Anaheim is vying for first place in the Pacific Division but what’s surprising is the fact that it took so long for the Ducks to do so. When the present season started, Anaheim was the consensus choice to win the Pacific Division—quite handily the experts predicted. Instead the Ducks were shot when the bell rung and for weeks and months they struggled—even enduring a spell in last place when the season started. Ryan Getzlaf lost some playing time due to an appendectomy; the Ducks defense was sloppy and non-existent. The team overall was playing like they were asleep in the Gurdjieffian sense; it was a collective malaise, pure and simple.
It’s a tribute to Duck’s general manager Bob Murray that he had the patience to allow Anaheim head coach Bruce Boudreau to work the team way out of the crisis. A lesser GM might have pulled the trigger but Murray allowed Boudreau to pull back, re-assess, and help the Ducks regain their psychic center one win at a time. One change came in the Ducks tactical matrix. Gabby has always been one of the NHL’s greatest offensive mavens but this time Gabby demanded that the Ducks win with defense, figuring once the team regained its defensive cohesion and confidence then the offense would follow suit. Indeed the Ducks have the second best defense and second best penalty-kill in the NHL right now. Although they rank 26th in overall offense their power-play offense remains potent, ranking 7th in the NHL right now.
It worked. In December alone, the Ducks earned three 1-0 victories over division rivals San Jose, Calgary, and Edmonton. The team was tightening up and regaining confidence but it still took time. The Ducks didn’t reach .500% until game 39 last January 6 and at the midway they were still at .500%. Since then however the Ducks have exploded going 18-2-1 in the second half, averaging 3.74 goals scored whereas before they were only scoring 2.07 goals per game.
But for Gabby and the Ducks the greater challenge is not whether they win the Pacific Division title but how they will fare when the second season begins. For Bruce Boudreau the latter mission of reaching the Stanley Cup finals and winning the Cup has become paramount. In the Heartbreak Coaches chapter of my book Bench Bosses Bruce Boudreau figures prominently, tied for seventh place in the heartbreak coaching stakes alongside Bob Berry and Michele Bergeron with 7 playoff failures without ever reaching the Finals. Last season he led Anaheim all the way to the Western Conference finals for the first time in his illustrious NHL coaching career. A Stanley Cup finals berth would elevate him into the top 20 ranks according to my rating system and a Stanley Cup win would place him among the top 15.
The inner challenge lies deep inside Boudreau himself. Can he overcome seven prior failures to get that one big win that elevates him into a more rarified realm of greatness??? It has been done. L.A.’s Darryl Sutter overcame eight playoff failures before reaching the Stanley Cup finals in 2003/04. Chicago’s Joel Quenneville endured 10 playoff losses before he won his first Stanley Cup in 2009/10. Bryan Murray endured 11 playoff losses before reaching the Stanley Cup finals in 2006/07.
The question remains is whether overcoming the obstacles that dogged Anaheim earlier this season has instilled in the Ducks the inner psychic steel needed to take the team all the way? Did their earlier setbacks bring forth a deeper sense of character; a font of inner strength out of which are forged future Stanley Cup finalists…and champions.