- Associated Press - Wednesday, April 13, 2016

ANAHEIM, Calif. (AP) - The NHL’s stingiest defensive team also had the best power play and the best penalty kill this season.

The Anaheim Ducks turned several flaws into strengths over the past 3 1/2 months, and that’s one big reason they’re heading into the Stanley Cup playoffs with confidence.

The Ducks went back to work Wednesday in preparation for Friday’s first-round series opener against Nashville. This practice seemed light years away at Christmas, when Anaheim was foundering at 29th in the overall NHL standings as the league’s lowest-scoring team by a long shot.

The team leaders and coaches solidified their commitment to responsible hockey during the holiday break. A roster with several exciting offensive talents decided to put defense first, and the results took the Ducks all the way back to the Pacific Division title.

“Well, I don’t think it was that hard of a sell, considering we hadn’t scored any goals,” said captain Ryan Getzlaf, whose only goal before Christmas went into an empty net.

“We needed to figure out a way to win hockey games,” he added. “By (committing to defense), it enabled us to actually score more goals and be in more hockey games. So it wasn’t that hard (to commit). It was a matter of just getting that system down, where everybody knew what everybody else was doing all the time, and that changes everything.”

The Ducks’ improvements on special teams are stark and impressive. They even became the first team since the 1984-85 New York Islanders to top the league on the power play and the penalty kill simultaneously.

It’s an extraordinary turnaround from last season, when assistant coach Brad Lauer was fired in response to the power play’s 28th-place finish in the league standings.

Anaheim converted 15.7 percent of its man-advantages last season before shooting up to 23.1 percent this year. New assistant Paul MacLean, the former Jack Adams Award winner in Ottawa, gets much of the credit from Boudreau and the players for the power play’s dramatic turnaround, although MacLean directs it right back at the Ducks.

“We did a lot of work on it in practice, and we also stayed calm,” Getzlaf said. “Mac has definitely shown that he doesn’t panic. He doesn’t get on guys. He lets us work through things. The power play is a very funny thing. It’s very fragile at times. You’re one or two power plays away from being in a slump if you let it get to that, so we’ve got to just continue along with what we’re doing well.”

General manager Bob Murray echoed Getzlaf’s praise of MacLean’s approach.

“Paul is very calm and relaxed as he’s doing things,” said Murray, who showed his own admirable patience by keeping his team together during its miserable beginning to the season. “Even when it didn’t start quite right, he kept with the plan he had.”

The Ducks also killed 87.2 percent of their opponents’ power plays, including a stunning 90 percent at home. Defensive dynamo Ryan Kesler leads every aspect of Anaheim’s play on its own end of the ice, with Jakob Silfverberg and defensemen Cam Fowler, Simon Despres and Sami Vatanen also logging heavy penalty-kill minutes.

“Usually, special teams are pretty important when you get in an emotional series,” Getzlaf said. “It’s more about the timely scoring and preventing them from scoring.”

Overall, Anaheim and Nashville are among the stingiest teams in the league on offensive chances, allowing two of the league’s four fewest shot totals per game.

The Ducks won the Jennings Trophy for the first time in franchise history, edging out Washington and Los Angeles for the NHL’s fewest goals allowed. Goalies Frederik Andersen and John Gibson will share the trophy, but both goalies say the honor is part of the Ducks’ comprehensive commitment to defense.

“I kept believing in them that they were going to stick to it, and they did,” Murray said. “It just evolved that way.”

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