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Lightning and Ducks take same road back to contender status

Could Anton Stralman's Lightning and Cam Fowler's Ducks end up meeting in June? Getty Images

From stunning first-half struggles to re-births as real Stanley Cup contenders, the Tampa Bay Lightning and Anaheim Ducks seem to be following parallel paths this season.

OK, so maybe I have a bit personally invested in the dramatic turnarounds of Tampa Bay and Anaheim, having picked them in September as my Cup finalists, only to feel a bit dumb over the opening three months of the season.

Now? Well, I'm feeling pretty darn good about it all.

To be sure all roads lead through the Washington Capitals in the East and the Chicago Blackhawks and Los Angeles Kings in the West, but I would argue the Bolts and Ducks have made this a tidy group of five as far as those with realistic Stanley Cup chances for the 2015-16 season.

Both teams have overtaken their respective divisions -- a feat that seemed very unlikely less than two months ago.

The Ducks have won a franchise-record 11 in a row; the Lightning a franchise-record nine consecutive games.

Again, it's the symmetry of these two teams that's hard to ignore. In early December when I spoke to each team's captain, both teams were flailing away and looking for answers. Both clubs would endure more pain in December.

Then the dramatic turnaround: The Ducks are an NHL-best 25-4-2 since the Christmas break; the Lightning 21-6-0 since Jan. 1.

"It was frustrating for everybody in the beginning of the season, but as a group, I think we never ended up pointing fingers," Ducks top blueliner Cam Fowler said over the phone Sunday. "We kind of understood that for the most part nobody was playing up to their standards and we still had tons of belief in each other and as a team that we just needed to get back to playing confidently and do the things that made us successful last season. Once we put our belief in that and started seeing some results, we were able to gain some momentum from that."

Momentum? The Ducks were still 16 points back of the Pacific Division-leading Kings on Jan. 20. Now they're up by two points after a hard-fought win against their cross-town rivals on Saturday.

The Bolts were 12 points behind the first-place Florida Panthers on Jan. 7. Now they're two points up.

The turnaround for them?

"I think it just came down to realizing where we were at and realizing that if we don't improve we're not going to make the playoffs," key Lighting blueliner Anton Stralman said Sunday over the phone. "It was as simple as that I think. When we finally did, everyone kind of sharpened up and made sure we were on the same page and followed the system and did what we were supposed to do. We obviously know the talent that was in our group and how we can play. It was just a matter of finding that again."

I'm no expert on the nerdy numbers, but here's what I can gather via war-on-ice.com: Since Jan. 1, the Ducks are scoring 55.4 percent of the even strength goals against opponents. The Lightning are even better at 56.4 percent. Tampa is now No. 3 in the league in this stat, while Anaheim is still just No. 20 overall, which shows how low they were before they turned it around. If they ran at 55.4 percent over the course of the season, they'd be at No. 3 overall in the league.

Looking at corsi (shot attempts) for percentage, these two teams are both top six overall, with Anaheim in the No. 3 spot at 52.9 percent and Tampa Bay No. 6 at 52.3 percent.

Bottom line: These are two of the elite teams in the NHL right now by any definition.

In both cases, however, the journey featured team meetings and white-knuckle moments.

"We had a few meetings along the way," Stralman said. "Was there one along the way that set everything straight? I don't think so. But we had meetings throughout the year. We just realized where we are at and how we needed to change our mindset."

In the case of the Ducks, Fowler credited Anaheim general manager Bob Murray for showing patience when they fell on their face ... for three months no less. Head coach Bruce Boudreau was surely going to be fired, right? But he was not. Now he might end up in the Jack Adams Award vote.

"You have to credit Murph [Murray] a lot for that, for being as patient as he was, because in this business, especially for how our offseason went and the projections and predications that people had for us, it would have been easy to say, 'OK, this isn't good enough, we need to make a change right now, something needs to happen,'" Fowler said. "But he hung in there. I think now, with us being in a much better position and playing better, we can look at some of those times we went through earlier and use them as positives for our group; that we went [through] some adversity.

"Being around the group now, it's as close-knit and as tight of a group as I've been around in quite some time. So I think as tough as it was in the beginning, I think now that we've dug ourselves out of it and we did it together with pretty much the same core group that was here at the start of the year, it's done a lot of things for us psychologically and I think we can use it as momentum for us going forward the rest of the season."

Like Fowler, Stralman also believes that the trying times of the first half can only serve to strengthen the resolve of his team.

"I absolutely agree with that," Stralman said. "You learn a lot through those periods when you're struggling, as individuals and as a team. You do clear the air a little bit sometimes. You re-focus. That's a learning process. We're still growing as a team. We're still a young team and inexperienced in many ways, still a lot of young guys. Last year's playoff run was a good learning experience, and definitely early this season, the journey so far has been a good experience, too. All these things add up and make us a better team I think."

I specifically asked both teams to speak with Fowler and Stralman, because I feel each of these defensemen were rocks throughout the ups and down of this season. Neither looks for attention but it's important to note just that in each case.

What's also interesting is how each responded when asked about the amazing runs each team is on now.

"The way I look at it right now, even though we've played some good hockey, I still feel we can play a lot better," Stralman said. "That's really encouraging to know we still have another gear to put in, it's just a matter of finding it."

Added Fowler: "We like where we're at right now, but there's still plenty of room for improvement, too."

It's the only attitude to have. You don't want to peak too early, after all. The real hockey starts in a month. But both of these teams had to start the playoffs before the playoffs just to save their seasons.

They've done that. Now they've joined the big boys once again as legitimate Cup contenders.