When the Anaheim Ducks lost nine of their first 10 games, making the playoffs looked like an uphill climb. Now they're Pacific Division champions for the fourth consecutive year.
Behind a 24-save shutout from Frederik Andersen, the Ducks beat the Washington Capitals 2-0 Sunday night in their regular-season finale. By sweeping weekend games at the Colorado Avalanche and Capitals, Anaheim leapfrogged the Los Angeles Kings to win the division and set up a first-round matchup against the Nashville Predators.
Rebounding from the horrendous 1-7-2 start in October and a loss to the Kings on Thursday made the Ducks prouder of this accomplishment than anything else they've done in the regular season over the past few years.
"The season's been up and down, obviously it didn't start the way we wanted to," said Corey Perry, who scored his team-leading 34th goal of the season Sunday. "We had a lot of meetings early, talked about it and stuff clicked at Christmas. Everybody came back to play and ever since then, it's been the team that we thought we could be."
The Ducks went 34-10-5 since Christmas to help coach Bruce Boudreau win the eighth division title of his career. Boudreau has won the division in each of his seven chances when coaching a team for a full season, dating to his time with the Capitals.
Boudreau called this a "great reward" for players who bought in to playing defensive hockey when the goals weren't coming early. Anaheim allowed the fewest goals against of any NHL team, giving Andersen and John Gibson the William M. Jennings Trophy.
Andersen was sharp in his return from a five-game absence because of a concussion, most notably stopping T.J. Oshie late in a sleepy game to preserve the shutout.
"Freddie was tremendous," Boudreau said. "That could've been as good as I've ever seen him. His movements, he was square to the puck, there was no extra movements in his game."
Allowing the fewest goals against this season is a team accomplishment that stemmed from a rough start.
"When we weren't scoring this year, what kept us in it was our defense, and that's something that we're able to hang our hat on, and that's what wins you playoff games," defenseman Cam Fowler said.
The playoffs are where the Ducks must now prove themselves after losing in the Western Conference final a year ago to the Chicago Blackhawks. They'll face the West's top wild card, Nashville, beginning Friday.
"We're going to have our hands full, no doubt about it," Fowler said. "Should be one heck of a series."
The Presidents' Trophy-winning Capitals open the first round Thursday against the Philadelphia Flyers. Washington was in cruise control in game 82, resting star forwards Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom and defensemen John Carlson and Brooks Orpik with nothing to play for.
Capitals coach Barry Trotz joked that even though the Flyers had scouts in attendance, "I don't know if they'll get a whole lot from that game." This was the Capitals just trying to get through without any damage.
Backup goaltender Philipp Grubauer stopped 19 shots starting in place of Braden Holtby, who got a rest instead of an attempt to break Martin Brodeur's single-season wins record. Holtby tied the record Saturday in St. Louis, making the Capitals' game Sunday mean nothing.
"Not a bad effort, though, for the last one, when there's not a whole lot on the line for us and we're thinking about next week more than we are tonight," defenseman Matt Niskanen said.
The Ducks, who got goals from Perry and rookie Nick Ritchie, were locked in on their final regular-season game. Losing to Los Angeles on Thursday was one final taste of adversity, but when the Kings blew a three-goal lead and lost to the Winnipeg Jets in a shootout Saturday, it opened the door.
With Gibson and banged-up center Ryan Kesler sent back to California after a win Saturday at the Colorado Avalanche, one more win was all the Ducks needed to complete their season-long comeback and they didn't let the opportunity pass.
"It would've been easy to say, 'Ah, forget about it' after we lost to L.A.," Boudreau said. "But they didn't and they had to win two games on the road and they did."
NOTES: Capitals F Justin Williams was honored before playing his 1,000th regular-season NHL game. In addition to a video tribute, he was presented with a commemorative crystal and a silver stick. ... Holtby was honored for his 48th win and received a standing ovation from the crowd.