Ryan Kesler. (Photo by Marianne Helm/Getty Images)
The Winnipeg Jets didn't lose because they were a bad team. Their defeat highlighted just how good the Anaheim Ducks really are.
We're dealing in duck, not crow, but the former made us eat the latter Wednesday night.
The pesky, gritty Winnipeg Jets were supposed to give the Anaheim Ducks a serious run in the Pacific Division semifinal. Plenty of experts picked Winnipeg to win the series, and we had Anaheim winning in seven games. After all, the Jets were a bruising squad built to make any opponent's life miserable. Beating them would mean paying a hefty physical price. The Ducks also had the makings of a paper tiger, having posted a measly plus-10 goal differential, lowest among all 16 playoff teams, despite owning the Western Conference's best record. Their defense was young and capable of being overpowered. They were a "one-line team" after the Ryan Getzlaf/Corey Perry unit. They had shaky goaltending with John Gibson hurt and Frederik Andersen fresh off an inconsistent season.
Part of the series played out as expected. The Jets were a pain in the behind, bludgeoning the Ducks in the corners and staking third-period leads in three straight games to open the series. But that's about all we got right. The Jets can feel good about their effort despite getting swept, but we grossly underestimated the sum of Anaheim's parts.
For one, a young defense can be overwhelmed, but when that young defense consists of smooth-skating talents like Hampus Lindholm, Sami Vatanen and Cam Fowler, it can carry the puck out of trouble, as we saw throughout this series. Just as importantly, we saw the Ducks' defensemen use their speed on the backcheck. How impressive was Lindholm in Game 4, catching Jim Slater and disrupting his breakaway like a speedy defensive back chasing down a ballcarrier to prevent a touchdown? On top of the three puck-movers the Ducks have a Cup-winning veteran in Francois Beauchemin, who happens to be healthy at the right time, with Simon Despres and Clayton Stoner supplying the grit. Defense looked like an Achilles' heel, but stop and consider that James Wisniewski was a healthy scratch. That's depth, right there.
Andersen wasn't a world beater in goal over Anaheim's four wins, but he was steady. He made the saves when his team trailed. The Jets never led by more than a goal. Andersen allowed two or fewer goals and posted a save percentage of a least .926 in three of four games. That's extremely encouraging for a goalie who had four months above .900 and three months below it in the regular season.
The Ducks got great production from Getzlaf and Perry in round 1, yes, but they didn't look like a one-line team at all. They had 10 players combine for their 16 goals in the series. Each game winner game from a different forward: Perry, Jakob Silfverberg, Rickard Rakell and Ryan Kesler. And look at the way Kesler took over Game 4, ripping open a two-goal lead in the third period to break Winnipeg's heart – twice. A healthy Kesler makes for an elite two-line center. He was a dominant, disruptive force in the series. He played villain, but it was also clear how much he's gelled with his teammates. It echoes what he told me in a fall interview, explaining how the Ducks had welcomed him and how he'd buried the hatchet with Getzlaf and Perry after fighting them while he was still a Vancouver Canuck.
“Ryan Getzlaf, really great captain, really great guy," Kesler said. "But really, all the guys made me feel at home. They were all welcome. That was my biggest thing, playing against those guys, being in a rivalry against those guys, you develop hate towards guys. But off the ice, they’re all good dudes, and we got over it. I fought Perry and Getzlaf at least a couple times, so we talked about that and had some laughs. It’s a really good locker room, really good guys.”
The Ducks also got contributions from speedy, skilled youngsters with legit pedigrees in Silfverberg, Rakell and Emerson Etem, who scored arguably the goal of the playoffs Wednesday in Winnipeg. Coach Bruce Boudreau had a deep enough group to work with that he could afford to scratch Jiri Sekac. The impression the Ducks' forward corps gave in the series: young, fresh, fast.
What stood out more than anything, of course, was the Ducks' "clutch" ability. Can that be measured? Plenty of us, myself included, scoffed at the weak goal differential and dependence on one-goal victories. But the slew of (a) third-period comebacks and (b) quick answers to Winnipeg goals, as we saw repeatedly in Game 4, reeked of – I hate to use something intangible – poise, experience and killer instinct. The Ducks have Stanley Cup winners in Perry, Getzlaf and Beauchemin, plus a Stanley Cup Game 7 vet in Kesler. And, after a heartbreaking Game 7 loss to L.A. in the second round last season, even Anaheim's youngsters appear wilier. Consider this foreshadowing from Boudreau when we spoke in the summer:
"We look at the teams that have won the Cup, the last four teams anyway: Chicago twice, Boston once, L.A. once, and the teams have stayed together," he said. "They were able to grow together. I think that’s the case with this team here, because you know, the two stars are on long-term deals, and the rest of the guys are for the most part young. I think (the front office) will be able to keep this team together, and if they can keep it together, then the continuity will grow with the team. So I think they will be as good or better next year than they were this year.
"One of the things we needed as a group was just more experience in those playoff games. The Game 7, for example, we need more experience there, I think. We were throwing a lot of— I don't want to make any excuses, but there was a lot of young guys playing in their first Game 7."
So while we haven't seen the 2014-15 Ducks tested in a Game 7 or anything close to it, we've seen them rally in some high-tension situations. Now Boudreau, criticized for never getting past the second round, has a new notch on his belt: a sweep. No Boudreau team has ever swept another. Better yet for the Ducks, they're guaranteed the winner of Calgary and Vancouver. Anaheim's record against those two teams this season: 6-2-2, or 3-1-1 against each.
It sure looks like the Ducks will draw Calgary, and that's an ideal matchup for Anaheim on paper. The outstanding Sean Monahan line would likely have to deal with Getzlaf of Kesler. Gulp. And the Flames' trend of horrible possession hockey has continued so far, even while they've beaten Vancouver three times. The Ducks, on the other hand, posted a plus-6 advantage in Shot Attempts Close over a Jets team was among the league's strongest in possession this season.
So the Ducks are evolving and, in the span of four games, they've transitioned from afterthought to serious Stanley Cup contender.
Matt Larkin is an associate editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to the thn.com Post-To-Post blog. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin