What an odd year it has been for Corey Perry and the Anaheim Ducks both, the team and the player swimming below the surface, with the NHL playoff races in full throttle.
First, Perry. On that Nov. 5 day he woke up with a sore jaw, Perry was sitting first in the NHL goal-scoring race, with 11 goals in his first 15 games, on pace for 60, a total that's only been reached twice since 1997. Perry was diagnosed with the mumps and missed five games. Then, just as he was getting his legs back under him again, he banged up his knee in a collision with Minnesota Wild defenceman Keith Ballard and missed another 10.
The Ducks had moved out both goalies – Jonas Hiller and Viktor Fasth – from the team that amassed 116 points and led the Western Conference last year, and put the net-minding job in the hands of a sophomore, Frederik Andersen, and a rookie, John Gibson. But Gibson got hurt on opening night, playing against his hometown team, the Pittsburgh Penguins, and didn't see NHL action again until February, or after Andersen got hurt.
Injuries forced general manager Bob Murray to seek out replacements everywhere – goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov arrived, as did defenceman Eric Brewer and forward Rene Bourque. None met the grade. At the trading deadline, Murray waded in and made more changes – adding defencemen James Wisniewski, Korbinian Holzer and Simon Després, along with forwards Tomas Fleischmann and Jiri Sekac, all of whom they're trying to integrate on the fly.
Sami Vatanen, who'd been their power-play quarterback all year, is inching closer to a return, as is Matt Beleskey, who helped pick up some of the goal-scoring slack when Perry was out.
Through it all, Anaheim has managed to pull away from the pack in the Pacific Division. At a time when the jockeying for playoff spots or home-ice advantage in the first round will likely go down to the wire in the other three divisions, Anaheim is the only team that's essentially home and cooled.
The Ducks will win the Pacific again and all that's left to decide is their first-round opponent, which will likely be one of the wild-card teams coming out of the Central.
Considering all the injuries, illnesses and changes, you'd think the Ducks would be getting bouquets tossed their way for their ability to cope. Instead, most of what you hear is the possibility of changes coming, if they can't go deeper in the playoffs than they did a year ago, when they lost in seven games in the second round to the eventual champion Los Angeles Kings.
It's funny how expectations – realistic or otherwise – can sometimes cloud perception.
Perry, the NHL's most valuable player in 2011, acknowledges that this has been one of his most challenging seasons, starting from the moment he fell ill.
"That wasn't a lot of fun," said Perry, in an interview before Wednesday night's game against the Calgary Flames. "I was in the hospital for three days. I couldn't be around the guys for 10 days. Just sitting at home doing nothing – I mean, I wasn't allowed to do anything. I wasn't allowed to go out. They wanted me to be pretty isolated. Then, coming back, I only played a few games and then I got hurt.
"Altogether, it was pretty much six or seven weeks I missed in the middle of the season. It was tough, but at the same time, you've got to get yourself prepared to play. I got over the mumps. I got over the knee injury. I still felt it when I came back. That's probably the hockey player in me, coming back a little early. It feels great now, and I'm just trying to push forward."
The Ducks were one of the teams hardest hit by the mumps, with Perry, François Beauchemin, Clayton Stoner and Emerson Etem all missing games and then feeling the effects long after they'd returned.
Contracting the mumps as an adult "just sucks the life out of you," Perry explained.
"The first day, I woke up and my jaw was sore. I talked to the doctor at the morning skate. We played that night. He said, 'Come back and we'll see how you feel.' I ate my pregame meal, went home and slept from 12:30 until 4 o'clock. I couldn't get out of bed. So I drove myself to the rink and by that time, my face looked like a beach ball on the one side. I had a fever of 104 [F]. I saw the doctor the next day and they immediately put me in the hospital.
"Just trying to get your legs back under you, it takes a toll on you. Beauch, he lost weight. I didn't. I just had no energy. I was still hungry. I was still eating and drinking fluids – where he couldn't even function, really."
Coach Bruce Boudreau has had Perry and his perennial linemate, Ryan Getzlaf, playing on different lines the past little while, though the chances are they'll be back together again when the playoffs start. According to Boudreau, Perry's effort level never flagged, even in difficult times.
"His desire to win and be the best is always there," Boudreau said. "You can tell that when you're on the bench and you're looking for a player to go out there, he's always looking at you, 'Am I up, am I up?' – or if someone comes off early, he's jumping up because he wants to get out there and play. That's one thing that's a fact about him. The other thing is, when things don't go his way, it probably eats at him a little bit."
Even after missing 15 games, Perry was still ninth in NHL goal scoring with 28 and tied for fourth on a goals-per-game average (.53) through Wednesday. Anaheim is a remarkable 26-1-7 in one-goal games this season, their first loss coming two nights previously against the Vancouver Canucks. They have also been one of the NHL's best comeback teams, winning 10 times when trailing after two periods. Over all, their 42-19-7 record had them tied for first overall in the NHL standings – and still they're flying low as a possible Stanley Cup contender.
"It's funny when you listen to people talk and you hear everything about other teams; we're probably one of the last teams that somebody's going to talk about," Perry said. "For us, we're used to it. I'm used to it. I've been here 10 years. When we won the Cup that year , it was the same way. We set a record [by earning at least a point in their first 16 games] to start the season, but we had to go out and prove it every single night, before people started watching and paying attention to us.
"I think guys in here don't really care. They just want to win. Everybody in this room wants to do that – pay that price to win – then they can talk about us later."