The Ducks’ path back to the playoffs is paved with good intentions they hadn’t been consistently carrying out in the early weeks of this season.
They’re counting on production from the kids they’ve drafted and carefully developed, and they’re expecting the core players who are in their mid-to-late 20s to take the initiative and become leaders. With Corey Perry gone via a buyout, Ryan Kesler lost for the season because of a bad hip, and 34-year-old Ryan Getzlaf playing reduced minutes, there’s room for that core to decisively take charge, a task that group couldn’t handle last season.
On Wednesday, the Ducks’ intentions became clear in a 5-2 comeback victory over Buffalo, the Sabres’ first regulation loss in seven games this season. The Ducks blended finesse with rugged play in a surprisingly nasty game, got timely contributions from kids — Sam Steel and Max Comtois each earned his first point of the season on an assist — and benefited when members of that core group made an impact. Adam Henrique scored twice, Rickard Rakell contributed a goal and an assist, Jakob Silfverberg had a goal and two assists, defenseman Josh Manson had two assists and fellow defenseman Cam Fowler had one assist in a strong pushback before an announced crowd of 15,193 at Honda Center.
“We’re going to be scoring by committee all season long. We’ve got a lot of young players that play in key roles for us and we’re going to need them to contribute just as much as everybody,” Getzlaf said. “We’re going to be learning and building all season long.”
Goaltender John Gibson made 25 of his 31 saves in the first two periods. He was beaten only on a highlight-reel move by Jack Eichel at 7:35 of the first period that followed a turnover by Manson, and by a power-play goal from Victor Olofsson at 16:36 of the first period after Ducks defenseman Korbinian Holzer failed to clear the puck.
And — miracle of miracles — the Ducks scored a power-play goal, their first in 18 tries. They’d taken advantage of a Buffalo turnover to pull even on Rakell’s even-strength goal 57 seconds into the second period and they took the lead when Getzlaf, on the power play, one-timed a pass from Steel past goaltender Linus Ullmark for a 3-2 lead at 9:14 of the second period. “Just a relief to get one in there for everyone because it becomes a focus and with that comes a lot of unneeded pressure, I think,” coach Dallas Eakins said.
Henrique, who had scored the Ducks’ first goal while standing with his back to the net and tipping a Manson shot at 18:40 of the opening period, provided the fourth goal by snapping home a shot after a slick feed from Comtois at 19:47 of the second period. Silfverberg was credited with the final goal when his 160-foot shot deflected and skittered into an empty net.
Henrique, 29, last week played in his 600th NHL game. He’s experienced but still in his prime, and he’s aware the Ducks need leadership and production from him and that core group. “It’s certainly been a bit of a changeover the last year or so, and then that’s on us to step our games up, both on and off the ice,” he said. “A lot of younger guys have come in the lineup and now it’s on us to help bring them along, help bring their games along. It’s only going to help the team down the road.
“There’s a lot of good leaders in this room in that core group. It is certainly a bit of a challenge for us, I think, personally and within the group, to step our games up.”
They did that on Wednesday, again proving the Ducks didn’t need to gut their roster after last year’s woes. They needed to get younger, to be patient through the youngsters’ inevitable struggles, and to embrace Eakins’ up-tempo system. They’ve faltered a few times but the concept has taken root, and on Wednesday they injected some physicality. “We’ve got to do that. That’s who we are here,” Eakins said. “We want to play with speed, we want to play a fast game, but when you come into our building we want you leaving with a few bruises.”
They’ve never shied away from that but they’ve also gone overboard too often. Not this time. “I thought we did a good job of sticking up for one another without getting carried away and letting the game get out of hand,” said Getzlaf, who played 15 minutes 23 seconds and said he had been mentally prepared to play less as Eakins gives other centers increased playing time.
It’s early and there are still weak spots that require reinforcement, but the core players seem committed to increasing their production and their leadership. Silfverberg credited Leif Mollo, a retired U.S. Navy captain who was hired as the team’s head of athlete well-being, with explaining there are different ways to lead. Silfverberg said he’s not comfortable standing up and addressing teammates during intermissions and he’d prefer to lead by example. “It’s an easy way to lead and it’s easier for guys to follow you if you play a lot and you do well,” he said.
So far, that’s leading them out of their nonplayoff purgatory and toward the playoffs again.