Anaheim Ducks Coach Bruce Boudreau is a big fan of the new rule that extended the NHL holiday break a day past Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, and not only because it gave him more time to spend with his family.
"There's three days off that you can stay No. 1," said Boudreau, whose team took a franchise-record nine-game winning streak and league-leading 27-7-5 record into the mini-vacation.
"The way it's been going, it's gone back and forth among the five teams pretty well all year. When you get three days off, you get bragging rights for a couple more days."
The key to success for Boudreau and the Ducks will be finding ways to keep those bragging rights and avoid the late-season fade they experienced last season, when their first-round playoff loss to the Detroit Red Wings became less of an upset than it would seem when a No. 2-seeded team loses to a No. 7.
The Ducks peaked too early last season, rising to 22-3-4 after they defeated the Chicago Blackhawks on March 20. They were 8-9-2 the rest of the lockout-shortened schedule and were noticeably off-kilter. They developed bad habits. Their defense became sloppy. They generated a sense they were careening off the tracks and that no one could prevent their inevitable derailment.
Although some factors are the same, this season feels different for several reasons.
The Ducks again have an excellent record, despite playing a league-high 24 road games and ranking among the league leaders in man-games lost to injuries. They're also the only team that hasn't lost at home in regulation, at 13-0-2.
They're deeper up front this season thanks to the emergence of Nick Bonino and Andrew Cogliano. On defense, the maturation of Cam Fowler has been astonishing, giving him a strong shot to play for Team USA at the Sochi Olympics. Five of the NHL's top six plus/minus defensive ratings belong to members of the Ducks, led by rookie defenseman Hampus Lindholm's plus-22.
Another change is stronger leadership. Center Ryan Getzlaf has embraced the captaincy, riding herd on frequent linemate Dustin Penner -- no small feat -- while adjusting his own game to shoot more. That has paid off with 19 goals and 44 points in 36 games, third in the NHL behind Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby (54) and Chicago's Patrick Kane (49). Right wing Corey Perry is tied for third with 22 goals, and tied for fifth with 41 points in 39 games.
The biggest remaining questions are whether the Ducks learned from that late slump last season and can motivate themselves to keep pushing forward instead of sliding backward. The NHL schedule will resume tonight with 10 games, but the Ducks must wait until Saturday, when they play Phoenix at Honda Center. Boudreau is eager to get the answer to those questions.
"We're going to have to play better than we have, and I'm not saying that in a negative way, that we've been playing bad," he said Thursday. "We play Phoenix, San Jose, San Jose, Vancouver, Boston -- teams that are in the upper echelon. If you stay status quo, if you play the way you've been playing, by the end of the year you're not going to be ready. You have to keep improving. And sometimes it's a tough message to get across when teams are being successful. But we're going to try."
That message must be delivered, understood and acted upon if the Ducks are to last more than one playoff round in the punishingly competitive Western Conference. For Boudreau, that means thinking back on those stumbles late last season and not allowing those lapses to creep back into the picture.
"There was nowhere we could go. We couldn't get Chicago at that point, and we didn't think we were going to get caught by anybody else," Boudreau said. "And you get stagnant, so you're not improving. And then you go in the playoffs in that mind-set.
"We want to first make the playoffs, but we also want to go in playing better than we were the week before."
Five of their next six games will be at home, an unusual stretch for a team that has lived out of its collective suitcases so far.
"When you've played as many games as we have and traveled as much the first half, it seems like an eternity when you're sitting home for a couple days," Boudreau said.
"My wife had me home for a day and pretty well said, 'Time to go to work.'"
For both him, and his team.
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