Are the Ducks Slowly Taking Flight?

It appears as if the Anaheim Ducks have pulled out of the listlessness of November, December and January and have started to figure out how to play consistent NHL hockey. A team that failed to win back-to-back games in for over two months has gone 6-2-2 in its last 10 games and earned points in six of their previous seven games. It hasn’t just been the number of points, but the way the Ducks have collected them.

The team does still have significant weaknesses, including a recent decrease in penalty-killing percentage and the chances the Ducks pull off a St. Louis Blues-like turnaround to even make the playoffs are almost non-existent. Still, Anaheim’s improved consistency of late suggests that that the team still believes it can compete and that they are doing some things right. 

Eastern Canada Perseverance

The Ducks have only faced three playoff-caliber teams in their previous eight games and have only beaten one of them, the Arizona Coyotes. They’ve been in many of the games they’ve lost this season, but the way they pulled themselves back from behind in their recent contests is encouraging.

Their victory over the Ottawa Senators wasn’t a surprise, but their overtime losses to the Montreal Canadiens and Toronto Maple Leafs spoke volumes. The Ducks faced the Canadiens and Maple Leafs on back-to-back nights at the Belle Centre and Scotiabank Place. The Ducks came back five times in those two games, once from two goals behind in Toronto to squeeze a point out of both games.

Anaheim tied both games in the third period, both on goals from Derek Grant and tied the game with the net empty in Toronto. 

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Montreal isn’t a playoff team like Toronto, but it would’ve been easy to fold over in the third period and leave both cities with a loss. The Ducks showed their willingness to continue to compete in the face of minuscule playoff chances. 

Maybe it’s not that big of a surprise, considering the Ducks have veterans from their winning days like Ryan Getzlaf, Jakob Silfverberg and Cam Fowler showing their young players how to play with pride (and future contracts).

Bearing Down in Buffalo

Perhaps the best sign of a turnaround was the Ducks 3-2 win over the Buffalo Sabres. Of all the Ducks’ opponents on this recent road trip, the Sabres have been maybe the most uninspiring, to the point where their own fans have taken to the airways to voice their displeasure.

You could argue that the game shouldn’t have come down to a single goal, considering the early 3-0 lead the Ducks had built, but playing three games in four days at the back end of a road trip isn’t easy. The fact that the Ducks held on and withstood the barrage at the end of the game holds value. You could see it in the body language of former Sabres goalie Ryan Miller when he watched the Sabres final shot skip wide of the net to end regulation. 

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Ducks coach Dallas Eakins told Eric Stephens of The Athletic the value he saw in the victory.

“I think we’re learning lessons for sure,” Ducks coach Dallas Eakins said. “To have a lead going into the third is something that we haven’t been afforded a whole bunch of this year. It’s not like we’ve had great practice at protecting leads. That’s certainly a positive. Even though I’m not sure our third period was the greatest one. But we will learn some lessons there.”

(from ‘Trade temperature rising for some Ducks veterans, getting points away from home and other observations’ The Athletic, 2/10/2020)

They might not have had much practice, but the Ducks aren’t bad at protecting their leads.

Ducks Can Lock Down When They Get the Chance

The Ducks have been good at securing wins in games where they have built a lead of two goals or more. During the 2019-20 season, Anaheim has won 17 of 20 games where they’ve had a two-goal lead with more than five minutes remaining in regulation. They’ve won 15 of those games in regulation. 

As of the 2011 season — the most recent data available — NHL teams surrendered a two-goal lead an average of 39.52% of the time. The 2019-20 Ducks have only done it 33% of the time. The Ducks aren’t bad at protecting third-period leads either. They’ve gone into the third period ahead by a goal or more in 23 of their 56 games this season. They’ve won 15 of those games in regulation and three more in a shootout or overtime. That’s a winning percentage of .826.

The issue is building those leads. The Ducks’ ability to jump ahead so quickly in Buffalo and hold on to that lead — even if it was by a slim margin — is important.

Penalty Killing a Weakness

Sure, the Ducks are second in the NHL in shorthanded goals with 10, but they’ve struggled to keep pucks out of their net while down a man. In the last five games, the Ducks have only killed 63.2% of their shorthanded situations while committing the third-most minors in the league at 18.

That dropped their penalty kill from No. 19 in the league, killing off 79.1% of the opportunities against them to No. 24 at 77.3 %. They’ve allowed seven power play goals in their last six games after going the five before that without surrendering any.

Derek Grant Anaheim Ducks
Derek Grant and the Ducks are always a threat to score on the penalty kill, but they’ve struggled to stop other teams from scoring power-play goals. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

While it’s great to score shorthanded goals, they are not going to make enough of a difference during a full season to change a team’s spot in the standings. To date, the top four teams in the NHL in shorthanded goals — the Senators, Ducks, Carolina Hurricanes and New Jersey Devils — are not currently in a playoff spot.

Meanwhile, five out of the top six teams in the NHL by penalty-kill percentage are in a playoff spot. It’s clear that even if you can score on the penalty kill, you’re much better served concentrating on lock-down defense.

While the Ducks are still far out of playoff position and struggling of late on the power play, their performance on their recent road trip suggests that the team isn’t willing to fold their season or individual games. They’ve demonstrated a belief that no game is lost, no matter how much better the opponent and continue to show that they can hold leads when they’re able to grab them. Though it won’t help them this season, it’s a positive sign going forward. 

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