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Slowing down the game has helped streaking Ducks claw back from ugly start

After an ugly start to the season, Anaheim has been one of the hottest teams in the NHL over the past two weeks. The recipe for success? Playing low-event hockey and tilting the ice back in their favor.

There was a time, not all that long ago, that it wouldn’t have been far-fetched to say the Anaheim Ducks were legitimate candidates to finish the season with great odds in the Jack Hughes sweepstakes.

After starting the season on a three-game win streak, the Ducks had fallen apart. Two losses were followed by a pair of wins, but Anaheim subsequently went into a tailspin. From Oct. 20 through Nov. 1, the Ducks went without a victory, and the seven-game losing streak pointed to all sorts of ills in Anaheim. The Ducks were consistently outshot, out-chanced and, despite goaltender John Gibson’s best efforts, out-scored. Some contests bordered on humiliating, with the ice appearing so tilted at times that it seemed miraculous Anaheim mustered even a single even strength shot.

Of course, there was a lot to blame. The Ducks were battered and bruised. Corey Perry has been sidelined since the start of the season, and injuries had taken Ryan Getzlaf, Ryan Kesler, Ondrej Kase, Jakob Silfverberg, Patrick Eaves, Nick Ritchie, Josh Manson and Korbinian Holzer out of the lineup for games at a time. And in the new era of analytics, coach Randy Carlyle’s shortcomings in coaching a strong possession game — one that often, though not always, correlates to winning hockey — were becoming apparent once again.

But sometime around mid-November, something seemed to click for the Ducks. Hosting the Toronto Maple Leafs, Anaheim fell in overtime. That was followed by an overtime defeat at the hands of the Colorado Avalanche. But then came one win, a regulation victory over the Vancouver Canucks, which was followed by an overtime win over the Edmonton Oilers. And after suffering a one-game setback, a 5-2 loss at the hands of the Western Conference-leading Nashville Predators, the Ducks have gone on to win each of their past five games, taking down some top competition, such as the Tampa Bay Lightning and Washington Capitals, in the process.

Remarkably, the result of Anaheim’s recent run dating back to the Nov. 16 loss to Toronto is a team that has vaulted up the standings. Fifth-last in the conference and behind all but the Vegas Golden Knights and Los Angeles Kings in the Pacific Division entering that game, the Ducks have risen to second in the division and fifth in the West. It helps that over the past two-plus weeks, Anaheim is tied for the most points in the NHL.

The Ducks’ rise hasn’t simply been predicated on a bout of good luck, however, and it’s not because Anaheim has suddenly become healthy overnight. Perry is still sidelined, Eaves remains out and Holzer has still yet to suit up this season. And the injury bug has continued to bite as Cam Fowler and Hampus Lindholm have both missed stretches of action in the past two weeks, with the former expected to be sidelined for at least a few more weeks. Rather, what has seemingly happened over the past two weeks is that Anaheim has discovered their defensive game and started to level the ice.

Where that is most evident is in the Ducks’ across-the-board limiting of their opponents in recent weeks. Consider that across the first 22 games of the season, a span that includes the overtime losses to Toronto and Colorado, Anaheim was caved in defensively, so to speak. But over the past eight games — admittedly a small sample, but not insignificant given it accounts for nearly one-third of their total games this season — the Ducks have almost entirely reversed their fortunes by playing a slower, and in some ways less exciting, game. Compared to their first 22 games of the season, both teams have combined for 13.8 fewer shot attempts, 2.4 fewer shots, 7.4 fewer scoring chances and 1.6 fewer high-danger chances per 60 minutes at 5-on-5 in Anaheim’s past eight games.

How has that translated into greater success for the Ducks? Well, the greatest decreases can be seen in opportunities against. During this stretch in which Anaheim has won seven of eight, they have surrendered 11.5 fewer shot attempts against, 4.6 fewer shots against, 10.7 fewer scoring chances against and 4.6 fewer high-danger chances against per 60 minutes at five-a-side. The result has been a significant increase in Anaheim’s underlying percentages, too, as the Ducks’ 5-on-5 Corsi for percentage, shots percentage, goals percentage, scoring chance percentage and high-danger chance percentage have all risen anywhere from 3.4 to a whopping 17.3 percent.

Decreasing the level of ice tilt, particularly when it comes to scoring chances of any variety, has resulted in an increase in overall shooting percentage for the Ducks, as well, which has in turn increased Anaheim’s rate of 5-on-5 goals for per 60 minutes by almost one goal. It’s also lightened the load on goaltender John Gibson, who continues to be the x-factor for Anaheim no matter how the team plays in front of him.

Despite an ugly outing against the Capitals — he allowed three goals on 11 shots before being yanked in favor of Ryan Miller, who backstopped the Ducks to an unthinkable 6-5 comeback victory — Gibson has continued to be the great equalizer. His save percentage across his past eight starts is a sparkling .925, complete with a 5-1-1 record, and it’s looking increasingly likely that Gibson will be throwing his hat in the ring, and very well front and center, when it comes time to select the contenders for the Vezina Trophy. Among league leaders, Gibson ranks seventh in SP (.926), sixth in wins (11) and his 2.55 goals-against average is impressive given he’s faced 789 shots in 24 games.

With Gibson in goal, Anaheim was always going to be a threat to get back into the playoff race. But the Ducks don’t appear to be relying as heavily on their netminder as they once were, which has been a recipe for success — and a nice, long winning streak — in the wide-open Pacific.

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