Ducks' Avalanche Got Rolling in Colorado

It was in early January and the Mighty Ducks were playing like ... well, the Mighty Ducks.

On a seven-game winless streak, the Ducks found themselves under .500 for the first time in almost two months and playing Colorado on the road in the second night of back-to-back games.

Then they became a team.

Not only did Anaheim beat Patrick Roy and the Avalanche, 5-3, but, since then, the Ducks have been on a postseason mission, going unbeaten in 21 of their last 31 games to move into a tie for sixth place in the Western Conference.

"The team had not made the playoffs in three years, and we just wanted to be in position to have a chance," said Anaheim winger Petr Sykora, acquired in a trade from New Jersey during the off-season. "We started off playing for that, but once we were in 10th and ninth place, we said why not keep moving up since we are here, and that's what we've been doing. All of the guys took that challenge, especially [Coach] Mike [Babcock]."

Three reasons behind the turnaround:

Speed kills: Starting with captain Paul Kariya's super-quick legs, the Ducks are one of the best skating teams in the NHL, and they don't need a ton of room to get the job done.

"They have a lot of speedy forwards and solid defensemen who don't make a lot of mistakes," San Jose winger and former Duck Teemu Selanne said.

The Ducks were at their skating best in Thursday's come-from-behind, 3-2 victory over the Sharks at the Arrowhead Pond. Defenseman Vitaly Vishnevski showed his wheels when he jumped into a play with a third-period goal to tie the score, and veteran Steve Thomas displayed his when he skated hard to the net to knock in a rebound goal in overtime.

By forcing teams to react to their quickness, led by the No. 1 line of Kariya, Sykora and Adam Oates, the Ducks do not give up too many scoring opportunities. That's why they're among the NHL's stingiest in goals allowed with 171.

Their speed also helps force opponents into more turnovers because the Ducks are able to close more quickly than most teams with their forecheck. Babcock has been able to get role players such as Jason Krog, Patric Kjellberg, Samuel Pahlsson and Niclas Havelid to play aggressively but under control. The Ducks have had to play short-handed only 291 times, seventh fewest in the league.

Goaltending: In Jean Sebastien-Giguere, the Ducks have one of the league's top young netminders. Giguere already ranks among the NHL best in shutouts and goals-against average, and at 25, he's only going to get better.

"A lot of guys have surprised me on the team, but Giguere is the one," Sykora said. "I didn't know a lot about him before I got here, but he's the guy who can take us there. Once the playoffs start, I'll feel very comfortable with Giggy in the net. He's the biggest surprise to me because I didn't really follow the Ducks last season. But now that I'm here, the more that I see him practice and play in games, I see how good he really is."

If Giguere wins tonight at Phoenix, he'll match Guy Herbert's franchise record for victories in a season with 31. His seven shutouts set an Anaheim single-season record, and Giguere is the main force behind the Ducks' NHL-leading penalty-killing unit.

Depth: The last time the Ducks made the playoffs, Steve Rucchin played a key role centering a line with Kariya and Selanne on the wings. Rucchin's role is a little different now. He's counted on to match up against the opposing team's top scoring line. It's just another sign of the Ducks' strength as a team.

"They have a lot of depth in their scoring," Selanne said. "Paul and [Rucchin] don't have to score and they still win games. When I was here or even last year, there's no way the Ducks win without their top guys having big games."

Before General Manager Bryan Murray made in-season trades for defenseman Sandis Ozolinsh and forwards Rob Niedermayer and Thomas, the Ducks were good, but far from a playoff lock.

Not now. The Ducks have proved that they have enough talent to survive scoring slumps (Oates, Rucchin, Kariya) and injuries (Andy McDonald and Mike Leclerc). They know they have a good team and expect to win every night.

"It's a lot about confidence," Selanne said about the Ducks. "The franchise has been through a lot of bumpy roads, but right now, they are playing the kind of hockey everyone enjoys. They are playing good solid hockey, and they are not making a lot of mistakes. That's how you win."

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