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March 31, 2017 | 3:03pm ET
Ducks in '17?
Some questions answered, some remain
By Josh Brewster

ANAHEIM, CA -- No matter how you slice it, the story of this Anaheim Ducks season will be written only in the playoffs. The Ducks are trending upward as the regular season draws to a close and the biggest hurdle they face is likely mental. Four consecutive losses in Game 6s with opportunities to eliminate their opponent each time rings in the club's psyche, not to mention the oft-cited Game 7 debacles which followed each time.

Despite facing a number of question marks along the way, the team has ranked high in the Pacific division all along, a fact which should not go unnoticed amidst the hurdles the club has faced.

Currently riding a season-long five-game win streak, a wide array of questions have been answered. Few issues remain as Anaheim heads to the postseason for a fifth straight season.

PRE-SEASON CONCERNS ADDRESSED:

Question: Will a Billy Martin-style return by Coach Randy Carlyle work?
Answer: Yes.

As of March 31, the Ducks are 42-23-12=96, good for first in the Pacific. The Ducks started 0-3-1, and went 0-2-1 during a brief stretch in November but have not lost two games in a row in regulation since the second game of the season (October 15). Team plays more direct-to-the-net hockey than it did under Bruce Boudreau, passes up fewer shots.

Question 1: Will Rickard Rakell and Hampus Lindholm appear on time?
Answer: No.
 
However, when they both arrived from Sweden after injury, contract and/or visa issues, they each hit the ground running, and had tremendous campaigns.

Some were a bit disappointed that Lindholm hasn’t put up bigger numbers offensively (6-13-19 in 64GP), but his defensive play has been excellent all year. He’s harder to move off the puck than ever, and he clears the zone as well as top D-man Cam Fowler.

Rickard Rakell has been the most valuable Duck (apologies to Fowler, center Ryan Kesler and fellow Swede Jakob Silfverberg). Rakell leads the team in goals (32) and the NHL in game-winners (10).

REGULAR SEASON CONCERNS:

Question: What happened to Corey Perry?
Answer: Unclear, but getting better.

Considering Perry’s successful career and what he's given to the Ducks, not to mention the restrictions on movement affixed to his contract, he still deserves the benefit of the doubt and a chance to work his way out of a tough campaign. Perry can salvage his season with timely playoff goals of far greater importance than any the 2011 Hart Trophy winner has failed to score during the regular season (see below).

Question: Will the offense come through?
Answer: No, not for most of the season.

This is a tough one because of late, the Ducks have scored often. Sitting around 20th overall in goals-for throughout most of the season, concerns remain.

Perry’s worst season in terms of production (18 goals in 77 GP) has put a drag on team scoring. His shooting percentage is the worst of his career (8.7%). With a good chance at a multi-round playoff appearance, Perry, who scored a game-winner at Chicago, two against Washington, and one each vs. Winnipeg and Vancouver during the team’s recent 9-1-2 streak, has more than ample opportunity to produce at his peak potential. Only this time, he’ll have to do it Marian Hossa-style, from a third-line right wing position, since Patrick Eaves has supplanted him on the top line.

Sweden has been very good to the Ducks offense, as Rakell and Silfverberg have combined for 54 goals and 386 shots.

Nick Ritchie is having a solid sophomore campaign with a career-high 14 goals, while NHL Ironman Andrew Cogliano is up to 16.

Ryan Kesler has a very solid 21 markers, but provides evidence of the power play’s struggles (23rd overall). He scored seven PPG’s through 26 games, then none through the next 49 before netting his eighth vs. the Rangers (March 26). Despite that dry stretch, Kesler still leads the club in man-advantage goals.

Antoine Vermette has been one of the NHL’s best faceoff men (62.1%), but if Perry is going to succeed, the team needs a lot more than the eight goals he’s produced.

Aside from the assists department, Captain Ryan Getzlaf struggled all season. Since the bye week, however, he leads the league in scoring (20 points), assists (17) and plus-minus (+15). The eye test is most important, though, and his desire, work ethic and leadership of late has been, of late, as good as any time during his career. Earned NHL’s third star of the week for third week in March.

Question: Will the defense come through?
Answer: Yes. Big time.

Josh Manson has proven to be the mix of muscle and timely offense that the club remembers from guys like Chris Pronger and Francois Beauchemin. With five goals, including a shorthanded marker in a win over the Rangers, he’s proven that he has some hands to go with the brawn the club needs.

Cam Fowler is having a career year as the team’s number one defenseman, excelling in all aspects of the game. Fowler scored a career-high 11 goals in the first 52 games and earned a trip to the All-Star Game, but has yet to score a goal since January 31. That’s a minor concern, however, as he leads the club in TOI (24:50), plays in all situations, and his 179 shots are a career-best. With a $4M deal through this year and next, all those headlines about his imminent trade last summer only reveal how little the writers really know about how much GM Bob Murray values Fowler.

Between Fowler, Lindholm, Korbinian Holzer, Sami Vatanen, Kevin Bieksa and rookie Brandon Montour, the Ducks are very well-positioned in terms of depth for a long playoff run. Clayton Stoner will return from injury to add depth.

Question: Can John Gibson handle the responsibilities of being a number one goalie?
Answer: Yes.

At the time of his injury, Gibson (2.28GAA; .921SV%) had elevated his play substantially. Despite missing all but one game since February 22, Gibson is still 7th in GAA, 10th in SV% and even with Devan Dubnyk’s five shutouts.

Question: Is Jonathan Bernier a solid backup?
Answer: Yes.

After an 8-3 loss at Calgary, Bernier heard echoes of the Toronto critics. “That's how he just is, he'll look great for a while then let in a bunch,” was the general tone.

Not so fast. Bernier has gone 10-1-2 during Gibson's injury, leading the NHL in wins, including a spectacular 43-save shutout at Chicago, which paved the way for his being named the 2nd Star of the Week in early March. One other thing that Bernier has going for him is the fact that Carlyle likes him, remembering him well from his beleaguered Toronto days.

The Ducks are third in the NHL in goals against. As Gibson makes his way back into the rotation, the goaltending controversy will ignite amidst media and fans, but not between Carlyle’s ears. He’s got two solid options in net and won’t hesitate to use both in the postseason.

Question: What crafty overhaul will Bob Murray pull off at the trade deadline?
Answer: A very astute one.

Surely, the media geniuses who stare at online salary cap charts thought, a defenseman would be jettisoned to make some space for a wing. That didn’t happen last summer (Fowler stayed put), and Murray raised eyebrows when he didn’t deal Sami Vatanen away at the deadline, all the while knowing that Clayton Stoner would not be on IR all season. Gutsy move by Murray, who went all in on his substantial defense yet still made a move for what has turned out to be the best of all March deadline acquisitions, snagging Patrick Eaves from Dallas, who (as of 3/30) has 7-2-9 in 15 games with the Ducks. Eaves is as responsible for the Ducks’ current win streak as any player, and is a terror in the low slot, where it matters. If you’d have asked most people which Patrick the Stars would have dealt, they’d have said “Sharp.”

QUESTIONS OUTSTANDING: THE PLAYOFFS

Question: Can the Ducks overcome their Game 6 (and Game 7) failures of recent years?
Answer: Stay tuned. Can’t be answered until it’s time.

Question: Mirror, mirror on the wall, are the Ducks a Contender?
Answer: Yes.

Due to the mental shift and resurgence the Ducks have enjoyed since the bye week in early March, something tells this writer that the Ducks are headed to a conference final showdown against the mighty Blackhawks.

If so, the key to a return to the Cup final is as simple and as complicated as this: Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry must see the same serious game face in the mirror that Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane view each day. That is, are the playoff failures of the past four years sticking in the duo’s respective craws enough to spark their hunger? Will they refuse to be denied, à la Toews and Kane? If Getzlaf and Perry can match that intensity, the Ducks can play for Stanley silver. The answer is in the mirror.

Worth Remembering:

The Ducks’ record this season indicates a generally consistent performance.

After opening the season 0-3-1 (all on the road), the Ducks went 9-5-3, then 9-4-4, then 8-1-1 before a January/February dalliance with mediocrity (7-9-1). The team is 9-1-2 in their last 12 games, mostly without their number one netminder, at exactly the right time of the regular season.

Postseason Surprise Vibes:

Watch out for Chris Wagner, fourth line winger, and Brandon Montour, rookie defenseman.

With Clayton Stoner coming available, the Montour, who turns 23 on April 11, will have a hard time cracking the lineup. But with his unbridled confidence and willingness to shoot at any time, it might be some veterans taking a seat instead.

As for Wagner, his reemergence alongside Nate Thompson and Logan Shaw (Jarred Boll won’t see a lot of action in the postseason), he’s supplanted Stefan Noesen (to NJD), Joe Cramarossa (to VAN) and Ondrej Kase as a key to the fourth line. Tenacious, and always willing to get physical vs. much larger players. He’s as good a candidate as any to get a bounce or two in the post.

Josh Brewster is a Columnist for The Fourth Period and the host of Anaheim Ducks' postgame radio show since 2006. Be sure to follow him on Twitter.

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