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NHL

How Did The Anaheim Ducks Get This Fun This Fast?

Mason McTavish celebrates a goal
Steph Chambers/Getty Images

The Anaheim Ducks have not been known for much of anything over their past few years, but even during their five-year run at the top of the Pacific in the middle of the last decade, they were not exactly known for fun. They were a team that traditionally sat way up high on the NHL’s “goals against” rankings, but—particularly in the back half of that stretch—they weren’t especially good at putting the puck into the net. The main forwards on that team—Corey Perry and Ryans Getzlaf and Kesler—were all stellar on the defensive end, and the team also relied heavily on goaltending and received huge contributions from young Ds like Hampus Lindholm, Sami Vatanen, and Cam Fowler. Though these teams were good and sometimes even great, they were defined not by their highlights but by the fact that they were a pain in the ass to play against, with no qualms about nastiness or violence as long as it got under their opponents’ skin.

Anyway, the Ducks fell off the map starting in 2018, as Kesler and Perry both suffered injuries that led to the end of their time with the franchise, and potential cornerstone goalie John Gibson saw a worrying drop in his save percentage that made him a below-average netminder. After three straight years of missing the playoffs, the 2021–22 season for the Ducks didn’t project to be much more than a continuation of the current tank job, and when the team started off 2-4-3, it seemed to confirm perception as reality. But a funny thing has happened in the month of November: The Ducks are suddenly on a tear! They’ve won their last eight in a row to skyrocket up to first place in the division (at least on total points), and believe it or not, they’re winning with some pretty dang exciting hockey.

The Ducks’ coolest two points of the year so far came on Tuesday against the Capitals. In a blast from the past, Cam Fowler opened the scoring with a slap shot in transition that somehow sneaked under Vitek Vanecek, earning Ryan Getzlaf his 1000th career point in a 17-year career that dates back to when the Ducks were Mighty. In the third, Trevor Zegras finished a sick pass from Sonny Milano, but the more memorable contribution from the 20-year-old forward came in the final minute of 3-on-3 overtime. Lindholm smuggled the puck away from pressure in his own zone, and then Zegras took possession around center ice. The kid crossed the blue line, cut to his left, seemed to take his eyes off the net, and then turned around and unassumingly fired a gorgeous shot that rose above Vanecek and yet stayed below the crossbar. Then to cap it off, in a nod to his old USNDP teammate Jack Hughes, Zegras tossed his stick up over the boards and into the crowd.

“I told him that if I ended up scoring a goal in overtime that I would do the same,” Zegras said of the celebratory homage. “He’s battling a shoulder injury right now so hopefully he got a good laugh about that one on the couch back home. I guess just all things kind of factored in there. I thought it’d be pretty funny to chuck it in the crowd.”

Indeed it was, even if Zegras got hit with a post-game misconduct penalty for the move. But more than a little joke between two of the NHL’s most hyped youngsters, the Zegras goal and celly put an exclamation point on this incredible Ducks streak, and it emphasized just how suddenly and unexpectedly compelling they’ve become.

In the beginning, at least to me, it looked like Zegras was going to be the team’s only bright spot. The ninth pick in the 2019 draft played a year at Boston University before jumping to the pros, dominated the AHL right off the bat, and showed flashes of brilliance in the 24 games he played for the main club last season. Heading into this year, he was already expected to shoulder a heavy load as perhaps the team’s 1C, but though he’s picked up 10 points in his first 15 games and proven himself as a playmaker full of delightful surprises, he’s also getting plenty of assistance that no one had really planned on being there.

The emergence of 24-year-old right winger Troy Terry is perhaps the brightest spot of the Ducks’ year so far. Though the University of Denver product graded out well analytically in his first few years as a two-way forward who makes good things happen when he’s on the ice, this season has seen him earn a huge boost in playing time and, consequently, new career highs in his counting stats already. Terry’s tallied at least one point in 15 straight games—every one since his season-opener—and his 11 goals lead the team.

Some other positives for the Ducks: Getzlaf, who seemed washed at the end of last season, has already exceeded his 2021 point total, mainly on the back of 17 assists. Gibson has raised his save percentage up from .904 and .903 the past two years up to a fantastic .925 in his first 13 starts of this one. Adam Henrique, a 12-year vet and former 20-goal scorer, is picking up points at a faster rate than ever before in his career. And on defense, veterans like Fowler, Lindholm, and 2020 signing Kevin Shattenkirk are all contributing like they haven’t in years. This week, Fowler spoke to how, even though conventional wisdom says that the older Ducks are there to be mentors to the younger guys brought in for the rebuild, the presence of these exciting new names has given these older guys a boost as well.

Speaking specifically about Getzlaf, Fowler said, “There is a lot that these young players can learn from Getz, and any time he says something they certainly listen. But the flip side of that is they give him some energy. They give him some entertainment at the rink. The banter in the locker room, that’s something that Getzy has always loved and I know something that he’s going to miss dearly when he’s done playing. The energy and charisma of some of those younger players has given Getz a little extra step.”

It really has come through in their games. As a Canadian-border kid from Hockeytown, I’ve always had a bias against California teams and their relative lack of fan interest (it’s very easy to hear cheers for the road teams at Kings and Ducks games, especially of late). Frankly, I was pretty cool with the fact that I didn’t have to pay much attention to any of them as they all reached Tank City at about the same time. But Anaheim has proved worth tuning in for, as they’ve played not just good hockey, but the kind of hockey that creates plenty of action on both ends of the ice. In their four losses before the winning streak began, for example, the Ducks fell 4-3, 4-3, 4-3, and 5-4, with all but one of those games heading to overtime or the shootout. And in their lone game so far against the alphas of this division, the Edmonton Oilers, the Ducks played a wild one that had the game 3-2 Oilers after one period, 4-3 Ducks after two, and then, finally, 6-5 Edmonton as time expired. This kid Sam Steel—yeah, his name is Sam Steel!—made his season debut in this one and scored twice, including a nifty backhander after some smooth skating.

The hot month the Ducks are currently enjoying has seen the opposition find the net a little less often, but not for lack of trying. Anaheim is winning on the strength of a 3.53 goals per game (fourth-best in the league), but Gibson currently ranks as the third-busiest goaltender in the entire NHL so far. Some of that is just the massive share of minutes that he gets, some of it is the other side’s aggressive play while trailing, but the fact remains that Ducks games have picked up a habit of becoming eventful affairs.

One such game was exactly one week ago, in Seattle, in a first-time meeting with the Kraken that already showed signs of a budding rivalry. The old-school, hard-ass Ducks reappeared and made their presence felt as the expansion squad tried to assert itself physically. (Maybe some of the resentment comes from “Kraken” sounding a lot like “quacking.”) A hard hit by Seattle scrapper Jeremy Lauzon on Isac Lundestrom led to a tie-up between him and Max Comtois, Gibson had an incident with Brandon Tanev where he held onto his adversary’s stick, and longtime Ducks goon Josh Manson had a gritty fight with Lauzon as justice for the earlier damage.

But this wasn’t all just guys being dickheads—far from it, in fact. With two empty-netters at the end the Ducks won this game 7-4, just barely holding on to an early lead they established as the Kraken continually unlocked the Anaheim defense to close the gap, before the Ducks would respond by exploiting a leak on the other end. It was a thriller, this one was, and I hereby declare that the Ducks are officially a thrilling team.

Is this kind of success sustainable for a team many pegged for last place? Probably not, but it’s safe to say the Ducks are better than advertised, and they’re at the forefront of bringing respectable hockey back to the West Coast, and, win or lose, their style of play lends itself to watchable hockey. Your mileage may vary on how late you can stay up for these games or how quickly you can accept these Ducks as legitimate threats. But now that you’ve read this blog, you can’t act shocked if they somehow make it into the playoffs far ahead of schedule. You’re welcome.