Ducks: Pieces coming together?

ANAHEIM–The Ducks squeezed in a short practice Thursday morning, spending their last bits of time shooting at the crossbar in a last-man-standing competition.

After second-line center Saku Koivu absorbed some barbs for being the only player (goalies included) who didn't strike metal, the team hustled off to LAX for a flight to Denver in preparation for Friday night’s game against the Avalanche.

The coaches and players appeared in good spirits after defeating the visiting New York Rangers, 5-2, the night before at Honda Center, keeping them within two points of the final playoff spot in the Western Conference.

The Ducks are certainly in a better position than they were a year ago with 15 games remaining. They were riding a five-game losing streak coming out of the 2½-week Olympic break that put them nine points back of the final playoff berth. Heading into the break, they were just three points out.

With a number of Ducks playing all the way through to the gold-medal game, the experience seemed to take a lot out of the players, Ducks coach Randy Carlyle said.

"Our Olympians were participating in a highly emotional and media frenzy environment," he said. "When you come back to your normal job, it was hard for us to develop that energy again."

That’s not to say the Ducks aren’t facing some distinct challenges during this stretch run.

Namely, All-Star goalie Jonas Hiller remains out indefinitely with vertigo-like symptoms that have affected his timing. Hiller has missed the last 10 games and has not reported any progress.

The good news is Dan Ellis had another strong game in his place Wednesday night, stopping 30 shots in the victory against New York for his fourth win in the last five starts.

After Hiller went on injured reserve and back-up goalie Curtis McElhinney gave up 23 goals over five games, the Ducks sent McElhinney to Tampa Bay for Ellis on Feb. 24. He lost his first start against Minnesota in overtime, but Carlyle said Ellis has since provided "a shot in the arm."

"He has made some stops that have been highlight reels, but he has been steady too," Carlyle said. "That’s one thing we asked him, to steady our game from a goaltending standpoint."

Ellis is 4-1 in his career against Colorado with a shutout.

At least the Ducks are getting healthier in other areas.

Koivu returned from a six-game absence because of a groin injury and tallied an assist against the Rangers, and left wing Jason Blake is close to returning after missing three games because of a deep cut on his hand, Carlyle said.

A few others continue to build on career-best seasons.

Corey Perry scored two goals against the Rangers to give him a career-high of 33. Lubomir Visnovsky also scored twice, becoming the first defenseman in franchise history to record five goals in a three-game span. In just his third full season, Bobby Ryan scored his 31st goal of the season Wednesday night, putting him closer to the career-high of 35 he notched last season.

Lest we forget defenseman Toni Lydman, who leads the league with a plus-29 rating.

"Do I think we’re still a work in progress?" Carlyle asked. "No, we’re not. What we’re trying to do is be as consistent as we possibly can in our A game."

The Ducks can’t afford to get reckless now. Their final 15 games feature nothing but card-carrying members of Western Conference, most of which are digging just as hard for every point.

"There’s no tomorrow," Carlyle said before heading out to catch his flight. "We’ve got the personnel that can play at the elite level and, at times, when we get it all going, look impressive. But, there are times within the game when you can lose it too."

Sort of like the crossbar competition, there’s little room for error anymore.