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John Gibson's return has brought the Ducks back to where they started

John Gibson's strong play since returning from the AHL has given his teammates a confidence boost. AP Photo/Alex Gallardo

None of this has gone according to plan.

Not the Anaheim Ducks' season, that's for sure.

Nor the early parts of goalie John Gibson's career. That, too, is undeniable.

Not yet, at least. And that's what makes this so interesting.

With the team's plans so twisted out of their original shape, the fact that it could turn out the way everyone hoped in the first place makes the storyline all the more enticing.

Imagine if after all this -- Gibson's banishment to the American Hockey League, the Ducks' woeful start to the season, their current last-place standing in the Pacific Division -- it turns out to be their year after all.

Just as it was too early to write off this talented, well-coached team, it's too early to read too much into a recent spate of stronger play, especially after a desultory 5-1 defeat to the Carolina Hurricanes on Friday.

But as we head toward the Christmas break, it does appear the Ducks are finally getting it. Part of the reason for that is that the 22-year-old Gibson is proving to be just what the Ducks thought and hoped for all along.

His lackluster performance against the Hurricanes (three goals on 17 shots) notwithstanding, he boasts a .934 save percentage since being called up when Frederik Andersen went down with injury. In eight games this season, Gibson has pitched two shutouts and not allowed more than three goals in any one outing.

With the Ducks desperate to find some sort of groove and re-establish themselves as a Stanley Cup favorite, they have come full circle, back to the same goaltending tandem of Andersen and Gibson that they had a year ago.

Monday, backup Anton Khudobin cleared waivers, signaling that the battle for the starting job will begin anew between Gibson and Andersen, a restricted free agent at the end of the season.

Khudobin was one of many new pieces general manager Bob Murray added after the Ducks fell at home last spring in Game 7 of the Western Conference finals to the eventual champion Chicago Blackhawks.

The idea was that Gibson, who began last season looking to be the Ducks' starter, would be able to fine-tune his game more fully in the AHL while Khudobin backed up Andersen.

The plan worked well for Gibson, who was solid in the minors. However, neither Andersen (.913 save percentage) nor Khudobin (.908) has been at the top of his game as the Ducks have struggled at both ends of the ice.

Former goalie and current analyst Brian Hayward believes the team's precarious playoff position -- they are three points back of the third-place Vancouver Canucks with two games in hand -- means head coach Bruce Boudreau will have to go with the hot hand in goal regardless.

Currently, that's Gibson.

"Right now, the one constant is Gibson and the way he's played since he's been called up," Hayward said.

The analyst believes that while the Ducks are much better defensively than they were at the beginning of the season, Gibson has also helped the team with consistent play since his recall.

"The whole focus [of the team] has changed, but John's been really good since he's been called up," Hayward said. "Obviously they're disappointed in the way their season's gone, but they're fortunate and they realize that."

Corey Hirsch, another netminder-turned-analyst, agrees that Gibson has to be The Man for the Ducks moving forward.

"He's much more consistent than Andersen," Hirsch said recently. "I think the team likes playing for [Gibson]. They play better and look more confident in front of him. He's ready to take the reins."

And while Andersen was the starter during the Ducks' run to the conference finals last spring, he did seem to wilt as the series against the Blackhawks progressed, another factor that Hirsch believes will ultimately play into Gibson's status as the starter moving forward.

"I think Andersen's play in the [in the conference finals] last year really lost the guys' confidence in him as a guy that can win them the Cup," Hirsch said.

Gibson, a man of few words, acknowledged that everyone wants to play in the NHL, so the start of the season wasn't exactly what he had in mind. After talking to Murray in the offseason, though, he understood the plan for him playing in the minors.

"Yeah, we had a good conversation before I left," Gibson said.

The 39th overall pick in 2011 -- who also won a bronze medal for the United States at the 2011 under-18 world championships -- Gibson figures to be the starting goalie for Team North America at the World Cup of Hockey next fall if he continues his current level of play. Still, Gibson insisted he's not doing anything different than when he was with the Ducks last season.

The routine of playing is key regardless of where you're playing, he said.

"The more you play, the more comfortable you are at any level," Gibson said.

Former goalie Dwayne Roloson, now the Ducks' goaltending coach, feels that Gibson's preparation has been excellent, first at the AHL level and then carrying over to the NHL.

"I think the biggest thing is the way he's prepared for every game now," Roloson said. "I think just his commitment to getting better. To me, he was going down with the right frame of mind."

Roloson called the adjustments Gibson had to make "fine-tuning. The sky's the limit for him. It really is."

"The way he reads the play, he reminds me a lot of Dominik Hasek; he's always ahead of the game," Roloson added. "It's a special knack. Not too many guys have it."

Gibson said he was "watching here and there" how the big club was faring while he was in San Diego. Now that he's back, though, he feels the hard lessons of the first part of the season will pay dividends come playoff time.

"Dealing with adversity a little earlier, that might help us out in the long run," Gibson said.

He also pointed out that teams that have success in the playoffs -- like the Los Angeles Kings, who dumped Anaheim in Game 7 in the second round of the playoffs in 2014 -- don't always have regular-season success.

The Ducks are learning to win games in all different manners, Gibson added.

"The offense will come, we know that," he said.

This isn't exactly how anyone drew it up, but maybe that's OK.