The 2013 playoffs are still about as fond a memory in Anaheim these days as cats feel about water — bitter only begins to describe them.
In a highly unexpected first round exit, the Anaheim Ducks were sent packing last year by the Detroit Red Wings. The taste of defeat still lingers as fans look toward this year’s playoffs with a few questions about how to stop history from repeating itself; it somehow always has a funny way of doing so.
As Anaheim heads down the home stretch before playoff positions lock up and the quest for Lord Stanley begins, now is crunch time to figure out how to transition their game from regular season wins to playoff longevity. No, picking apart a winning team is neither fun nor easy; and the game the Ducks bring every night is about as solid a game you will find in the NHL this season. But a team can’t go from President’s Trophy candidate to champion without weeding through the flaws, no matter how few and far between they may seem.
First order of business in Anaheim will be to find the missing key to solidify the blue line. Starting goalie Jonas Hiller has had an almost unbeatable season thus far, but seasonal goal tending habits don’t easily carry over to the playoffs and Anaheim’s midseason slump (if it can even be called that) is largely due to defensive confusion. Sami Vatanen was sent down to the AHL this week at the disadvantage of being the only player that wouldn’t have to clear waivers, but the uneasy play of Luca Sbisa has created some worry that he won’t be able to replace what made Vatanen click.
If the Ducks can manage they would be smart to acquire a veteran blue liner prior to the trade deadline; how they go about doing that is up for discussion.
Another hit — literally — Anaheim took against Detroit was physicality, or the loss of it. With the current level of play the Western Conference teams are producing each night, bets are that physicality will come up big again this year for those who know how to smartly incorporate it into their team’s game. With the addition of Dustin Penner to the Ducks’ roster, as well as other new comers Mathieu Perreault and Tim Jackman, Anaheim has a few more tilts in their favor for this go around.
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, is Anaheim’s ability to control their mental game, an Achilles’ heel at times. Despite making a name for themselves as the “comeback kids” of the season, on the flip side the Ducks have a way of being easily shut down if the offensive team pushes the right buttons early on. And while this fan is smarter than to give those buttons away, rest assured, they exist and Anaheim’s biggest challenge will be figuring out a way to play on.
With the actual start of the playoffs still two months away, the conversation on a winning strategy is still quite loose; the ability to learn from past mistakes should not be. And while the Ducks have a knockout season under their belt with little sign of letting up, like so many asked last year with the Chicago Blackhawks, if Lord Stanley doesn’t fly to Disneyland this year — what will it all have meant?