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Challenges loom as Ducks get in playoff mode

Challenges loom as Ducks get in playoff mode
Ducks Coach Randy Carlyle gives instructions to his players during the third period of a game against the Arizona Coyotes on Jan. 14. (Ross D. Franklin / Associated Press)

Heavy snow at his favorite fishing spot in Bishop led Ducks Coach Randy Carlyle to cancel his plans to spend his team's bye week with his rod and reel on the eastern slopes of the Sierra Nevada. His Plan B was to go fishing out of Catalina, but forecasts of rain led him to scrap that, too. Instead, he decided to stay home for the break, which began after the Ducks' 4-1 loss to the Kings last Saturday and will end when they face Toronto on Friday at Honda Center. "It feels good just to kick back," Carlyle said.

His mellow mood might be spoiled when he contemplates the many post-break challenges that loom for the Ducks, one of the NHL's most intriguing and baffling teams.

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"I think we're in a position that we feel good about ourselves but that's only short-lived. I think things can change dramatically," Carlyle said last weekend. "I look at us and hopefully we can get some bumps and bruises and rejuvenate our group and come back and get ready to play because we're going to have a lot of hockey to play in the next month and a half."

The Ducks' talent, especially on defense, suggests they should win a fifth straight Pacific Division title. But a recent 4-5-1 slump that included games in which they gave up at least four goals four times has consigned them to battle for second with Edmonton. Goaltender John Gibson, who last season shared the Jennings Trophy (awarded to goalies on the team with the fewest goals against), is again putting up excellent numbers, with a 2.24 goals-against average, .922 save percentage and five shutouts in 48 appearances. He missed the last two games before the break because of a lower-body injury but was likely to be ready when the Ducks resume play.

Some of the kids they've developed have blossomed, notably left wing Nick Ritchie (11 goals), center Rickard Rakell (24 goals, 34 points in 52 games), and right wing Ondrej Kase (five goals, 14 points in 45 games). They've become offensive sparks, but their lack of playoff experience could be a detriment later. That was a factor in Murray's acquisition of veteran forward Patrick Eaves, who played only one game with the Ducks before the break. With time to acclimate, Eaves should boost their power play.

The defense is mobile and deep but Sami Vatanen has struggled and could be traded for a scoring winger if General Manager Bob Murray can find a compelling deal  by Wednesday's noon (PST) trade deadline. That's far from guaranteed. "Yes, we have depth on defense. We have good young defensemen coming. I don't have to do anything at this point in time with my defense," he said last week.

The biggest question the Ducks face is whether right wing Corey Perry and center Ryan Getzlaf will return to anything close to their old scoring form. The trio of Andrew Cogliano, Ryan Kesler and Jakob Silfverberg has done an admirable job of carrying the team most of the season but that line needs some help.

Perry, who averaged 37 goals over the previous three seasons, has 11 goals in 62 games. Getzlaf, who averaged 73 points over that span, has 46 points. Their struggles could reflect fatigue from having played in the World Cup of Hockey, which was staged before a season with a cruelly condensed schedule. Other World Cup participants have had subpar seasons, including Kings center Anze Kopitar, but Chicago center Jonathan Toews has rebounded after a slow start. Getzlaf and Perry, who will both be 32 in May and have long-term contracts with no-movement clauses, haven't revived.

Among the reasons the Ducks rehired Carlyle after they'd dismissed him in 2011 is that he got a lot out of Getzlaf and Perry during his first tenure, including the Ducks' 2007 Stanley Cup run. If he can't motivate them — and if they can't motivate themselves — the team's playoff trail will be short again.

"Without naming names, we have key players that have to play a lot better if we're going anywhere. Let's not kid around about that," Murray said before the bye week began. "We have some players that have just not had good years. And that means they're going to get some rest. I'm not going to make excuses for them but the schedule this year has not been kind to anybody and it's been tough. Our consistency has been no consistency except inconsistency. And that definitely has to get better.

"But we have time. They're going to get a break. We have time to turn those things around. And hopefully our players understand that for some of them, time is running out on more chances to win. You hope they get that, but you don't know how other people think."

Of the Ducks' 19 remaining games, they'll play 12 at home, where they're 19-7-3, and seven on the road, where they're 13-14-7. They should be rested and ready for a buildup to the playoffs. If not, they might be visiting Carlyle's fishing hole in early April.

Follow Helene Elliott on Twitter @helenenothelen

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