- Scott Burnside, NHL
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It has become a bit of a throwaway line: The Chicago Blackhawks, runaway leaders in the Western Conference.
Um, leaders? Yes. Runaway? Well, the Anaheim Ducks might have something to say about the relative merits of the term "runaway."
The Blackhawks have been full value for every single accolade that has come their way as a result of a record-setting points streak from the start of the season. And even among opposing coaches and GMs, the fact the Blackhawks managed to go 24 straight games without a regulation loss in the compressed schedule and the crazy travel all Western Conference teams endure was something that was treated with awe.
But what is perhaps even more impressive -- even if it’s a storyline that has gone slightly under the radar at least until now -- is the fact that when the Blackhawks visit the Anaheim Ducks on Wednesday night, the game will represent a historic meeting of two red-hot teams. According to Elias Sports Bureau, this is the first game in which both teams had a points percentage of .800 or better after playing a minimum of 20 games.
The Blackhawks (24-2-3) and the Ducks (21-3-4) have a combined 45-5-7 record and, more to the point when it come to the matter of Western Conference supremacy: If the Ducks manage to win in regulation, they would be three points behind Chicago with a game in hand.
“I think the talk will be we’re nipping at their heels if we win tomorrow,” head coach Bruce Boudreau told ESPN.com on Tuesday, a day after his team dispatched Pacific Division rival San Jose by a 5-3 count for their franchise-record 12th straight home win.
It has, of course, been a tumultuous couple of weeks for the Ducks franchise. First they signed franchise center Ryan Getzlaf to an eight-year contract extension worth $8.25 million annually. That sparked more debate about the future of former Hart Trophy winner Corey Perry. But amid speculation that Perry might be dealt by the April 3 trade deadline, the Ducks signed Perry late Monday night to a similar eight-year extension worth slightly more, at $8.625 million a year against the salary cap.
The funny thing is that Boudreau isn’t sure the signings will change anything around the Ducks' dressing room.
“I think it’s important,” he said. “But I’m not 100 percent sure because no one acted any different.”
Getzlaf and Perry, who could have become unrestricted free agents in the summer, “always looked so vested in this group, I couldn’t imagine them wanting to leave,” the coach said. “Their heart was in it all the time.”
Whether it’s actually verbalized or merely implied, the twin signings speak volumes about the faith these players have in the organization and their ability to challenge for a championship not just this season but moving forward.
It’s a belief that isn’t lost on teammates like Andrew Cogliano.
“It just shows where we’re going as an organization,” Cogliano told ESPN.com.
Although Cogliano wasn’t with the club at the time, he understands the buzz that surrounded the team when the Ducks marched to their only Stanley Cup championship in 2007.
“I just think they want it back,” he said of the organization and the fan base. And signing two marquee players, well, that’s a pretty good way to get back to that spot.
If there is an element of the understated about the Ducks in spite of their record and the recent headlines, their star forwards have to figure it’s largely due to the evolution and contribution of players like Cogliano.
A former first-round draft pick of the Edmonton Oilers (25th overall in 2005), Cogliano was dealt to the Ducks before the start of the 2011-12 season. He has never played in an NHL playoff game, but the transformation of his game in the past two seasons has been drastic.
Boudreau acknowledged that some of the mistakes Cogliano made last season -- Boudreau’s first with the Ducks as he replaced Randy Carlyle in late November -- led him to question the player’s hockey sense. But Boudreau explained what role he wanted Cogliano to fulfill this year and challenged him to do more.
The coach noted that Cogliano rented ice on New Year’s Eve as the lockout was winding down in an effort to be ready when hockey returned. And starting in training camp, Cogliano clicked with veteran center Saku Koivu and rugged winger Daniel Winnik, and they have been a mainstay for the Ducks. Often they line up against opposing teams’ top offensive units, especially at home when Boudreau is able to get the matchups he wants.
And yet Cogliano and his linemates have been an effective offensive force themselves.
Cogliano has 10 goals, one behind Getzlaf's team-leading total, and the Cogliano-Koivu-Winnik line has combined for 24 goals.
Cogliano is a regular penalty killer.
He is, said Boudreau, the team’s Mr. Consistent.
“Now I can put him in any situation,” Boudreau said.
If Cogliano relied too heavily on his speed in the past, Boudreau said he now uses his head and his speed in tandem.
Veteran NHL netminder Brian Hayward, a longtime analyst for the West Coast team, said Cogliano has been a significant factor in allowing Boudreau to play the kind of hockey he wants to play: up-tempo, pressure hockey with four effective lines. In the past, Hayward said, the Ducks were top-heavy offensively, which sometimes put undue pressure on the team’s defense and goaltending. The current team is very difficult to play against because it can strike from anywhere in the lineup.
The Cogliano unit, Hayward said, has been successful because Cogliano’s speed north and south is a nice complement to Koivu’s ability to move the puck east to west and Winnik’s net presence.
“He’s just really meshed well with his linemates,” Hayward said this week. “He’s playing with a ton of confidence.”
Cogliano’s speed, often paired with another speedster, Emerson Etem, has also made the Ducks more dangerous while killing penalties, Hayward said.
“It’s fun to watch," he said. "They just hound the puck up the ice.”
Cogliano acknowledged that when he first came to the NHL he had offensive success -- 18 goals in each of his first two seasons -- but lacked other components of a well-rounded game.
“Was I playing the right way? Probably not,” he said.
Now he understands his role and works hard to fulfill it, works hard to do many things well. He has gone from a minus-12 in his last season in Edmonton to a plus-16 this season.
Cogliano said that Boudreau is the kind of coach you want to play well for and work hard for because he is so honest.
The 25-year-old also understands that, as a player in his sixth NHL season, he is being counted on to provide a certain amount of leadership, even if he’s still a young man.
“There’s no more making mistakes because you’re inexperienced,” he said.
As for a week that includes two games against perpetual Western Conference power Detroit and the aforementioned juggernaut that is the Chicago Blackhawks, Cogliano said the team is quite comfortable in its role as a team just a little out of sight perception-wise.
“We’re just taking to the role of a little bit of an underdog and flying under the radar,” he said. “I think it’s a perfect situation for ourselves.”
The same could be said for Cogliano.
1dScott Burnside and Craig Custance