ANAHEIM, Calif. – The seven Ducks gathered at centre ice in the Honda Center on Tuesday with their Olympic medals hanging over their multicoloured national team jerseys, posing for photos commemorating their remarkable work in the Vancouver Olympics last week.
Then they got back to the less lofty business of making sure their talented NHL club doesn’t miss the playoffs.
“To come back with seven medals is pretty impressive for our group,” said centre Ryan Getzlaf, who had three goals and four assists as Canada’s second-leading scorer. “We can’t really come off this high now. We’ve got to stay on it to get ourselves into a playoff spot.”
Indeed, a team with Anaheim’s talent seems out of place at 11th in the Western Conference standings, particularly after what went down in Vancouver.
The Ducks’ seven Olympic medallists were more than any other NHL team, tying the most by a single franchise in any games since the pros got to play in 1998. What’s more, every Anaheim representative was a key part of his national team’s efforts.
Canadian captain Scott Niedermayer and forwards Getzlaf and Corey Perry bested Americans Ryan Whitney and Bobby Ryan in the gold-medal match, while Finland captain Saku Koivu and career Olympic scoring leader Teemu Selanne likely wrapped up their international careers by beating Slovakia for bronze. Goalie Jonas Hiller and farmhand Luca Sbisa also played for a better-than-expected Swiss team, with Hiller earning emphatic praise.
After finishing their weekend parties and catching various commercial flights back down the coast, the Ducks reconvened for one full practice before beginning their playoff push against Colorado on Wednesday night.
“It’s not going to be easy to just push those emotions away and focus on our job here,” Koivu said. “You can have this many medal guys on this team, but if we don’t start competing and focusing, it’s not going to matter. At the same time, you can see we have the talent to come together and win a lot of games, but we’ve got to start doing it.”
So how did this star-studded roster return to Orange County three points out of the post-season bracket with just 20 games to go? One year after beating top-seeded San Jose in the post-season, and less than three years after winning the Stanley Cup, why were they on the verge of irrelevance before a January rally kept them in the playoff conversation?
Several factors combined, from early injury absences to a restructuring of the defence after the departures of Chris Pronger and Francois Beauchemin. Anaheim has been crawling out of an early hole since January – and thanks to strong play at home, they’re getting close to surfacing.
The Ducks have won 11 straight at the Honda Center, including a 3-2 victory over Edmonton right before the Olympics began. Anaheim hasn’t lost at home since early December.
“If we can keep that intensity and that level of play, that would be great for sure,” Niedermayer said. “If we do that, we should be in good shape.”
And perhaps some of the same energy that inspired Finland to rally from a two-goal deficit in the third period of its bronze-medal victory over Slovakia will rub off on the Ducks. Koivu gave a stirring speech before that final period, imploring his teammates not to waste the moment – and implicitly to give an appropriate parting gift to Selanne, the 39-year-old Finnish Flash who is done with international play.
Selanne also has repeatedly said he’ll likely retire from the NHL after this season.
“It was a big, emotional tournament for a lot of our guys,” Selanne said. “We want to make sure we’re ready right away when we come back. The way we were playing before the break, I really liked.”
Anaheim also has a beneficial schedule, with eight of its next nine games at home. Except for a day trip to Phoenix, the Ducks won’t leave town until March 23, giving them plenty of opportunities to pile up points while chasing down Nashville and Detroit at the back of the playoff picture.
“It’s not like we’ve got a bunch of young kids that haven’t experienced the pressure,” coach Randy Carlyle said. “The microscope they were under in Vancouver is different. You’d like them to carry the momentum and the level of play they had up there, though.”
Getzlaf, Niedermayer and Perry claimed they didn’t taunt their non-Canadian teammates with their medals, although the temptation was strong. Niedermayer’s children, who were in his native British Columbia for the entire Olympic run, already have shown his medal to their young hockey teammates. But all three Canadians don’t plan to spend much time dwelling on the rare achievement of adding a gold medal to their Stanley Cup rings.
“It’s going to be tough, but that’s our job,” Perry said. “You put it behind you, and you can reflect on it afterward. But if you can hold that intensity level and bring it back here, it’s just going to help.”