Group-Think Kills the Ducks

The Ducks have come back from a weak start to be in the thick of things in the West. Though they’ve played more games than most of the teams surrounding them in the standings, they’ve also had a run of late that has solidified their contention for the playoffs.

But they stalled a little bit Wednesday night, dropping a 4-3 game to the visiting San Jose Sharks, a contest not as close as the score would suggest.

Their secrets for winning in the weeks leading up to the All-Star break? Good defense, excellent goaltending, and scoring which has come from other players. But none of that was in evidence Wednesday night as the team dropped their only home game for a couple of weeks to the Sharks.

Just 14 seconds into the contest, the Sharks jumped out to a quick 1-0 lead.

“From an execution standpoint, we were behind,” Ducks coach Randy Carlyle said. “We turned the puck over in the first 40 minutes of the game to the point where it was very, very frustrating for the players and the coaching staff.”

The stats on the night showed the Ducks giving the puck away eight times. San Jose gave it away seven, so that’s not the answer to why things didn’t go well.  Neither did the other numbers, with the Ducks outshooting the Sharks, 30-28, outhitting them, 26-17, and losing out only in the faceoffs, though that quite badly. The Ducks took only 37 percent of the draws, winning 19 and losing 32.

So why did they lose? The answer, quite simply, was the Carlyle programmed the team to fail.

Oh, really? Why would he do that? Well, he wouldn’t. Not on purpose, anyway.

It happened unintentionally in the coaching staff’s efforts, ironically enough, to do exactly the opposite.

“You’re always rustier,” the Ducks coach said about the All-Star break. “We tried to push in the last two days of practice that our execution level and our intensity level in practice was going to have to be our game. We knew San Jose played at home last night against Phoenix, and that they would be sharper from an execution standpoint.”

“It was apparent that they played last night,” echoed Ducks forward Bobby Ryan. “They had a nice comeback victory there, and I think that they carried the momentum from the third period last night right into the first.”

“It was the start. You can’t win a lot of games when you’re down 3-0 in the first 10-12 minutes,” Ducks defenseman Cam Fowler added. “I don’t know if we were a little rusty coming after the break, but there’s no excuses.”

What’s going on here? One answer is that there are only so many ways to skin a cat—only so many ways to explain why what happened, happened. The other is that all three are saying the same thing because that’s what they tried to avoid, and that this was the message preached in practice over the past couple of days.  But when the team got behind early, they started to live a self-fulfilling prophecy.

“Yep, San Jose’s sharper. That win last night gave them a step.”

Call it group-think. And it never got turned around.

All three people summed up roughly the same way, too.

“I think we earned the two extra days of the break, but we didn’t go to bat to defend it,” Ryan said. “Call it what you want, complacency because of the way we finished, but we were lethargic to start the game, and we went down 3-0 to a division rival. It’s a tough, tough hole to crawl out of, but…we can’t credit [blame] Jonas. You don’t see it much, and we’ve got to be better for him.”

He was talking about Hiller’s relatively poor performance, letting in three goals before the first period was much more than halfway done, on 10 shots. Curtis McElhinney came in. The Ducks eventually got three goals of their own (but were never closer than two behind), and the sub goalie let in one more. This, you’ll realize, gave him the loss. Too bad, as he stopped all but one of 18 shots.

“They moved the puck around better than we did,” Carlyle said. “They controlled the puck for stretches early in the hockey game. We finally got going, but still not to the level we have been in the past.”

“You can’t have a start like that in our own building,” Fowler added. “There’s no excuse for it. We had a couple of good practices leading up to today, but practices are a little bit different than game situations.”

There’s that thing again, that idea that the team didn’t want to appear rusty for having not played in a week.

It was programmatic thinking, and it cost them. San Jose is now tied with Anaheim in points with one fewer game played.

The Ducks will now go on a Western road trip for four games, comes home to take on the Capitals, then heads out again for two more. Then they get the Kings to start a seven-game home stand, by which time, their playoff fate will be sealed.

The good news for the short term is that Captain Ryan Getzlaf will be back in a game or two. He is skating, and he was in the press box Wednesday night, and in the locker room after. He has a nasty-looking scar on his forehead, but is apparently not suffering from further effects of taking a puck there late in December.


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