The Ducks believe their second consecutive Pacific Division title is different from last year's, which was soured by a first-round playoff exit.
That difference is added grit.
Fittingly, on the night Anaheim clinched the division title Wednesday with a 5-2 victory over the San Jose Sharks at a sold-out Honda Center, the game's star embodies the trait.
Rugged forward Patrick Maroon scored two second-period goals to propel Anaheim, and rookie goalie John Gibson made 36 saves to follow a shutout win in his debut with a division clincher two days later.
The loss sends San Jose (49-22-8) into an expected first-round fistfight against the Kings that could very well leave the series winner beaten up for a possible second-round series against the Ducks, who'll have home-ice advantage against a wild-card entrant.
“That's the plan,” Ducks forward Andrew Cogliano said. “[Kings-Sharks] is going to be such a tough series and whoever comes out of it, hopefully is really tired and beat up. … Our goal was to finish first and we did that, and that's a big compliment to our team and where we've come from.”
The victory gives the Ducks (52-20-8) not only a new team points (112) and goals (257) record, but the Western Conference lead by one point over the St. Louis Blues, who have three games remaining to the Ducks' two (Friday at the Kings, Sunday vs. Colorado).
Maroon, 25, pressed his way onto some first-line shifts this season after playing in just 13 games last year and enduring 20 healthy scratches before playing in every game since Jan. 18.
“He's really added a lot to our team — protects our guys, and can play,” Ducks Coach Bruce Boudreau said.
With Wednesday's game stakes heightened, the 6-foot-3, 230-pound forward ramped up his typical high energy and gave the Ducks a 2-1 lead 3 minutes, 32 seconds into the second period, taking a Teemu Selanne pass behind the net and wrapping around to beat Sharks goalie Antti Niemi to the left post.
San Jose answered Maroon's first goal when Logan Couture fired a precision blast to beat Gibson in the high right corner.
A little more than two minutes after that, however, Maroon surged toward Niemi again and blasted a shot that went under the goalie for a lead the Ducks wouldn't relinquish.
“We're a big, strong physical team up front that protects pucks well, and when we play our game we're pretty successful,” Maroon said.
With 3:14 left in the second, forward Matt Beleskey found Corey Perry's rebound and whipped in a goal inside the right post.
Ducks forward Jakob Silfverberg iced it by scoring a short-handed goal into an empty net with 1:38 left in the game.
Gibson, meanwhile, dealt with more shots on goal with 9:02 remaining in the second than he did while beating Vancouver, 3-0, Monday night with 18 saves.
“It was a lot faster tonight,” Gibson said. “Big game, a lot on the line ... Playoff hockey."
Asked if he expects to remain in goal over primary starter Jonas Hiller or 19-win rookie Frederik Andersen in the playoffs, Gibson said, “We'll see.”
Of his decision to play Gibson on Wednesday, Boudreau said, “It's a little bit of a gamble … My gut feeling [was] that he'd be the guy at this stage who'd really jump up and do a bang-up job for us. … I don't know what we're going to do now.”
The 20-year-old Gibson closed the second by stopping Joe Thornton at point-blank range on the fourth of five failed Sharks' power plays.
“He challenged us,” Thornton said. “We had some good looks, but he was there. They've got … good goalies they can choose from and that's a good problem to have.”
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