They pitched a shutout at Dodger Stadium in the first outdoor NHL game played in a warm climate, they suffered their first regulation loss of the season on home ice on Jan. 21, well past the halfway point of the 2013-14 campaign and they are curb-stomping their opponents in the standings.
But for some reason, when people gather around the water cooler to talk about hockey, you rarely hear the Anaheim Ducks mentioned as the team to beat.
Everywhere but on the ice, where their foes give them plenty, the Ducks get no respect.
So what is it about this Southern California squad that makes it so difficult for the casual puck fanatic, or even the occasional columnist, to stand up and take notice?
Quick, name three forwards without Getzlaf, Perry or Selanne stitched on their backs
Everyone knows how dominant the one-two punch of Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry can be. Getzlaf has been a point-per-game playmaker in five of his eight seasons, thanks in part to having a wicked trigger-man on his right side in Perry. The two are practically attached at the hip, coming into the league together in 2005 and terrorizing goaltenders ever since. Perry is a six-time 20-goal scorer, and he hit 50 on his way to winning the Hart Trophy as the league’s most outstanding player in 2010-11.
They’re the only linemates in the top five in NHL scoring this season, and—much like the Sedin twins in Vancouver—whichever winger is lucky enough to line up beside them usually enjoys a statistical upswing. Chris Kunitz, Bobby Ryan and Dustin Penner can attest to that.
But looking beyond the big guns is a quietly efficient group of forwards capable of pitching in at any time.
In his first full NHL season, Nick Bonino is becoming a fantasy-worthy middle man. Andrew Cogliano is set to top his career best in goals and 23-year-old Swede Jakob Silfverberg appears poised for the future on Getzlaf’s flank.
Penner has been in and out of the lineup, but he's still having his best offensive season since falling out of favor with the Edmonton Oilers in 2010.
While some may make the argument that the Ducks are too dependent on one line for their offense, the depth is there in the same fashion the Chicago Blackhawks, Boston Bruins and Los Angeles Kings enjoyed on their recent Stanley Cup runs.
|Depth Charge: Ducks Forwards Pitching In|
In their defense, these guys are pretty decent
With their biggest star on the blue line on injured reserve since before the season even began, the Ducks’ defensive group is considered the team’s weakest link. Sheldon Souray was signed for his big shot and tough-as-nails play on the back end.
Others, though, have been impressive in larger roles in his absence, and they don’t lack in the physicality department.
Every member of their current group measures in at more than 6'0" and close to 200 pounds. They throw that weight around as well as any group of rearguards in the league, too, wearing down opponents. That showed in their Stadium Series contest against the Kings last week when they threw 33 checks at the Kings, a night after pummeling them with 48. Mark Fistric—an Edmonton Oilers castoff—dished out 17 of those over the two games. Ben Lovejoy and Bryan Allen are fellow bruisers, and Francois Beauchemin is no stranger to fisticuffs.
|Ben Lovejoy||6' 2"||205||52||135|
|Mark Fistric||6' 2"||230||27||123|
|Bryan Allen||6' 5"||224||45||83|
|Francois Beauchemin||6' 1"||207||44||67|
Cam Fowler was once a highly touted prospect who has never lived up to the highly set bar from a 40-point rookie season, but he quietly has regained that offensive prowess and is on pace for a career high this year while significantly improving his defensive play and impressing Team USA brass enough to make the Olympic team. Head coach Bruce Boudreau raved about the development of Fowler to ESPN recently.
His improvement has been so startling defensively. He's so much more a better player. Him and Ben Lovejoy have great chemistry and they really play well off each other. Cam's defense has picked up so much, where now that pairing plays against the top line from the other team all the time. They've done a good job of shutting down, plus Cam is probably going to end up with 45 points or so as a defenseman which would be great.
And I haven’t even mentioned rookie Hampus Lindholm, who is averaging nearly 20 minutes a night and owns the best plus/minus rating among all NHL freshmen.
With no certified star power, it’s easy to see how the group can remain so anonymous. But for how long?
Pick a goalie, any goalie
Pop quiz. Who was the starting netminder last year? If you said Jonas Hiller, you’re wrong. If you said Viktor Fasth, you’re still wrong.
Those two ’tenders split the time practically 50/50 during the lockout-shortened season, with both faring spectacularly well. This year, they have a third wheel in Frederik Andersen, a 24-year-old Dane who has come out of nowhere the same way Fasth did last season to earn a share of the Ducks net.
How is this a problem, you ask? It isn’t. The emergence of Fasth and Andersen has only pushed the incumbent Hiller to improve his consistency.
How late do I have to stay up to see this so-called best team play?
One reason the Ducks are still flying relatively under the radar is few people east of the Rocky Mountains bother to stay up late enough to watch them unless they’re playing in the Eastern Conference. Even the Stadium Series contest didn’t get going until 9:30 p.m. ET, and that was an event curious enough for a few extra folks to sacrifice an hour or two of sleep just to see what hockey looks like beside beach volleyball.
It’s worth it. You might as well get a good look at the team that could be beating yours in the Stanley Cup Final.