The Ducks' trip east appeared to be going south after they were routed by the New York Rangers and Columbus Blue Jackets. "It could only have gotten better after the first two, though," goaltender John Gibson said. "Hopefully."
Instead of passively hoping for better results, they seized control of their fate by holding a players-only meeting and putting effort behind their words. Their 2-1 victory over New Jersey on Sunday had more nervous moments than it should have, including the Devils' six-on-four advantage for the last 62 seconds, but Gibson's standout 26-save performance allowed them to finish the trip at 3-2.
"I think everybody in this locker room elevated their game after the Columbus loss, after those back-to-back losses to the Rangers and Columbus," defenseman Francois Beauchemin said. "We talked about it in Boston, and since then everybody has played a lot better."
It was the Ducks' third straight victory — all by one goal — and it set franchise records for road wins in a season (24) and road points (52). They retained the NHL points lead with 105, which they considered secondary to their success in turning around what could have been a dangerous slide.
"It's always good to sit down and talk as a group and understand what needs to be done," said defenseman James Wisniewski, who set up the Ducks' first goal when he kept an attempted clearing pass in the zone, gloved it down, and took a shot that Ryan Kesler deflected past Cory Schneider at 17:07 of the first period.
"You can't look at the end of the season when you know you're going to be in the playoffs and be like, 'We can glide right in and turn a light switch on and play playoff hockey.'"
They've fixed the defensive end of the game and have allowed five goals in the last three games, two on opponents' power plays. Best of all, Gibson and Frederik Andersen have begun an intriguing can-you-top-this duel.
"It's a good problem to have," Kesler said. "We feel comfortable and confident with both guys in net. Gibby's probably one of the main reasons we won the game tonight, and he's been playing really well for us."
Andersen prevailed at Boston and Long Island, so for the team's third game in four days, Coach Bruce Boudreau started Gibson. The 21-year-old excelled against the Devils, who kept pushing despite being eliminated from the playoffs Sunday when Boston went to overtime at Carolina.
Gibson turned away a formidable number of quality scoring chances before Dainius Zubrus redirected a shot by Andy Greene from the top of the left circle at 16:35 of the third period. He didn't get the shutout, but he got his teammates' thanks for picking them up and maintaining a high-quality battle with Andersen for the starting job. "That's good," Beauchemin said. "It's always good when the coach doesn't know who to play."
Gibson just made Boudreau's decision tougher.
"Why do they do this?" Boudreau said in mock despair, of his goalies. "Well, I'm glad he does it. It proves that both goalies, quite frankly, they play better when the other one's playing better, if you've noticed. They both want it."
With Kesler's goal supporting him, Gibson protected the lead early in the second period by stopping Adam Henrique off a three-on-one and stopping 11 shots in the period. The Ducks took a 2-0 lead at 1:39 of the third period when a shot by Beauchemin struck Kesler and Devils defenseman Jon Merrill in front of the net before eluding Schneider.
Beauchemin got the goal, his career-best 10th goal, though Kesler displayed a welt on his arm where he said the puck had hit him. "Apparently the bruise isn't enough to get credit for it," Kesler said. "I told Beauch he needs it more than me."
Kesler could afford to laugh after a trip that started so badly ended with the Ducks on the right track in preparing for the playoffs. "You want to be playing your best hockey," Kesler said. "Every game, something pops up. You want to work on something. You can never play a perfect game. But I thought the last three games we definitely played well."