Time passes, and the Mighty Ducks look less like a bunch of guys haphazardly slapping a puck around on their lunch hour and more like a cohesive unit capable of slapping opponents around the rink.
True, they were far from perfect during a 4-3 victory over the St. Louis Blues on Sunday at the Arrowhead Pond, but there were unmistakable signs of a team bent on self-improvement rather than self-destruction.
The Ducks won their third consecutive game, reaching .500 at 7-7-1-3 and tying the Kings for the Pacific Division lead with 18 points. The Ducks also ended the Blues' five-game winning streak.
Starting with Steve Rucchin's go-ahead power-play goal early in the third period, continuing with the first three-point game from defenseman Vitaly Vishnevski and ending with gritty goaltending from Jean-Sebastien Giguere, the Ducks were as sound as they have been this season.
"This was a good team we played," Rucchin said of the Blues, who lost for only the fourth time in 16 games. "They didn't give up, but we persevered. Earlier in the year, we might not have gotten this result."
With Paul Kariya signing with Colorado and free agents Sergei Fedorov and Vaclav Prospal arriving from Detroit and Tampa Bay during the off-season, there figured to be a break-in period for the Ducks.
Add the sudden weight of expectation after the team's electric run to within a game of winning the Stanley Cup title, and a letdown was to be expected. But there were further reasons for the Ducks' dreary 0-4 start, according to Rucchin.
"You can find reasons why it might happen," said Rucchin, who replaced Kariya as team captain. "At the same time, a lot of guys weren't playing the way they can play. We have good players. There was no reason to have the start we had. It came down to work ethic. In the first few weeks, we were getting solid play only in spurts."
The Ducks played in fits and starts sometimes Sunday, but the good outweighed the bad in the end. Particularly at the end.
The Ducks built a 2-0 lead in the first period, only to lose it. They led, 3-2, but surrendered the lead again before the end of the second.
Rucchin, stationed near the right goal post, tucked that rebound into the net for a 4-3 lead 4 minutes 54 seconds into the third period for his team-leading eighth goal and his 401st career point. He had recorded his 400th point by punching a rebound by Johnson that gave the Ducks a 3-2 lead at the 14:06 mark of the second.
The Ducks eased their offensive pressure soon after taking the lead, but Giguere turned away the Blues in the closing minutes. With Johnson on the bench in favor of a sixth attacker, Giguere smothered a blistering one-timer from the right wing by Pavol Demitra with 24.5 seconds left.
There was no rebound.
"We were playing with much more confidence in the third period, so it's good to see," said Giguere, who is 4-8 after a 1-8 start to the season. "Earlier this year, we might not have won this game.... It's hard to build the team in a week or two. The new guys have to adjust to the other 18 guys. We definitely know more about each other now."