Ryan Kesler was welcomed back to the lineup, and the Ducks are the healthiest they’ve been all season.
They looked like a different squad for the greater part of the first period as they bullied the Vegas Golden Knights on the forecheck, and for a change, easily outshot their opponent.
But in the end, it didn’t matter: The Ducks can’t seem to solve the Golden Knights.
The expansion squad scored four consecutive goals and defeated the Ducks 4-1 on Wednesday in front of a sold-out 17,774 at Honda Center.
The Golden Knights tightened their grip on the Western Conference lead with the victory, and remain undefeated against the Ducks, with three victories in the first three months of play.
“We weren’t happy with the 60-minute effort that we gave, and this is a stinker,” coach Randy Carlyle said. “We haven’t played this poorly in a number of games.
“The last game I can remember us playing this poorly was in Chicago on the road [a 7-3 defeat on Nov. 27], and we’ve had a pretty good stretch of games here, but I’m disappointed with our performance tonight.”
It all appeared to be running smoothly for Carlyle’s group only two minutes in. The Ducks had their best defensive forward back in the lineup after Kesler sat out the first 37 games because of offseason hip surgery.
They could finally enjoy the comforts of home, too, after a six-game road swing that netted the team seven points and planted them in the conference’s final wild-card slot.
Only two minutes in, top scorer Rickard Rakell extended his goal-scoring streak to three games with a shot from the slot that beat Malcolm Subban. (Starter Marc-Andre Fleury had the night off.)
They continued to pour it on, and the energy from the Ducks was building. A dreaded late-period, short-side goal from Shea Theodore, who was plucked from the Ducks in the expansion draft, tied it up, and suddenly, it was as if all the air was gone from the Ducks’ tires.
They were sluggish for the next 40 minutes, and appeared physically and mentally exhausted. Perhaps it was tired legs. Perhaps it was the relentless forecheck of the Golden Knights, who outshot the Ducks 49-19 in the only other meeting in Anaheim.
Whatever it was, the Ducks now find themselves 10 points behind their newly minted division rival. At the midway point of the season, the Golden Knights are clearly for real, and a legitimate threat to halt the Ducks’ chase for a sixth consecutive Pacific Division title. Vegas has a point in 10 straight games (9-0-1), a record for a first-year team.
“They raised their level of play [after the first period] and we didn’t,” said Ryan Getzlaf, who had produced six points in his last three games.
“Most of all, we quit playing, simple as that. We didn’t come out and play with the urgency that we needed to after that first 12 to 14 minutes of the hockey game. Which is weird, because coming off these breaks sometimes you think your starts are going to be a little bit rough, but we came out and played hard.”
After Brandon Montour thwarted James Neal’s breakaway attempt out of the penalty box with a diving poke check, the Ducks had all the momentum.
But three former Ducks scored goals: William Karlsson and David Perron (empty-netter) joined Theodore.
The other goal was scored by Cody Eakin, who fired a puck through a wide-open John Gibson five-hole, a bad moment for the goaltender in a season full of great ones.
With the Ducks only two players short of full strength, they must be feeling good about their chances as the calendar flips to 2018, if only they can stop those pesky Golden Knights.