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Patience, emphasis on defense have paid dividends for the surging Anaheim Ducks

Patience, emphasis on defense have paid dividends for the surging Anaheim Ducks
Ducks defenseman Sami Vatanen (45) congratulates Ducks center Ryan Kesler (17) after a goal against the Calgary Flames in the second period. (Alex Gallardo / Associated Press)

It wasn't long ago that the Ducks appeared to be circling the drain, their season doomed by a series of unsuccessful off-season changes and a baffling lack of offense. On Dec. 18 they were tied for last in the NHL with 27 points, at 11-14-5. Coach Bruce Boudreau's hold on his job seemed thinner than the ice on which his team was stumbling.

"You see different teams that were in our position and there were changes made simply because that's what happens in the business," winger Andrew Cogliano said. "But it seems like everyone took a deep breath at the right time and really understood that no one was happy where we were and everyone was underachieving and everyone needed to do their job better."

Acknowledging their failures and accepting Boudreau's defense-first strategy triggered a remarkable turnaround. The Ducks, 16 points behind the Kings on Jan. 12, are now only two points behind the Pacific Division leaders because of a 19-4-2 charge since Christmas. They've averaged four goals a game over the last 17 games; there were stretches early in the season when they didn't score four goals in a week.

Patience by General Manager Bob Murray, who tweaked the roster by trading ill-fitting Carl Hagelin for instantly successful David Perron, has proved crucial. His faith in his coach and players allowed them to rebuild their confidence and become the powerful, balanced team they were projected to be.

"As gloomy and as dark as it seemed when we weren't scoring we always believed eventually we were going to get out of it," defenseman Cam Fowler said Monday. "We've proven that now, but a lot of that has come from defense, how we've really buckled down, and that's how we've created a lot of our offense."

That's music to the ears of every coach who preaches that defense wins championships. "When we weren't scoring we finally decided that we were going to buy in to defending like crazy," said center Ryan Getzlaf, who was the slowest of the slow starters but now has an eight-game point-scoring streak. "When that happened, it turned into more offense and it kind of went from there."

Boudreau and Murray talked often when things were at their worst, and Boudreau drew reassurance when Murray brought up how they'd schedule things in November or December. "He never made it sound that I wasn't going to be the coach," Boudreau said.

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Boudreau deserves considerable credit for turning a potentially lost season into one in which the Ducks could be big winners. "It was an eye-opener for our team to see a lot of good teams, teams that have won lately, play strong defensively," Cogliano said. "Teams like L.A., Chicago, they have no problem winning games 1-0 or 2-1 and clamping down defensively. ...I don't think we're there yet but overall we've understood the importance of it and I think we're going to be better off for it."

Appeal of the appeal

No word yet on when independent arbitrator James Oldham will hear Calgary Flames defenseman Dennis Wideman's appeal of Commissioner Gary Bettman's decision to uphold the 20-game suspension the NHL's Department of Player Safety imposed for cross-checking linesman Don Henderson. It wasn't surprising that Bettman affirmed the decision: if he hadn't, he would have lost the trust of on-ice officials and his staffers.

Although the NHL Players' Assn. contended that Wideman's judgment was impaired by having been hit a few seconds earlier, his blatant blow to Henderson (who suffered a concussion) merits hefty punishment. Reducing the suspension would have opened the door for other players to use that excuse in similar situations. Still to be answered: Why did the Flames disregard protocol and let a concussed Wideman finish the game?

Bettman's decision was notable for his rejection of testimony from NHLPA expert witnesses as "contradictory" and "wholly insufficient to rebut the clear and convincing evidence provided by the video footage of the incident." He added, "I do not credit Mr. Wideman's testimony. In particular, I do not credit his testimony that he tried to avoid the linesman at the last minute. ...The record as a whole does not support the contention that Mr. Wideman's actions were the result of confusion, a failure of 'impulse control.'"

The NHL is fighting a lawsuit filed by players who say the league knew about the potential long-term dangers of brain injuries but was negligent for not informing them, giving significance to every word from Bettman about concussions.

Bettman also said the sincerity of Wideman's apology to Henderson "rings somewhat hollow" because Wideman later texted a teammate and said, "[T]he only problem and the only reason I'm here is cause [of] the stupid refs and stupid media." He's "here" because he attacked an official. That's indisputable.

Slap Shots

Florida Panthers winger Jaromir Jagr last week passed Brett Hull for third on the all-time NHL goals list with Nos. 741 and 742. He also reached 20 goals for the 19th time and increased his NHL total to 1,845 points, five behind Gordie Howe for third place on the all-time list. Jagr is the oldest NHL player to record a 20-goal season and the fourth to score a goal at 44 or older, joining Howe, Doug Harvey and Chris Chelios.

Forward Alex Steen of the St. Louis Blues will be sidelined for at least four weeks because of an upper-body injury, which might send the Blues into the trade market. The deadline is noon PST Monday..."Soul on Ice: Past, Present and Future," a film about the history of black hockey players, will air Wednesday on the NHL Network.

helene.elliott@latimes.com

Twitter: @helenenothelen

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