Ducks struggling to adjust as early-season comebacks wane: ‘Every game we’re just clawing’

ANAHEIM, Calif. — Well, all those comebacks were fun, weren’t they?

The Ducks kept doing it and doing it and a team that had bottomed out last season was starting to draw attention its way. No third-period deficit was too big to overcome, or so it felt like. Need a game-tying goal? Troy Terry or Leo Carlsson could get one for you. An overtime winner? Frank Vatrano or Mason McTavish will get the job done. Both? Leave it to McTavish. He’s done that. Heck, the 20-year-old tied a game and won it in regulation with a short-handed score in the dying seconds.

All the above happened within a six-game winning streak, which made you believe something is brewing in Anaheim that you didn’t expect considering this is merely Page 2 of the rebuild. That may still be true. As the promise of a rebirth wears off and the Ducks settle into the real grind of the season, they’re also learning that continuing to spot leads to teams and relying on third-period rallies is completely unsustainable.

Five losses in the last seven games since the win streak include a current three-game losing strip after Sunday’s 3-1 loss to St. Louis. The reality is the Ducks, who fell to 9-9-0, aren’t there yet as a good team. Not all that close either.


That word is key. They’re on the path to good. But they’re also just in the initial steps.

One thing is this nagging habit of falling behind. They’ve led after the first 20 minutes in only five of their 18 games and taken leads into the third period on just three occasions. When they went into the first intermission Sunday with a 2-0 deficit, it was the ninth time they’ve had to fight back from being down early.

Good teams win in all sorts of ways but playing with a lead is an important one. The last time they did that was the final 3:51 in Nashville after Adam Henrique’s deflection capped a third-period rally. The only time they’ve played the bulk of a game with a score advantage over the last three weeks was against a lowly and overmatched San Jose club.

“Playing with a lead is so much different than fighting from behind,” said Alex Killorn, their left wing in his first Anaheim season. “It seems like every game we’re just clawing and trying to find something. Whereas playing with a lead is a lot more fun. You can kind of get pucks deep and you’re not too worried about scoring. Plays usually come to you when you’re not forcing them.

“That’s kind of the way it’s been. We go down two goals and we’re just trying to force plays.”

This time, Jake Neighbours and Pavel Buchnevich put the Ducks in a two-goal hole. The first goal came off an own-zone pass from Killorn that Oskar Sundqvist intercepted, a turnover that Killorn owned immediately to his teammates as he skated to his bench and afterward in the locker room. The second goal was Buchnevich scoring on John Gibson’s doorstep seconds into a third power play immediately after they killed off a McTavish high-sticking double minor.

Six minor penalties raised their total to 87, which only trails Montreal for the most in the NHL. Add in five-minute majors, two misconducts and one bench minor and they’ve taken a league-leading 103 penalties. Their penalty kill has improved from a year ago but even the best units will get dinged if put to the test way too often. Even the Blues, who had an NHL-worst three power-play goals coming in, will convert if you give them enough chances.

Greg Cronin has the Ducks playing tougher and harder. But their coach acknowledged the penalties are a real issue.

“It builds up, right?” Cronin said. “It disrupts the flow of the game. You get guys that don’t kill sit there for a long time. It’s not good. Obviously, it’s the one stat that you don’t want to be the top of the league on for sure.”

On this night, those consecutive penalties ruined a better start than had been put forth in recent games. The Ducks held a shot advantage in the first 12 minutes of the game and had appeared to take a lead when Urho Vaakanainen popped in a rebound at the St. Louis net but that was nullified when the Blues correctly challenged for offside, which Carlsson was as Anaheim entered the attacking zone.

Cronin, though, wasn’t satisfied. Sure, for once his team wasn’t badly outshot in the first period or even the first half of the game. But the way he saw it, the Ducks didn’t jump all over a club that had played Saturday in Los Angeles and was never in the game against the Kings.

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Ducks coach Greg Conin has the team playing tougher and harder, but penalties are an issue. (Joe Sargent / NHLI via Getty Images)

“I didn’t see a lot of energy, which surprised me,” Cronin said. “I thought they’d be flying. There wasn’t a lot of energy. And then I think the penalties, the four-minute and then the two-minute right after that, probably wasn’t a good situation for us. We weren’t getting into a rhythm.

“It was a good road game by them. They were smart. They put it deep and didn’t make too many mistakes. And then obviously when we had that turnover and it ended up in a goal, it kind of was like, ‘Oh, what just happened?’ I didn’t see a lot of scoring chances really either direction. Yeah, but there wasn’t a lot of jump.”

On Friday, a 2-1 loss to Florida had them down by two in the first and they didn’t get a goal until Vatrano’s score well into the third. Cronin shook up the forward lines and got a spirited response as the Ducks dominated the final period. It couldn’t make up for being unable to generate a lot early on. The morning of that defeat, Cronin tried to identify the things that “sabotage our rhythm during games.” He thought back to what stood out in the game prior, an 8-2 runaway by Colorado.

It wasn’t necessarily the blowout score, the only defeat his club completely fell apart in. It was turnovers that his players made. More importantly, it was how the Avalanche started the contest. Initial shifts by superstars Nathan MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen along with linemate Valeri Nichushkin had them emphasizing dumping pucks behind the Ducks defensemen and chasing after them to establish a consistent forecheck.

It wasn’t fancy passing plays. It was, in Cronin’s view, establishing a tempo for the entire team to play in.

“But we have some players that refuse to do it,” he said. “Whether it’s ignorance or just being unaware of it. I don’t mean that in a negative way. It’s just the ignorance part of it. But we do it and it sabotages our rhythm. So, there was one line in the game that did it consistently in the entire game — which was (Brock) McGinn, (Sam) Carrick and Bo (Groulx). The entire game. They were just putting pucks deep, hunting them down, getting them back, getting scoring chances.

“That’s the way we have to play and then when you play that way, teams will cheat back to get pucks and they’ll create some gaps at the offensive blue line will allow that creativeness to develop naturally. You can’t force it in those areas.”

The words dump-and-chase might cause one to shudder, but Cronin came from the AHL’s Colorado Eagles and has tried to emulate what the parent Avalanche does and they’ve long been thought of as a club that prizes puck possession. His Eagles teams did that, proving those two concepts can co-exist. He also pointed to big, heavy and skilled reigning Stanley Cup champion Vegas as one that will also dump pucks into the offensive zone to create the pace it wants to dictate.

“It’s like we’ve got this old skin on a snake here and we keep wanting to grab onto the old skin instead of moving away from it,” Cronin said. “And some of that old skin is the turnovers. Some guys do it more often than others. Quite frankly, it’s got to stop. If we keep doing this, we take two steps forward and we take a step backwards. That step going backwards is usually hinged on those puck decisions.”

After scoring 26 goals in that six-game win streak, the Ducks are back to scuffling offensively. They’ve only scored four goals in the last three contests and have 14 over the past seven. Gibson hasn’t had a ton of offensive support in general. He’s won only four of 11 starts despite a promising return to high-level form with an impressive .927 save percentage and 2.27 goals-against average. “He’s been terrific,” Cronin said of their backbone. “He’s a bright spot.”

The Ducks have only given that bright spot 17 goals in his starts. On Sunday, they could only muster a McTavish goal on the 31 shots against Blues goalie Joel Hofer. Hofer made some quality saves, but Killorn said, “I think we’ve got to work on creating more scoring chances in the O-zone.”

“We’ve done a really good job in our D-zone,” the winger added. “We haven’t given up a ton. We’re in a lot of tight games. But two goals in this league typically doesn’t win games. You need to score three. We just got to find ways to score more and create more once we’re in the O-zone.”

This is a side effect when Carlsson doesn’t play, as general manager Pat Verbeek sticks to their management plan in building up the 18-year-old while concurrently playing him big minutes in a huge first-line role. But he played Sunday. What also hasn’t helped is Trevor Zegras and Jamie Drysdale continue to be sidelined by injury. Zegras, who has just one goal and one assist, missed his sixth straight game. Drysdale, a sweet skater and puck-mover on the blue line, hasn’t played since the Oct. 15 home opener against Carolina.

Both are listed with the unspecified lower-body injury. I asked Cronin if those injuries have a direct tie to them missing a large chunk or all of training camp and the preseason because of difficulty in reaching terms on their new contracts.

“A lot of it’s tied to that,” he said. “I just think it’s bad karma. You can’t replicate one-on-one battles, intensity that you get in a training camp practice with summer training. Players might be trying their hardest to get into shape and match what we’re doing on the ice, but they can’t. You can’t do it. And I think a lot of the stuff that we were doing was a little bit different than what they’ve done in the past. You can go back to the symbolic no-stick one-on-one battles. They don’t do it and then it triggers certain parts of your body that maybe you weren’t using in your summer training. Things break down.

“Jamie came a little bit earlier but Jamie’s a 100-miles-an-hour guy. Maybe he should have come in at 70 and then gone to 80, then gone to 90 and then try to get up to speed. But he’s trying to go 110. When he’s going from 50 and the rest of the team’s at 90, that’s probably what happened without being a doctor or trainer. Z’s thing mirrors probably what happened with Jamie. That area from your knees to your chest. That’s the core area. There’s a lot of pressure on those areas when you’re battling people.”

They’re using patience with those two. Patience will be required for the rest of the Ducks as well when it comes to the steps taken to be a consistent winner again. Getting ahead of the opposition is a start.

(Top photo of Urho Vaakanainen battling for the puck with St. Louis Blues’ Brandon Saad: Debora Robinson / NHLI via Getty Images)

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