Emphasis on defense helps Ducks turnabout

Ducks center Ryan Getzlaf celebrates a goal against the Edmonton Oilers on Dec. 31, 2015.

Ducks center Ryan Getzlaf celebrates a goal against the Edmonton Oilers on Dec. 31, 2015.

(Jason Franson / Associated Press)

Every time it seemed the Ducks’ season couldn’t get worse it somehow did, making it difficult to decide exactly when they hit bottom. It could have been at the end of October, when they were 1-7-2, or after they regrouped but then slid sideways and were 7-10-4. Maybe a 3-0 loss at Buffalo that left them 11-14-5 after they’d scored four goals in four games was their lowest moment.

“There were a few of them, trust me,” team captain Ryan Getzlaf said.

Thanks to a commitment to defense and the weakness of the Pacific Division after the first-place Kings, the Ducks have turned things around. They launched an eight-game homestand Sunday with an efficient 4-1 victory over Winnipeg, extending their revival to 4-0-2 and lifting them into third in the division, the final guaranteed playoff position. They still have more than half a season to go, but their rebound is a noteworthy accomplishment and proof of the potential squandered during the mess of their first 25 games.

“The start of the [season] wasn’t easy for our group and having gone through it, hopefully we appreciate where we’re at now and continue to play this way,” said Getzlaf, who is stuck at three goals but has been more engaged and assertive lately. “I’ve never been in a position where I’ve been out of the playoff picture at Christmas. This year, fortunately enough, our conference struggled through the first half and we’re still in it.”

According to Bruce Boudreau, still the coach because General Manager Bob Murray didn’t want him to pay for individual players’ failings, the turning point came a few weeks ago in a few words from Ryan Kesler.


“He said he was tired of losing,” Boudreau said, and then Kesler and his teammates did something about that.

The Ducks have given up two goals in their last four games and seven in the last six (excluding shootout goals), buying into the idea that strong defense is a foundation for offense.

“The guys have really taken to it and you can really hear them talking on the bench about it, about doing the right things,” Boudreau said. “We’re not out of the woods by any stretch of imagination but we are playing a little better.”

Kesler credited Boudreau for keeping the team motivated.

“I think the coach did a good job of telling us to hit the reset button after Christmas. He told us to have a good break and come back and play and start a new year, a new season, and just go out and do what we do,” Kesler said. “Everybody has faith in Bruce. We as a team have never strayed away from that. We like him as a guy and as a coach. We’ve worked for him and we’re going to continue to work hard for him.”

This can’t be their high point. But not long ago it was tough to envision they’d find the consistency to be a few points from second place and having home-ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs.

“We’ve battled hard. We’ve fought through a lot of adversity this year, everybody personally and as a team,” Kesler said. “We’re playing well. We’ve found our identity. I think with this team it starts with defense first and then we’re going to create off that.”

Russia and Finland reach junior world championships final

Russia scored twice in the second period and fended off a late push by the U.S. to earn a 2-1 victory Monday and advance to the gold-medal game of the junior world championships at Helsinki, Finland. Russia on Tuesday will face Finland, which defeated Sweden, 2-1, on two-assist performances by Colorado Avalanche prospect Mikko Rantanen and Toronto Maple Leafs prospect Kasperi Kapanen.

Finland eliminated Canada in the quarterfinals, capitalizing on players’ lack of discipline.

The U.S. will face Sweden on Tuesday in the bronze-medal game, to be aired on the NHL Network at 6 a.m. PST. The gold-medal game will follow.

“It’s a tough pill to swallow,” U.S. forward Auston Matthews, the likely No. 1 draft pick in June, told the Canadian Press.

The U.S., whose goal Monday was scored by Arizona Coyotes prospect Christian Dvorak, hasn’t beaten Russia in a medal-round game at the junior world tournament in seven tries. Russia is assured of its sixth consecutive medal, a run sparked by Coach Valeri Bragin.

Russia, which barely beat Denmark in the quarterfinals, got goals Monday from Winnipeg prospect Pavel Kraskovski and 2016 draft-eligible forward Yegor Korshkov.

Slap Shots

Fatigue might have caught up with the Dallas Stars, who have played six games in nine days and have gone two games in a row without a victory for the first time this season. Goaltender Kari Lehtonen has been pulled twice in his last five starts, but the team’s overall defensive slippage factored into that. ... Sidney Crosby has shaken off a slow start and so have the Pittsburgh Penguins. After scoring five goals in his first 21 games he has five in his last five, including at least one in each of his last three. Pittsburgh is 4-1-1 in its last six games but isn’t in a playoff position.

New York Islanders defenseman Johnny Boychuk will sit out four to six weeks because of an upper-body injury, the team announced. His absence likely means the Islanders won’t soon grant defenseman Travis Hamonic’s trade request. ... R.I.P. Bill Plager, who joined his equally rugged brothers Bob and Barclay to play for the St. Louis Blues in the early years of the franchise. He died Sunday at 70. Bob Plager, 72, is among his survivors. Barclay Plager died in 1988.