Wednesday, March 12, 2014
Sharks charging after Ducks for Pacific title
By Pierre LeBrun
Don't think Bruce Boudreau will have a tough time rallying his Anaheim Ducks before Wednesday night's game in Calgary.
All the Ducks coach will have to do is point to the standings on the board and circle that little two-point gap that separates his club from the hard-charging San Jose Sharks atop the Pacific Division, even if Anaheim has a game in hand.
"They're not losing," Boudreau said of the Sharks, who closed to within two points after Tuesday night's 6-2 drubbing of Toronto.
Nope, the Sharks haven't done a lot of losing lately.
On Jan. 15, following a 9-1 crush job by Anaheim over Vancouver, the Ducks were 13 points ahead of San Jose. Since then, Anaheim has gone 7-7-2 while the Sharks have sizzled to a 13-5-1 record to erase 11 points between them.
Did we mention, meanwhile, that the Los Angeles Kings have won eight straight games?
Suddenly, a Ducks team that has been sitting comfortably atop the Pacific Division nearly all season has its work cut out with a month left in the regular season.
"Actually, I think it's a good thing," Boudreau told ESPN.com on Wednesday morning on the phone from Calgary. "It makes all the games relevant, and we get into the playoff push where we can't sit there and be content. If you want to be first overall, all these things count now. So we'll see what our team is made of before the playoffs."
He has a point there. I've maintained the past few years that Vancouver winning the old Northwest Division so easily and early in the regular season left the Canucks unprepared for playoff hockey after lollygagging over the final month. They were upset by the eighth-seeded Kings in 2012 and swept by the Sharks last season, both of those clubs having had to scratch and claw over the final month to get into the playoffs.
Now the Ducks suddenly have some heat on them, which might be a good thing.
"Every team has its own sense of urgency," Boudreau said. "I liken it to a kid having to do homework or having a project at school. Your mom and dad can tell you: 'You've got to study for this. You've got to do this before next week.' But that kid knows exactly when that last moment is before he really has to get to work.
"Say we went from 14 points ahead to 10 points ahead, if we said, 'We have to get going now.' But the players themselves know the sense of urgency. Now it's two points. If they don't know it's now, then they're never going to know."
It's not like the Ducks are playing poorly. They have lost their last three games (two in a shootout) but outshot Montreal, Pittsburgh and Toronto by a combined 117-71 in the process.
In fact, statistics are all in the eye of the beholder. While you can point out that the Ducks have won only three of their past nine games (3-4-2), you can also turn around and say they've lost in regulation only once in their last six games (3-1-2).
Still, it's a results-oriented business, and as of late, the pucks aren't going in even if the Ducks are controlling most of the play.
"We're just not doing the right things to score right now," said Boudreau. "What I mean by that is that we're having possession time and we're working hard, but to score goals in this league you have to go to the dirty areas. You have to create traffic in front. I think we made it pretty easy for [Leafs goalie Jonathan] Bernier the other night. He could see everything."
And if there's urgency suddenly, it's not just because of the pride associated with winning the Pacific. Let's face it, all three California teams -- all serious Cup contenders -- have thought about it in the back of their mind all year long: The best path is to avoid each other in the first round.
The Kings likely no longer have a choice in the matter, 11 points back of first place with a month to go, but you better believe the Sharks and Ducks would love to avoid a first-round date with that bruising L.A. club, a squad that of late resembles the 2012 team that won the Cup. There is no easy first-round matchup in the superior Western Conference, but avoiding L.A. would not be a bad thing.
"I guess what people are saying is that you look at last year, St. Louis and L.A. in the first round, then the Kings had to play San Jose in another strong seven-game series. They had nothing left for the Chicago series," said Boudreau. "I think that's what people are pointing to.
"But I tell you what, you can't pick a team in the West in the top eight that anybody wants to face. You look at Dallas and Minnesota and how good they're going right now. Phoenix is just starting to ramp it up now, starting to play Dave Tippett hockey where they're shutting teams down. If Mike Smith gets on a roll, he's been known to beat teams himself in the playoffs. So I don't take anybody lightly."
While a first-ever Ducks-Kings playoff series would be awesome, to say the least, I think Anaheim can live with waiting until a second round to get that going.
My words, not Boudreau's, but you can take it to the bank.