There is a level still out of reach for the Mighty Ducks, but like a kid stretching for the cookie jar they keep hoping to grow enough.
That top shelf is still beyond their grasp.
New Jersey demonstrated that with a classic Devil performance in a 3-1 victory Friday. An announced 12,004 at the Arrowhead Pond saw the Devils pounce on a couple of opportunities, while smothering the Ducks through three periods.
Jay Pandolfo chipped in a short-handed goal to break a 1-1 tie 6 minutes 44 seconds into the third period. The Devils applied the clamps and Jamie Langenbrunner's empty-net goal extended New Jersey's unbeaten streak to nine games.
"New Jersey is a veteran team, with a solid defense," Duck center Adam Oates said. "They don't give you a lot. If they score first, they shut you down."
The Ducks have clawed back into playoff contention with some victories over mid-level teams, but they still have a ways to go to look the NHL's elite in the eye. Ottawa beat the Ducks, 3-1, on Jan. 16 and New Jersey handled them Friday, with a little help.
The Devils' Ken Daneyko was off for boarding, but the Ducks were out of sync on the power play from the start. They then went from ineffective to self-destructive. Matt Cullen turned the puck over at the Devil blue line. A moment later, John Madden was feeding Pandolfo for the winner.
"They got some speed going on that," Cullen said. "I tried to hook the guy, but he was out of reach fast. We can't have something like that costing us points."
The Devils, who face the Kings tonight for their third game in four nights, gave the Ducks the break on this trip. Goalie Martin Brodeur, with the third-lowest goals-against average in the NHL at 1.97, had a rare night off. Corey Schwab made only his fifth start of the season.
The result, though, was the same. Schwab stopped 19 of 20 shots.
Martin Gerber was as effective for the Ducks, maybe even better. But, as has been his recent history, he received little support. Gerber has given up seven goals in his last five starts, yet has a 0-4-1-0 record to show for it, as the Ducks have scored three goals for him in that time.
Said Gerber: "It's frustrating after the game. I have to make bigger saves.... I don't know."
There was nothing he could do on either goal Friday. Pandolfo and Madden worked a textbook two-on-one break for the winner and Jeff Friesen burst in unmolested to score the first goal.
This has been a West Coast tour of Friesen's former addresses. He has certainly made himself at home, scoring the first goal in a 5-4 overtime victory over San Jose on Wednesday and then scoring on the Ducks on Friday.
Friesen, traded by the Ducks last summer, took a Brian Rafalski pass at center ice and jetted between Duck defensemen Keith Carney and Kurt Sauer. Friesen then faked Gerber to the ice and tucked in a shot to give the Devils a 1-0 lead 24 seconds into the game.
"It's pretty good to come in here and play a solid game," Friesen said.
While Friesen was unhappy in Anaheim, Petr Sykora has found a home and, apparently a line.
Sykora, who was acquired in the deal with New Jersey, was teamed with Oates and left wing Paul Kariya eight games ago and the trio has been a force with eight goals and 13 assists in that time.
"We have been creating a lot of chances," Sykora said. "Paul is a lot like playing with [New Jersey's Patrik Elias] with the way he creates and the way Adam passes is unbelievable. But I think we can do even more."
The line got the Ducks even Friday. Kariya came into the Devil zone and made a cross-ice pass to Sykora, who found Oates charging to the net. Oates chipped a shot past Schwab with 46 seconds left in the second period.