On the wall in the Anaheim Ducks' dressing room, right between the lockers of goaltender Frederik Andersen and defenceman François Beauchemin, there hangs a wooden plaque, with room to mount 16 pucks. The pucks symbolize the journey to the Stanley Cup championship – and the 16 wins needed to get there.
On Tuesday morning, as the Ducks made their way to Chicago to prepare for the sixth and potentially deciding game of the Western Conference final, there were already 11 pucks in place. Seven feature the Ducks' own logo, representing wins at home. Two others have the Winnipeg Jets logo and there's one with Calgary's and one with Chicago's, representing wins on the road.
In what has turned into another manically entertaining Western Conference final, the Ducks are on a historic roll right now. They are only the second team in NHL history (after the 1979 New York Rangers) to go 14 games into the playoffs without losing a game in regulation.
Their three defeats have all come in overtime and the Ducks now have two chances to wrap up the series against the Blackhawks and advance to the final for the third time in franchise history.
Last year's third-round series between the Blackhawks and the Los Angeles Kings was one for the ages, ending in overtime of the seventh game, and this year, Chicago and Anaheim are putting on a riveting, comparable show.
In Monday night's fifth game, which finished as a 5-4 overtime victory for the Ducks, Anaheim had a 3-0 first-period lead. In past years and past playoffs, that would have been a signal to reach for the clicker and change the channel. But the Blackhawks got it close and then, with time running out, received not one but two goals from team captain Jonathan Toews in the final 1 minute 50 seconds of regulation to send it to overtime.
Predictably, the Ducks – with zero momentum and theoretically on their heels after such a crushing turn of events – came out and won the game in the first minute of overtime, with soon-to-be unrestricted free agent Matt Beleskey scoring the winner.
Beleskey is the Ducks' latest unsung hero, part of their heavy physical supporting cast, a player who was born in Windsor, played his junior hockey in Belleville, Ont., and grew up cheering for Wendel Clark and the Maple Leafs.
"How can you not love him, growing up in the Toronto area?" Beleskey asked in an interview. "He was always fun to watch."
As he edged closer to NHL duty, Beleskey said he took inspiration from Brenden Morrow – and if the Ducks end up playing the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Stanley Cup final, Beleskey will get a chance to face his role model with a championship on the line.
Beleskey had a breakout regular season, scoring 22 goals in 65 games. Only Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry had more. Attempts to negotiate an in-season contract extension failed and so Beleskey can test free agency this summer, soon after his 27th birthday. His size and willingness to go to the net make him an attractive commodity, someone who needs to play with a good set-up man, but can finish when required, as these playoffs have demonstrated.
"I've always been a shooter, my whole life," Beleskey said. "When I was young, that's all I did – was shoot pucks in my driveway. It's been a strength of mine, just knowing when to do it, no hesitation, just shoot it, just have that confidence you can score when you get the opportunity. I think Bruce [Boudreau] and the coaches have been all over me to shoot the puck when I get a chance. With their help, and me keeping that mindset, I've just been able to get more shots this season."
After three tight-checking games to open the series, the teams have exploded for goals in the past two, with both Andersen and the Blackhawks' Corey Crawford leaking goals at key intervals. That's been a common theme throughout these playoffs, where even the most accomplished goaltenders of their generation – the likes of Henrik Lundqvist and Carey Price – have blinked occasionally, not necessarily a bad thing.
Goalies that are too efficient can help leech all the drama out of a match. The ones with a bit of skittishness in their games keep you on the edge of your seat and force you to wait until the last minute to see what happens.
Anaheim looks and sounds as if it's a confident and well-prepared team. In addition to that wall plaque for pucks, the Ducks also have a series of inspirational slogans painted on their dressing-room wall – all of them dealing with practice and preparation, of getting ready to soar in the big moment.
"Practice the right way all the time" is John Wooden's contribution. Jerry West advises: "You won't get much done in life if you only work hard on the days you feel good." Roy Williams offers: "Everyone has the will to win. Only champions have the will to prepare to win." And then there is this, from Muhammad Ali: "I hated every minute of training, but I love every minute of being a champion."
Eleven pucks, five to go, and the Ducks will return to the winner's circle, for the second time since 2007.
"To be this close, everybody in this room knows where we are, where we stand, what the game's going to be like," Perry said. "You have to go in there and you have to believe that you can win in that building again. That's the approach we're going to take."
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