Column: Ducks in an ‘amazing’ position heading into Stanley Cup playoffs
The preliminaries are over for the Ducks. Now, it’s time for the fun to begin.
An 82-game regular season that began with a dispiriting number of injuries to key players ended on an optimistic note for the Ducks on Saturday. They didn’t win a sixth straight Pacific Division title but their 3-0 victory over the Arizona Coyotes, coupled with the San Jose Sharks’ loss to Minnesota, allowed them to finish second and have home-ice advantage when the Stanley Cup playoffs begin this week, a remarkable feat considering how depleted they were in so many areas early this season.
The Ducks will face the Sharks, against whom they were 1-1-2 this season. The full playoff schedule will be released by the NHL on Sunday.
“Looking at where we came from, it is pretty amazing. It’s a good feeling,” said goaltender Ryan Miller, who stopped 31 shots to claim second place in all-time wins among U.S.-born goalies with 370, four behind John Vanbiesbrouck. “I was definitely very happy because my goal coming here was to be part of something and contribute and it’s worked out so far. The next big step is to win a playoff round and keep it moving.”
The Ducks didn’t know their final placement or their playoff opponent when they left Gila River Arena to return to Anaheim. The West playoff matchups were settled about 90 minutes after their game ended, with the San Jose loss. “We know they have a good power play and they’re strong around the boards and they have four good lines that are working real hard. We’re going to have to match that,” Ducks winger Rickard Rakell said of the Sharks.
The Ducks have shown they’re capable of handling that, but they’ve also shown they’re capable of baffling lapses within games. They’ve cleaned that up a bit since their last trip, in which they earned five of eight points despite some erratic efforts. “I’m feeling pretty good. I’m feeling real good actually,” Rakell said of the Ducks’ overall game. “We played our best hockey when it mattered the most so I think everybody is super excited to get the playoffs started.
“I think we’re really positive. It’s been a rough year but we reached our goal to get into the playoffs and we know anything can happen.”
They closed with a 10-1-1 surge and a record of 44-25-13 for 101 points, making them the only NHL team to earn 100 points in each of the last five seasons. “It’s kind of crazy to think that way, where we’ve come from,” coach Randy Carlyle said of the possibility the team would finish second. “But we had a plan and we tried to execute a plan.
“I’m not standing here and saying it was perfect by any means. They had lots of speed bumps along the way but it’s about trying to garner points and move up the standings. We knew we were going to be challenged right from Day 1. We’ve got our group together here over the last six weeks and we’ve played good enough hockey to gain points.”
Adam Henrique, who has been a vital addition since general manager Bob Murray acquired him on Nov. 30, scored the Ducks’ first goal on Saturday with a second-effort swipe on the power play at 10:54 of the first period, and Rakell reached a career-best 34 goals when he converted a fine feed from Ryan Getzlaf for a 2-0 lead at 16:17 of the second period. Hampus Lindholm clinched it with an empty-net goal at 19:56 of the third period.
Defenseman Cam Fowler, their power-play quarterback, missed the game because of a shoulder injury and goaltender John Gibson didn’t play, either, but Miller, who signed with the Ducks as a free agent last summer, has been solid and earned wins in back-to-back games. “Hopefully we’re trending up and continue to trend up because there are some areas of our game that we need to definitely improve on,” Rakell said.
Getting into the playoffs was the Ducks’ sole focus for a long time. It had to be. Now, they can try for more. “Just accomplishing the goal. Have to get in first, and that’s kind of what we were harping on,” Miller said before the Ducks knew who they’d face. “I don’t think we have a preference. I don’t know that you need to have a preference. Every team that makes it has had long stretches of good hockey.”
That includes the Ducks, who seem to be solidifying their game at the right time. “I think it’s in a good spot, just getting to our grind game and simplifying it and just playing for a full 60 minutes,” Henrique said. Just as the game has reached a good place, so have they.
Follow Helene Elliott on Twitter @helenenothelen
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