Anaheim Ducks are flying high atop the Pacific Division, but eyeing a bigger prize in playoffs

ByPierre LeBrun ESPN logo
Monday, March 27, 2017

It took six months, but who's counting? The Anaheim Ducks have finally taken over sole possession of first place in the Pacific Division -- though that mantle might change, an a daily basis, with four teams still bunched within a few points and almost two weeks left to go in the regular season.

And really, after having finished at the top of the Pacific Division four consecutive years, accomplishing the feat for a fifth consecutive season isn't priority No. 1 for these soaring Ducks.

"It hasn't been really brought up in the locker room,'' defenseman Cam Fowler told over the phone over the weekend. "Obviously, any time you can compete for a division championship, that's a goal you should have. But at the end of the day it doesn't mean a whole lot. We have other aspirations as a club that are much bigger than that. We're more focused on our progression as a team and where we are headed, not looking at the standings.''

The real question is, What version of this Ducks team do we have in front of us now? Is it the one that won a division title last year but flopped in the opening round against theNashville Predators? Or the one that came one win short of a berth in the Stanley Cup finals after a tremendous Western Conference finals series with the eventual Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks?

"They are a team that can play you fast or play you physical, and they have a solid D corps that does not give you much," a Western Conference team executive told this past weekend. "Not flashy, but very effective.''

In a league that's closer than ever, and a Western Conference that's more wide open than it's been in a decade, the Ducks -- who have gone 9-2-1 in March -- are as good a bet as any in the Pacific Division, although you can make the argument for either theSan Jose Sharks, Edmonton OilersorCalgary Flamesto come out of it, too.

"I think we've really just come into our own," said Fowler, who is having an outstanding season, with 37 points and plus-7 in 75 games. "We have a lot of guys playing at an extremely high level right now. We've had some guys playing great hockey all year and we've had some people start off slow. Now we all seem to be firing on all cylinders here, all really buying in to the type of hockey [coach] Randy [Carlyle] wants us to play -- which is hard, physical and structured defensively.

"We like where we're at right now, and there's obviously room to improve, but it's been a fun little stretch here lately.''

Carlyle came back on board in Anaheim last offseason after the Ducks fired Bruce Boudreau.

"Randy likes his teams to play physical and in-your-face, that's the identity we're trying to play with,'' said Fowler. "We have guys who can skate and push the pace, but we're really a meat-and-potatoes team. When we're at our best, we feel like we can really wear teams down.''

The advanced stats agree -- at least lately. Since March 1, the Ducks have controlled 51.4 percent of the shot attempts, the seventh-best mark in the league. For the entire season, however, they're still under 50 percent -- which is a red flag within the analytical crowd.

So which matters more -- the late-season surge or the overall picture from Day 1? I would argue that this is a veteran team that knows it's all about the playoffs. There was no reason for the Ducks to go all out in October and November.

Ryan Kesler's dynamic shutdown line has been a force all season but another key in the second half has been captain Ryan Getzlaf raising his game. He had four assists Sunday night in the 6-3 win over theNew York Rangersand has been terrific for several months.

The trade-deadline acquisition of Patrick Eaves by GM Bob Murray is looking like a darling of a move, as the bearded one found instant chemistry with Getzlaf.

Last fall, after he re-signedHampus Lindholm, Murray declared that he was he was giving this core group another shot.

And so I asked Fowler this weekend how he would respond to the cynic who says, "What's so different about with these Ducks? Why is this version of the team going to get it done this spring?"

"Yes, we've come close and haven't got there yet, but I think that can only build you up as a team," said Fowler. "Getting close in that Chicago series [in 2015] was gut-wrenching, but we know that the pieces are in place. When you make a run in the playoffs, things have to line up for you, you have to be healthy, and a lot of things have to go right. We're just hoping that it's our time. In the meantime, we're trying to stay patient and focused.''

Just look at the Sharks. Anaheim's rival finally reached the Cup finals last year after more than a decade of being a great team that fell short in the postseason.

"It's easy for some people to be critical of you when you lose in the playoffs, but as players, we all know how difficult it is," said Fowler. "So many things have to line up for you to do well in the playoffs.

"With the parity in the league now, there's so many things that can happen," he added. "I mean, Chicago is playing unbelievable and you always have to look at them, but you feel like, 'Why not us?' And that's kind of the attitude we have.''

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