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1996-97 Revisited: Mighty Ducks Make Playoffs After Worst Start In Franchise History

How the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim shook of the slowest of starts to earn the first playoff berth ever for the organization.

Anaheim celebrates during the first round of the 1996-97 playoffs.
Anaheim celebrates during the first round of the 1996-97 playoffs.
Elsa/Getty Images

It's November of 1996.

The previous season of 1995-96 the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim had just narrowly missed the playoffs after being in the chase for the first time. The team put together a run of 12-4-3 over the final two months of the season to finish even with the Winnipeg Jets at 78 points in the standings, but the Jets earned the final spot thanks to having one more win.

So the Mighty Ducks start to the 96-97 season with a month of October that saw the team go 1-9-2 was a disappointment to say the least. Anaheim was held to two or fewer goals eight times during the stretch, and the two times they exploded for six goals in a game they ended up having to settle for a tie.

With all of four points through the first month, Anaheim was bottom of the Pacific Division and the Western Conference. The division-leading Colorado Avalanche were 11 points clear, and the Los Angeles Kings held the eighth and final playoff spot six point clear of the Ducks. Over the course of the rest of the season three teams, including Anaheim, would unseat the teams in playoff positioning in the West after the first month.

Why Did The Mighty Ducks Start So Poorly?

The combination of Teemu Selanne and Paul Kariya was synonymous with the Mighty Ducks of the mid-late 90's, so lacking one half of that dynamic duo at the start of the season was a major issue. Kariya missed the first 11 games of the campaign with a pulled abdominal muscle, contributing greatly the Anaheim offensive woes.

Selanne lead the team in scoring through the first month with six goals and seven assists in the 12 games, with Kevin Todd in second with four goals and seven assists. Veteran Jarri Kurri, signed in the offseason from the Rangers, contributed as well with three goals and four assists, while on the backend Roman Oksiuta chipped in three goals and five assists and Fredrik Olausson had two goals and three assists.

The lack of scoring punch affected the defense as well. For the full season Anaheim averaged 28.4 shots per game while allowing 32.7, yet during the opening month the Mighty Ducks put 26.8 shots on goal per game while allowing 32.5. Anaheim averaged 2.3 goals per game during October, well below their eventual season average of 3.0, while surrendering 4.2 against per game. Goalie Guy Hebert struggled as well, posting a .874 save percentage amidst the lack of support.

Righting The Ship

Anaheim didn't immediately vault up the standings with Kariya returning to the lineup in November, but the play stabilized and the team wouldn't lose more than three straight (which happened only twice) with Kariya and Selanne reunited. The offense kicked in to gear, with the Mighty Ducks averaging 3.3 goals per game in November and 3.7 goals per game in December.

By the time the All Star break rolled around Anaheim had pulled its season record up to 17-22-5, and Selanne, Kariya, and Hebert were all named to the Western Conference All Star team, giving the Mighty Ducks their first season with multiple All Star Game representatives. Selanne posted 25 goals and 31 assists in all 44 of the Mighty Ducks' games, while Kariya had 16 goals and 28 assists in 31 games. Hebert recovered as well, backstopping Anaheim to a 13-9-3 mark in his 26 starts following October with a .928 SV% and four shutouts during the span.

In the three months that followed the abysmal opening one, the Mighty Ducks didn't immediately vault upwards standings-wise, but they began winning more than they were losing. A 6-5-2 November was built upon with a 6-5-1 December. January saw Anaheim post a 7-5-1 mark before a 6-6-1 February. With two months left in the season the Mighty Ducks sat at 26-30-7, but were primed to make their big run.

Finishing Strong To Earn Home Ice

After a 3-1 loss at the Great Western Forum to Los Angeles on February 20, Anaheim began its best run of form for the season. The Mighty Ducks picked up points in 12 consecutive games, going 7-0-5 from February 22 to March 19, winning five and tying three against eventual playoff qualifiers during the stretch. Selanne and Kariya again lead the way, Selanne with 11 goals and eight assists while Kariya posted seven goals and 10 assists.

Yet Anaheim also saw significant contributions from Steve Rucchin with two goals and nine assists, Joe Sacco's two goals and six assists, and Ted Drury potting four goals and dishing two assists. The defense chipped in with Dmitri Mironov scoring three goals and adding eight assits, while Darren Van Impe had two goals and five assists. Hebert was lights-out as well, appearing in every game during the streak with a .946 SV%, and had nine games with more than 30 saves and two with more than 40.

The Mighty Ducks closed the season out with another unbeaten streak, going 5-0-2 over the final seven games. From February 22 on Anaheim went a league-best 13-3-7 to help the team sew up its first winning record, first playoff berth, and home ice against the Phoenix Coyotes in the first round. Selanne finished second in the league with 51 goals and second with 109 points, while Kariya earned Lady Byng honors with 99 points in 69 games while taking just three minor penalties.

Lessons For 2015-16

One could draw the parallel between the lack of Kariya for the start of the 96-97 season and Ryan Getzlaf's injury-marred start to 15-16; the fact that both were abdominal issues is an additional coincidence, though there's a significant age difference between the captains when the injuries occurred. Still, it could be argued that much like 96-97, only one of the troika of two centerpiece forwards and goalie has performed well. Once Getzlaf, Corey Perry, and Frederik Andersen start firing together, the whole team will benefit.

As noted in the preview for today's game against Nashville, there have been three teams each of the past two full seasons with the divisional format that have been outside the playoff picture at American Thanksgiving that would eventually earn their way in. The Ducks can't expect to immediately jump back in to the playoff discussion this season; it will take a long, concerted effort to claw back with points in more games than not each month. It also wouldn't hurt to get blisteringly hot either.

Expectations are very different for the 15-16 squad than the first Mighty Ducks team to make the playoffs. If anything, the organization has shown over its competitive playoff life that they have a track record of overcoming slow starts to make the postseason. The hill is as large as the Ducks have faced in the post-2005 lockout NHL, but history shows this franchise can, and likely will, get back in the thick of things.

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Historical data in this article via Hockey-Reference.