ANAHEIM – When the Buffalo Sabres last saw the Anaheim Ducks just over two months ago in First Niagara Center, the visitors were a team in complete crisis. The edition of the Ducks they will see Wednesday night in Honda Center is the version many experts picked last fall to be a Stanley Cup contender.
Anaheim enters the game on a five-game winning streak and holding a 12-1-1 record in its last 14 games. The Ducks own the NHL’s best record since Christmas, both overall (19-4-2) and on the road (10-1-2), and have compiled an NHL-best plus-29 goal differential in that period.
The Ducks have scored five goals or more for a franchise-record five straight games, a far cry from where they were prior to the holidays. Their 3-0 loss to the Sabres on Dec. 17 was the seventh time they had been shut out in their first 30 games and dropped their record to 11-14-5.
The Ducks were 1-7-2 over the season’s first 10 games – scoring just 11 goals in those games and enduring five shutouts. After getting to Game Seven of last year’s Western Conference final against Chicago, the job status of coach Bruce Boudreau was a daily topic during the season’s first three months.
Not now. According to Sabres coach Dan Bylsma, it’s no surprise how hot Anaheim has gotten.
“It’s hard to believe the Ducks were in that spot to begin with,” Bylsma said after practice Tuesday in Honda Center. “Remembering them coming to Buffalo and scouting the games, we were looking at Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry, Ryan Kesler, it was a team full of speed and talent. We thought they were scary on tape even though they weren’t winning a lot of games back then. We felt that way playing against them.
“I think they’re one of the better teams in the league. Now they’re at that level. and it’s no surprise. ... a team I wouldn’t want to play come the playoffs.”
Getzlaf leads NHL skaters in scoring since the All-Star break with 16 points in 11 games and has the top rating at plus-13. The Anaheim captain opened the season in an epic slump, with his only goal over the first 33 games being an empty netter. He still has only eight goals after seasons of 31 and 25, respectively, the last two years but has a team-high 39 assists.
“You didn’t really understand what was going on at the beginning of the year,” said Sabres winger Jamie McGinn, who regularly clashed with the Ducks during his days in San Jose. “They have the firepower and the leadership that can take them to the next level and that’s what they’re showing right now. They stuck with it and turned it around. It’s a pretty amazing turnaround.”
Chad Johnson blanked the Ducks in Buffalo, setting a Sabres franchise-record in a shutout by frustrating Anaheim with 44 saves.
“They’ve really found their game,” Johnson said. “They’re really hot as a group. You know with the amount of talent they had on that team that a guy like Getzlaf with the amount of skill that he has, he wasn’t going scoreless all season.
“I think everybody knew they had a good ‘D’ corps, solid goaltending and offense. You go through ruts and maybe all the past playoffs they went through played a factor how they started.”
Defenseman Cody Franson returned to the Sabres Tuesday but skated in a red, non-contact sweater. He suffered a neck injury on a hard hit from Scott Hartnell Friday in Columbus and his status for this road trip is uncertain.
“He’s dealing with probably maybe two injuries,” Bylsma revealed. “So he’s got some ways to go I think before he leaves the red jersey behind him.”
With Tuesday’s trade of Mike Weber, Carlo Colaiacovo is expected to get back in the lineup as Franson sits out.
All the Sabres were at practice Tuesday. Brian Gionta, Josh Gorges, Evander Kane and David Legwand sat out Monday in Buffalo on maintenance days but returned to the ice here and are expected to play Wednesday.
Former Sabres forward Chris Stewart will not be in the Anaheim lineup, as he’s missed the last five games with a broken jaw suffered during a fight with Columbus’ Dalton Prout. Stewart is expected to miss at least another month.