Anaheim Ducks score regulation win over Rangers — and avoid NHL infamy

ANAHEIM, Calif. — You knew it wasn’t going to be easy. The Ducks don’t do anything easy. At least when it comes to winning.

Even when the victories were easier to rack up four or five years ago, the Ducks rarely did it free of great stress. These days, wins seem harder than ever to come by. So, when Anaheim held a third-period lead for the first time all season on Wednesday night, it was a guarantee that every nail would be bitten.

“We like to make it interesting,” said goalie John Gibson, smiling — a rare sight this year.

In the end, the Ducks won, 3-2, over the New York Rangers. The announced crowd of 13,759 — populated by a fair number of fans in the visiting Blueshirts’ gear — witnessed the first victory this season Anaheim has put together within 60 minutes. It took them 20 games to do it, but they managed to avoid an infamous statistic. A loss would have put them in company with the 2017-18 Arizona Coyotes, the first NHL team to not win in regulation over their first 20 contests.

Those Coyotes went 2-15-3 to start their season. These Ducks were 5-13-1 going into Wednesday night’s game. All five wins came in overtime or a shootout. As futility goes, another defeat would have drawn infinitely more attention to a terrible start that put them at the bottom of the entire league.

Was it on their minds?

“It wasn’t on mine,” Anaheim coach Dallas Eakins insisted. “It’s just grab two points and keep moving.”

The feeling was different among the players. Or, at least, they didn’t mind admitting it.

“I think we all needed it,” Gibson said. “Obviously, we knew we haven’t won a game in regulation and we had to show that we could be able to win games. Maybe it wasn’t the prettiest, but it’s something to build off.”

“It’s a big lift for the whole group,” Troy Terry said. “Winning in overtime and winning in regulation are big confidence boosters for the whole group. Everyone should feel that we can play against anybody, and anybody can be on the ice to do the job.”

Speaking with The Athletic hours earlier, following the morning skate, Ducks center Ryan Strome said the team’s zero in the regulation-wins column was “more talked about probably from the outsiders than the inside.”

“Although it’s been overtime, a win’s a win,” he continued. “Unfortunately, we haven’t been able to build off any of those wins. It feels like we have a win, and we just can’t get it going a little bit.

“It’s our job to get the two points and compete every night. Hopefully, guys are starting to get beyond the point of being frustrated and just bear down and do what it takes. There’s not really many answers in this league other than work ethic and compete. Hopefully those are the answers.”

Against the Rangers, the Ducks pulled together, scrambled and scrapped enough to secure their sixth win, and a sigh of relief after dropping all three on a recent road trip. The player who needed the win the most was probably Gibson, the star netminder who’s come out of four starts this season simply because he was under constant attack in one-sided defeats.

The goals that got through him Wednesday — one on a breakaway by Barclay Goodrow and the other on a partially screened point shot from Braden Schneider — were shots that he might have stopped on other nights. But there were several other attempts that he had no business keeping out of the net in what was an astonishing effort. Rangers center Mika Zibanejad had great chance after great chance among his six shots on Gibson and had to shake his head that none got by him.

Gibson’s winning 41-save night marked the fifth time in 16 starts this season he has faced 40 or more shots. None of those include the four mercy hooks that Eakins gave him.

“John Gibson is one of the most competitive players I’ve ever coached or I’ve ever played with,” Eakins said. “He is as competitive as they get. I know he takes great pride in his game and takes even more pride in being able to steal them. He expects that of himself. And I think that’s going to go a long way for him.

“The way that our season’s gone early, I know it wears on him because of his competitiveness. But for him to come in and deliver for his teammates and our organization like he did tonight, it’s huge.”

For once, Gibson and the Ducks could work with a lead in the third period — something that hadn’t happened until Wednesday. With Rangers goalie Jaroslav Halak looking very human at the other end, Anaheim took advantage. Mason McTavish answered Goodrow’s goal with a rebound score just 31 seconds later. Dmitry Kulikov scored on a bad one Halak allowed while Terry whistled a shot past the veteran for a 3-1 edge.

Schneider’s score trimmed the Ducks’ lead late in the second. And the Rangers had the territorial edge decisively in the third as Anaheim tried to hang on. Gibson faced 17 shots while his team could only manage two. None got by him, though.

With 3:46 left, Artemi Panarin took a shot that Kaapo Kakko successfully deflected, but the puck hit the post. As it bounced in the crease while Gibson was in scramble mode, Vincent Trocheck tried to get to the rebound. Kulikov was there.

“The puck was laying right there. Empty net,” Kulikov said. “I was able to lift his stick. He wasn’t happy. He thought it was a hook. I think it was a good play. I just lifted his stick and he missed the puck.”

Even when they had the chance to truly sew it up, the Ducks had an issue. Terry’s bid to add an empty-net score from the neutral zone hit the crossbar. An easier play would have been to pass it off with Strome and Frank Vatrano open on the left side of the ice.

“My first thought was that the other two guys who were on the 3-on-1 with no goalie were probably going to have something to say to him,” Eakins said. “Again, in my head, I’m like, ‘Man, that’s our luck.’ We’ve had some incredible luck. Not on the good side. At least we were able to close it out.”

An ease permeated the Ducks’ locker room. Keeping morale up has been as much a task as trying to win games and show the greater hockey world that they’re not on an all-hands march towards the first pick in the draft and Connor Bedard.

Ducks Nation, of course, would love to get a No. 98 jersey ready for Bedard. (We’re assuming No. 98 as that’s his number with the WHL’s Regina Pats). But the players on this team don’t look at things that way. They want to win. Even if there is common knowledge that the club is still very much in rebuild mode. Losing isn’t fun. Losing stinks.

“The NHL is a tough league,” Strome said. “Every other day, you’ve got to go compete. You’ve got to try to get better. The biggest thing for us is just the consistency. There’s been some games where we’ve just been horrible. And then there’s some games where we show really good signs, and we’d go toe-to-toe with good teams. We would hang in there and play good hockey.

“I think for us it’s just finding the template to what works. The wins and losses are going to take care of themselves if we can find a consistent effort and consistent system that we can play and work for us day in and day out. If we can do that, I think that’s going to solve a lot of our problems and we don’t have to answer all these questions about how we feel in the third period.”

In the Honda Center stands Wednesday morning sat general manager Pat Verbeek. Verbeek has been doing a lot of scouting, but he was watching the Ducks go through what Eakins called a “mini-practice” after taking Tuesday to rest following an early morning arrival from St. Louis. Strome said he didn’t notice Verbeek, but added that he’s 29 and it’s “maybe a little different for me.”

“I was on teams where we never saw the GM,” he said. “And I was on the Rangers where the GM sat there every single day.”

It’s not an uncommon thing. Former GM Bob Murray was often at morning skates. But while Strome sees every game as a new challenge and opportunity, he is fully aware that a team in the Ducks’ position will have its boss putting people under the microscope.

“Everyone’s always getting evaluated,” he said. “You’re trying to cement your spot for this team going forward and see where you fit in. So, I think there’s a lot to play for. Hopefully that’s the way other guys think too.”

The fewest points the Ducks have scored in a full season is 65. That was in 1997-98. They’re currently on pace for only 53. Maybe that’s a bit of history they can avoid. Watching St. Louis responding to an eight-game losing streak by winning seven in a row is something encouraging Eakins can point to. The Blues are more talented with higher expectations. But the Ducks can use any bit of hope.

“We’re all professionals,” Kulikov said. “This is what we do. Sometimes it’s harder to come to the rink and get yourself amped up for practice and things like that when things aren’t going your way. But with hard work and just taking it day by day, in this league anyone can play against anyone. Our team is no different than any other. We can play against anybody.

“Today, we just stuck with it. We got the lead, and we were good at protecting it in the third even though they were pressing quite a bit.”

Yes, this win looked a lot like some of the Ducks’ defeats. The opposing team controlled play and fired shot after shot. Still, this result was far more pleasing.

“I think you saw our lack of playing with the lead,” Eakins said. “It was almost like we were waiting for something bad to happen. And we are very thankful that Gibby was going to have none of that.”

(Photo: Ronald Martinez / Getty Images)

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