NHL: Anaheim Ducks Seem to be Favorites at Midway Point

Anaheim Ducks, Teemu Selanne
Anaheim Ducks, Teemu Selanne
Dec 20 2013 Newark NJ USA Anaheim Ducks right wing Teemu Selanne 8 skates during the third period against the New Jersey Devils at the Prudential Center The Ducks defeated the Devils 3 2 in overtime Ed Mulholland USA TODAY Sports

Every part of his 43-year-old body ached, vehemently barking – no, more like begging – for Teemu Selanne to stop the punishment.

The oldest player in the NHL contemplated retirement after last season’s crash and burn in the first round of the Western Conference playoffs, but something kept the Finnish Flash from walking away. Something said to come back. Something made him shrug off a simpler, more relaxing retirement lifestyle one more time.

And as the halfway point approaches, we’re seeing what he believed was reason enough to return to Anaheim for his 21st and final campaign.

“I really felt that there is something special going on here,” Selanne said after his team’s overtime win in New Jersey last week. “That’s the only reason (I came back); I really believe we have a good shot to go far. If we had a bad team it would be an easy decision (to not come back), but we all failed last year. We have some unfinished business here…”

If this group truly is using “unfinished business” as its rally cry, so be it. It’s certainly working.

You look at the standings, and can’t help but notice the Ducks sitting atop the Pacific Division with a glistening 27-7-5 record and 59 points – good for second in the NHL behind Chicago, which has 60 entering Saturday’s slate.

You look at the stat leaders, and can’t help but notice Ryan Getzlaf settled in at third for overall points in the league with 44, trailing only Sidney Crosby and Patrick Kane. After all, it wasn’t an accident Jaromir Jagr said he’d vote for Getzlaf as his league MVP last week. Glance some more and you’ll see Corey Perry is fourth in goals with 22.

You look at all the forensic evidence 39 games has provided, and it’s hard not to argue that, yes, this very well could be Anaheim’s year.

The Ducks, who captured their first Stanley Cup title in 2007, seemed destined for greatness last season too. However, a dooming combination of peaking too early and shoddy defense down the stretch led to an embarrassing exodus from the playoffs at the hands of the seventh-seeded Detroit Red Wings. You’d think that was reason enough for Selanne to call it quits.

No way. The veteran saw the big picture, somehow knew this wonderful run would unravel and give a city hopes of becoming the toast of the ice – even if the community is based in always-sunny California.

There are plenty of reasons to believe this year’s squad is wiser, more talented and better equipped for journey deep into June. For starters, Getzlaf and Perry form arguably the best one-two punch in the game today. Sorry, Backstrom and Ovie. My apologies, Geno and Sid.

Other supporting-cast members seem settled in their new roles too. Nick Bonino has emerged as one of the top glue guys on the Ducks, already matching his goal total from the previous two entire seasons combined. Dustin Penner and Andrew Cogliano each provide stability, while Mathieu Perreault, Kyle Palmieri, Saku Koivu, Emerson Etem and even Selanne have chipped in on the offensive end.

Defensively, Hampus Lindholm and Francois Beauchemin pace the league leaders in plus/minus with 22 and 21, respectively. In addition, Cam Fowler has elevated his play enough to likely be considered for Team USA in the upcoming Olympics in Sochi.

Anaheim has played a league-high 24 road games and is the only team without a loss at home in regulation (13-0-2). A lot of that credit must go to goaltender Jonas Hiller and back-up Frederik Andersen, who’s been quietly spectacular in 10 games (9-1, 1.87 GAA).

Now that this week’s brief vacation is over, the Ducks go back to work Saturday night against Phoenix. From there, it’s one step at a time.

“We’re going to have to play better than we have, and I’m not saying that in a negative way, that we’ve been playing bad,” coach Bruce Boudreau told the Los Angeles Times this week. “We play Phoenix, San Jose, San Jose, Vancouver, Boston — teams that are in the upper echelon. If you stay status quo, if you play the way you’ve been playing, by the end of the year you’re not going to be ready. You have to keep improving. And sometimes it’s a tough message to get across when teams are being successful. But we’re going to try.”

Riding a franchise-high nine-game winning streak, the Ducks seem to have it all working. Make no mistake, though, the team refuses to get ahead of itself.

“We want to first make the playoffs,” Boudreau said, “but we also want to go in playing better than we were the week before.”

Seems like the formula of a championship contender, right?

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Brian Fitzsimmons
Brian Fitzsimmons, whose work has been published by ESPN.com, Yahoo! Sports, NHL.com, and various newspapers around the country, is currently a senior writer/editor at MSG Varsity in New Jersey. The author of "Celtic Pride: How Coach Kevin Boyle Took St. Patrick to the Top of High School Basketball," Fitzsimmons was recently nominated for a 2013 New York Press Club Journalism award.