ANAHEIM — The trip to hell and back only took four years, without help from Elon Musk.
Four years ago the Ducks made the playoffs. The year before that, they lost a seven-game series of head-on collisions with Nashville in the Western Conference finals.
In the past three seasons, they have lost 100 games, plopping into last place in their COVID-19-arranged division last season.
On Wednesday night the Ducks beat Seattle for their 17th win. That equaled last year’s total in a 56-game season. They have the best Pacific Division record and, going into Friday’s game with Arizona, were within one point of Western Conference leader Minnesota.
All that euphoria took a bit of a U-turn when they lost, 6-5, in overtime to Arizona, which was the Coyotes’ sixth victory in 29 games.
Mirages are common in October and November. They eventually give way to The Real. Maybe that will still happen, but the Ducks just went 3-1-1 on a trip to Washington, Buffalo, Columbus, Pittsburgh and St. Louis, with two sets of back-to-backs, and without goalie John Gibson and captain Ryan Getzlaf for most of it.
On Nov. 28 the Ducks were blown out by Toronto and, at that point, had lost four of five games. They have played 11 games since then and have earned at least one point in 10.
“The expectations were low, apparently,” defenseman Josh Manson said. “But I never thought we were in bad shape. There’s a lot of skill on this team, and good goaltending. Getzie was coming back, and that was huge. When he’s going he’s a hard force to stop.
“To me, all the pieces were there for success.”
But when you glue together this jigsaw puzzle, you see a different picture and new questions.
Originally they were going to dedicate the season to player development and then stock their front window with some bright shiny objects at the March 21 trade deadline: Manson and Hampus Lindholm on the back end, Rickard Rakell up front.
All are eligible for free agency at season’s end. Maybe the Ducks would pry a couple of first-round picks for those worthy veterans, maybe more.
Some think this would be the prudent strategy even if the Ducks do make the playoffs.
A large slice of the Honda Center clientele would disagree with their lungs, or perhaps their retreating feet.
Playoff hockey was once regularly scheduled in Anaheim. It’s a drug, and withdrawal is agonizing.
Any playoff game would be a proper education for Troy Terry, Trevor Zegras and Jamie Drysdale. They might even do some teaching of their own.
Gibson fulfills the first requirement for a playoff run. The controlled violence of Manson would fulfill another.
“That’s so far away,” Manson said, shaking his head. “Our whole mantra has been to win today.”
They didn’t, thanks to myriad breakaways by the Coyotes and an overtime goal by Clayton Keller. Coach Dallas Eakins was thankful for the point, eager for the next practice for a little reinforcement.
“We’ve had great discipline,” he said. “We have a certain way to forecheck, to get the puck out of our zone. Arizona plays a different game. It’s fun. We saw them and said, hey, that looks like fun. It didn’t work.
“In the second period we couldn’t get the puck out of our zone, kept icing the puck, and here came fresh players over the boards for them. Breakouts are like a dance. When everyone’s in his proper spot, it’s like we’re all on the same beat, hearing the same music. We were hearing three different types of music or so tonight.”
But Eakins credited his guys for parking those lapses and playing a vigorous third period, with 19 shots on goal.
Manson is 30. His dad Dave played 16 years in the league and rolled up 46.5 hours of penalties. Nothing takes Josh by surprise, including trade whispers.
“I’m fortunate,” he said. “I know my path is already laid out for me. I just clear my head of all that stuff. What I wanted to do this year was just stay healthy. It’s been tough, being injured for the past two years, really.”
Manson has played 46 games the past two years. In 2017 and 2018 he played all but two, and in 2019 he averaged 22 minutes. He has answered every bell this season and has a 19:59 time-on-ice average.He remembers the overwhelming silence of the visitors’ locker room at Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena, when the Ducks sprawled just short of the finish line. There was no way he could anticipate the freefall that was coming.
“I knew we had a special team,” Manson said. “You certainly don’t go into a season anticipating losing. But even Murph (General Manager Bob Murphy) said it. We had a window there for a couple of years. It was all lining up. I’ll admit I didn’t expect the kinds of losses we’ve had recently.
“This year is different. The coaches have emphasized quick transitions, not messing around when we get the puck, not going with as many D-to-D passes. Just get it up the ice, and the forwards have done a good job getting themselves into position. We’ve run a lot of drills in practice. And the good thing is that we’re using the same things that we’ve practiced.
“But the playoffs are a different animal,” he added. “You want guys who have been there before. You need to be ready for that type of game. But we’re not even close to that point yet.”
The Ducks’ quick transition, if it continues, will force them to reassess their makeover. Maybe it’s time to put away the blueprints, because the old house looks ready for winter, and beyond.