MONTREAL — It’s not just that the Anaheim Ducks have had the best record in the NHL over the last three months, it’s how they’ve achieved it that should make any opponent quiver at the prospect of playing them in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
“They don’t try to wear you down with speed,” said Montreal Canadiens defenceman Nathan Beaulieu Tuesday morning. “They grind you down with physicality, with the cycle, with the trench work that catches up to you in the third period.”
The Ducks showed it last spring, smashing their way through a four-game sweep over the Winnipeg Jets in the first round of the playoffs before obliterating Calgary in five and coming oh-so-close to ruining Chicago’s Cup parade in a seven-game series for the ages.
They were far off the mark in Tuesday’s 4-3 loss to the Canadiens; sloppy in their own end, allowing fourth-liners Mike Brown and Lucas Lessio to score, giving a Montreal team with 11 regulars on the sidelines room to maneuver.
“We didn’t play anywhere near as well as I think we could’ve,” said Anaheim coach Bruce Boudreau. “Our breakouts could’ve been better, our board work could’ve been better.”
They had flashes of brilliance. After forward Jakob Silfverberg tied the game at 1-1 with just over five minutes left in the first frame, Corey Perry scored his 30th of the season less than two minutes into the second.
A minute later, the Ducks set up a picture-perfect play with the man advantage. Rickard Rakell batted the puck in with a high stick. It was a close call but was disallowed.
Down 3-2, Silfverberg finished a pretty passing play to tie the game again.
Seemingly, the Ducks could take over when they wanted -- it was evident in the way they pushed for the 4-4 goal with seconds remaining in the third and it was part of the reason they out shot the Canadiens 35-23 and out hit them 38-30 by night’s end.
“It was very sporadic,” said Ducks captain Ryan Getzlaf. “We didn’t move the puck crisply. Not that we played run-and-gun tonight; we had some breakdowns in our zone and they capitalized.”
It cost Anaheim its first opportunity to clinch a playoff berth. But doing so is a formality at this point.
Make no mistake, this game was an anomaly. This Ducks team has been a juggernaut since the dog days of October and November.
“The coaches took it upon themselves to say, ‘OK, let’s just focus totally on defence,’” said Boudreau Monday in reference to the strategy overhaul in the third week of December when the Ducks were floundering with a 12-15-6 record.
“If things went better that way, the confidence would allow them to score more. And they did.”
The Ducks went from scoring 62 goals in their first 33 games to scoring 118 in their last 39. Sporting the NHL’s stingiest goals-against average (2.25), they proved how much they bought in to what the coaches sold. And their depth up front was only bolstered by trades for Brandon Pirri and Jamie McGinn ahead of the Feb. 29 deadline.
It was Pirri who completed the top line with Getzlaf and Perry in Montreal. The former was a second-round pick of the Blackhawks, the latter two have Cup rings.
The second line of McGinn, Rakell and Mike Santorelli packs grit and skill and mixes youth and experience perfectly. They have a third line — Andrew Cogliano, Ryan Kesler and Silfverberg — that’s as good as any second line in the league.
“We’ve been playing the last 30 games or so together and I think we’ve been doing a pretty good job,” said Silfverberg. “We’ve been doing a good job of shutting other teams’ top lines down but also, lately, we’ve been scoring a bit too.”
Silfverberg’s two goals Tuesday made it six in his last five games.
Sami Vaatanen, who’s currently out with a suspected concussion, might be Anaheim’s best defenceman. If he’s not, Cam Fowler is. Together, they’re a formidable duo who balances out a group that includes the reliable Hamphus Lindholm and Kevin Bieksa.
“We’re never gonna be perfect,” said Boudreau. “But we’re going to keep striving to get perfection.”
The Ducks have served notice.