ANAHEIM, Calif.--The timing of life's challenges can make a monumental difference, and no one understands that better than Anaheim Ducks center Ryan Getzlaf.
Two seasons ago was Getzlaf's worst, his struggle in balancing first-time fatherhood with hockey mentioned as a major reason for a distracted 11-goal season in which the Ducks missed the playoffs.
Now, in leading the Ducks with three goals and four assists through a first-round playoff series victory, it's Getzlaf's laser focus on hockey's greatest prize being cited as Anaheim's driving force.
"He's the straw that stirs the drink," Ducks rookie forward Devante Smith-Pelly said. "To see him play well through all this is amazing, an emotional lift and inspiring."
In Game 1 against Dallas, Getzlaf stood unwavering in front of a blast by Dallas Stars forward Tyler Seguin, the puck ripping the underneath of his mouth so severely that somewhere between 50 and 100 stitches were required.
A night later, Getzlaf's wife, Paige, went into labor with the couple's third child and gave birth to daughter Willa less than 19 hours before Game 2.
Getzlaf played and contributed a goal and assist in 19 minutes 40 seconds of ice time to the Ducks' victory.
"They know ... I want to be out there and win at any cost," Getzlaf said. "You want to show your team you're going to do what it takes to win in the playoffs."
Doctors barred him from playing Game 4 when a prior upper-body injury was aggravated, but he returned in Game 5 with a goal and two assists, and in Game 6 stopped wearing the shield that had been protecting his facial damage.
"It's in our nature as hockey players to work through things," Getzlaf said.
Ducks management saw the Getzlaf that showed up in 2013 post-NHL lockout as a matured man who had solved his life-balance difficulties. The center had 15 goals and 34 assists in 44 games, and the club signed him to an eight-year, $66-million contract extension in March of 2013.
This season was better still, Getzlaf finishing with a career-high 31 goals to go along with 56 assists. His 87 points were second in the league to Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby.
On Tuesday, he was named a finalist for the NHL's Messier Award, which honors team and community leadership. And when Hart Trophy (league MVP) finalists are announced, he's expected to be among the top three.
Getzlaf knows what an assist looks like, and says he's appreciated the ones his wife has given him.
"It's the happiest time of our lives to have another baby," he said. "Paige has done a great job ... handling the brunt of the late hours. She sent me home both nights (in the hospital) so I could get rest.
"She learned a lot from that first experience too, about what's important and what she can do to help me be better here at the rink."
Ducks teammates say despite built-in excuses, Getzlaf has set a tone by not giving any.
"Three kids at home, a wife giving birth and still come in playing his best hockey with dozens of stitches in his face.... There's a reason why he makes the big money and he's proving right now he deserves it," goalie Jonas Hiller said.
Getzlaf said he was reminded at his daughter's birth about how former Ducks goalie Jean-Sebastien Giguere weathered the birth of a child dealing with blindness in an eye as the 2007 playoffs began. Giguere missed the first four games but returned to lead the Ducks to the Stanley Cup.
"I saw 'Jiggy' -- everything else seems pretty minimal," Getzlaf said.
"I struggled with family and stuff at the start. Those are part of learning curves throughout a career when you're growing as a player and a person. We learn as we go. We're athletes, but we're humans too. We have real-life issues that affect our play at some point. It's about limiting how much it affects your play and learning how to use things."
Ducks Coach Bruce Boudreau said Getzlaf's nomination for the Messier Award is "validation" for those strides.
"There's been more stuff going on for that poor man than I care to imagine," Boudreau said. "But like the true pro he is, he's come through it, and when it's time to focus on game time, he's done it. I never worry about him."
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