend. They’ll play Calgary, Edmonton, and then Vancouver over four days. Should they win these games, they’re for real, and while the numbers look bleak, you have to say anything can happen when you get on a roll. Should they split, it’s back to reality. The playoffs will be out of the question and fans and players alike will have to find, as the old saying goes, “other things to play for.”
The coach described the immediate challenge this way: “We’ll see if we can pass the test on the road. Our road record isn’t very good, and if you want to advance or do anything good, you have to win on the road, so that’s our goal.”
Aside from in net, there was just one lineup change: because Jean-Francois Jacques is suspended for three games, Nick Bonino got in the game. He played a healthy 14:35 on the line with Blake and Cogliano. That spot on Sunday was taken by Kyle Palmieri, but on Tuesday, he was on the line with Beleskey and Rod Pelly, where Jacques had been.
Ducks fans, your favorite broadcaster is Josh Brewster, right? Well, his kid Brent is playing at the Kings game Thursday, between periods one and two. If you can stand to invade alien territory, I’m sure he’d appreciate your being there and yelling for the future Duck, who will be draft-eligible in 2023.
I’m doing Twitter now, so please follow me @growinguphockey. I promise few tweets, but good ones.
Please check out my new book, My Country Is Hockey, and plan to come hear me read at Vroman’s bookstore in Pasadena at 7pm on February 9th.