ANAHEIM, Calif. - Corey Perry might not be the NHL's top goal-scorer and a strong MVP candidate if a puck hadn't hit Ryan Getzlaf in the forehead right after Christmas.
That gruesome deflection kept the Ducks' captain out of the lineup for six weeks, leaving Perry without his longtime centre in Anaheim and with the Canadian national team. Perry already was an all-star, an Olympic gold medallist and a Stanley Cup champion, yet he had done it all alongside Getzlaf in a pairing that had been inseparable in most hockey minds since Anaheim drafted them both in the first round in 2003.
Getzlaf and Perry even have identical contracts, but Perry's response to that withering solo spotlight was even better than Ducks coach Randy Carlyle anticipated.
"I think the injury, in some ways, helped," Carlyle said. "The cast was always Getzlaf and Perry. When Getzlaf wasn't there, that time was a chance to show that Corey Perry could stand on his own. I think he realized the challenge and accepted it. We pointed it out to him, and he really embraced it. He's a special player having a special season."
Perry kept the Ducks together with a 13-4 run after Getzlaf was sidelined—and he didn't stop shining when Getzlaf came back in early February. The right wing scored 19 goals in Anaheim's final 16 games during a frantic playoff push, claiming the Richard Trophy with a 50-goal season and finishing as the NHL's third-leading scorer with 98 points.
"I thought 40 might be a stretch, but they just kept coming," said Perry, whose placid off-ice demeanour belies his troublemaking reputation on the ice. "Fifty is a huge number. Everybody talks about it. Not a lot of guys get into that category, though."
Perry heads into the playoffs against Nashville on Wednesday night alongside Getzlaf and Bobby Ryan on the NHL's most dynamic scoring line outside Vancouver, but nobody thinks of Perry as Getzlaf's trash-talking sidekick any more.
Perry's goal-scoring abilities have always been apparent, but he never scored more than 32 in a season before this spring. His game made a quantum leap in his sixth NHL season—a rarity in a league that's become used to elite talents making huge impacts before they can legally drink in the States.
"I play with him every day, so I know what he's capable of," Getzlaf said Monday after the Ducks' practice at Honda Center. "The whole season has been exactly what we knew he could do. He raised his game, but we also just maintained that intensity you have to have down the stretch."
Perry impacted the Ducks in countless clutch ways this year.
He led the NHL with 21 third-period goals and 28 goals on the road, and he led the league in scoring after the all-star break by a wide margin with 25 goals and 22 assists in 30 games. He scored 30 points in Anaheim's final 16 games with seven multigoal games and five game-winning goals while the Ducks made their move from 11th place in the Western Conference to fourth.
Perry does it with style, too.
Teemu Selanne, no stranger to goal-scoring binges, compares Perry to an octopus for his ability to take a shot from almost anywhere on the ice with his slick hands and cagey hockey sense around the net. Perry sometimes uses his six-foot-three frame to hold off defenders with an ease that recalls Joe Thornton, but he's speedy enough to skate past almost any defenceman—hard to believe for a player whose skating was questioned during his junior career in his native Ontario.
"We saw that for a long time," Carlyle said. "If you watch us in practice, you see the things he can do when he's just fooling around. What you're seeing in the games now, we've seen for three or four years. Now, he's got the confidence. When he has the puck, he believes he can do amazing things with it, and that's what you're seeing."
Perry hasn't entirely left behind his reputation for rabble-rousing and sketchy stickwork, either: He's the first player since Keith Tkachuk in 1996-97 to get 50 goals and 100 penalty minutes in the same season.
Perry is likely to be just the third Hart Trophy finalist from Anaheim, and his chances of winning the MVP award will be boosted by relatively down seasons for the NHL's elite. Two-time MVP Alex Ovechkin scored a mere 32 goals for Washington, while Pittsburgh's Evgeni Malkin and 2007 MVP Sidney Crosby have been out with long-term injuries.
The Sedin twins in Vancouver are in another dominant season, with NHL scoring champion Daniel Sedin emerging as an MVP candidate after his brother, Henrik, won it last season. Canucks teammate Ryan Kesler also is getting strong consideration.
The Sedins'line and the Getzlaf-Perry-Ryan combo likely are the best two scoring lines in the NHL, but the Ducks hope voters remember Perry's remarkable stint in Getzlaf's absence—and everything after that, too.
"Who knows how they decide that?" Getzlaf asked. "The media attention we get just isn't the same as in Vancouver. I've never heard so little about a scoring race as I did this year. That's just the way it is out here, but we know what he's accomplished this season, and we know who deserves it."