Many preseason prognosticators believed this was the Ducks' season. For those who like their foul West Coast style, Anaheim has done nothing to disappoint. The team is 8-2 through the first two rounds and hit the Western Conference finals for the second straight season, well-rested and hungry to take that next step to the Stanley Cup finals.
Look back at those same preseason predictions and you won't find many who thought the Detroit Red Wings would be here, too. Too old, too slow. No Steve Yzerman, no Brendan Shanahan. Too much Dominik Hasek (again). But here they are, a little banged-up and still playing better than perhaps even they thought was possible this late in the playoffs.
The Ducks last faced the Red Wings in the first round of the 2003 playoffs. At the time, Detroit was the defending Stanley Cup champs and there was talk of dynasty in Hockeytown. But that talk was indefinitely put on hold after the Ducks, under then-coach Mike Babcock, swept the Red Wings. Babcock, of course, is now behind the Detroit bench and has helped the Wings beyond the second round for the first time since the team's last Cup win in 2002.
To get here, the Wings had to dispose of a San Jose team many picked to win the Cup. They did it without defenseman Mathieu Schneider, who broke his wrist early in Game 5 on Saturday, and did it with relative ease. It's a testament to the sand this Red Wings team possesses.
This series will feature three of the finest defensemen of their generation in Scott Niedermayer and Chris Pronger of Anaheim and Detroit's Nicklas Lidstrom. Then, there's Chris Chelios, who was one of the finest defensemen of the last generation, but refuses to acknowledge time and continues to be effective at age 45.
Both teams possess great goaltending in Hasek and Jean-Sebastien Giguere, and both are deep up front. In other words, this one should be a dandy.
Five Points to Series
1. Too tough? Tough to tell. One of the Ducks' calling cards this season has been their physical play, and that hasn't changed since the start of the playoffs. But Anaheim coach Randy Carlyle admitted he's concerned about his team's penchant for penalties. The bad news is the Ducks have been short-handed a total of 53 times in just 10 postseason games. The good news is their penalty-killing unit is No. 1 in the playoffs (the Ducks have allowed just three power-play markers so far). The bad news (Part II) is the Red Wings boast the NHL's most potent playoff power-play unit and are an extremely patient, opportunistic team.
2. The kids are all right already. It's a familiar hockey chestnut that young players often learn a lot from their first playoff experiences, even if they have to learn it the hard way. Well, when it comes to the Ducks, this isn't just coach-speak designed to put reporters into a catatonic trance. Sophomore Ryan Getzlaf, who scored just once in his last seven playoff games as a rookie last spring, has stepped forward this postseason to provide much-needed offensive depth to the Ducks lineup. The 6-foot-3, 211-pound native of Regina, Saskatchewan, has seven points in 10 games and is tied for second in team scoring.
Getzlaf's close friend and linemate, Corey Perry, has five points, and the third member of the Gosling Line (we just made that up), rookie Dustin Penner, has five points, as well. Their continued production will be key against a Detroit team that looks to hold an edge up front.
3. Thin? Don't tell Lidstrom. When Schneider got hurt, one might have imagined that as a turning point in the series against the Sharks. After all, Schneider was logging 23:35 a night in ice time, scored an overtime winner and had six points in total. Yet, all the Wings did was play two almost-perfect defensive games against one of the best teams in the NHL to advance to the Western Conference finals.
Schneider is out for the rest of the season, which will be seen as a significant factor as the Ducks will try and exploit that missing piece of a Detroit blue line that was already missing rising star Niklas Kronwall (fractured sacrum). Yet, if the past two games of the Sharks series are any indication, the Wings won't miss a beat, especially if Lidstrom continues to play at his current level. Witness his goal-saving (maybe series-saving) block of Mike Grier's open-net opportunity in the first period of Monday's Game 6. Brett Lebda returned to the lineup to take Schneider's place after missing the last six games with a concussion.
4. The Greybeard Convention. Teemu Selanne, the smiling warrior leader of the Anaheim Ducks, will be 37 in July. He has never won a Stanley Cup and there will be a "Win one for Teemu" movement in this series. Thing is, Selanne is a relative punk compared to the real old guys across the way. Chelios, as mentioned, is 45. In Schneider's absence Monday night, Chelios played 26:15 and posted two assists in a 2-0 series-clinching victory. He's been bugging Babcock to put him on the power play for two seasons (Babcock's version not ours) and now he'll get that opportunity. While he may not have the foot speed he once had, he shows inspiring fearlessness to Detroit's young defensemen.
Then, there's the 42-year-old Hasek. When Calgary rallied to tie its series at 2 vs. Detroit in the first round, Hasek allowed two goals on 45 shots over the last two games to lead the Wings into the second round. Against San Jose, Hasek allowed three goals over the last three games (all victories) to help the Wings erase a 2-1 series deficit. Those close to the team suggest he is in the kind of zone reminiscent of 2002, when he hoisted his first and only Stanley Cup with the Wings. He is not perfect, of course. Hasek still likes to ramble a bit and his puck-handling is, well, an adventure. But he has instilled a kind of confidence in his team that is priceless at this stage of the playoffs.
5. Giguere's stock is up. Some thought Giguere would have difficulty adjusting to the new post-lockout NHL. Sure, he won the Conn Smythe Trophy in 2003, when the Ducks trapped the New Jersey Devils into a seventh game in what was one of the most boring Stanley Cup finals of all time. When last spring rolled around, Giguere lost his job for part of the playoffs to rookie Ilya Bryzgalov. There was much speculation the Montreal native would be traded, but he wasn't. He then turned in a stellar regular season and has followed that by going 5-1 with an insane .952 save percentage this postseason. (He missed the first three games of the postseason when his son Maxime was born with an eye malady.) The fact he was able to take time away from the team to be with his family and rejoin the Ducks without missing a beat is an inspiring story.
• Chris Pronger and Scott Niedermayer vs. the Red Wings. We hate to oversimplify things, but when it comes to beating the Ducks, opposing teams will have to get the better of two of the game's best defensemen.
Do the math. Niedermayer is averaging 29:45 in ice time, which is slightly less than Pronger's 31:13 average. The two have combined for 16 points in 10 games. They also represent vastly different styles, which the Red Wings will have to contend with. One scout told ESPN.com he thought the Ducks' defensive depth dropped off pretty dramatically after Niedermayer, Pronger and Francois Beauchemin. Fair enough. But if Carlyle has his way, it won't matter.
Pronger "is a totally different player from Scotty Niedermayer from the standpoint that he uses his size and range and his stick very effectively, where Scotty is a guy that he uses his skating ability," Carlyle said. "And what we try to do ... is try to at least have those players on for at least 50-55 minutes a night combined ice times; that means only five or six minutes that has to be shared with one of them not on the ice."
Hot and Not
• Red Wings: Mikael Samuelsson managed to go scoreless through his first 16 postseason games; but, in his last two, he has scored three times, including twice in the first period of Monday's deciding sixth game against San Jose. His second goal with eight seconds to go in the first period was a crusher. Kyle Calder, brought in by the Red Wings at the trade deadline from Philadelphia, has continued his miserable season with one assist.
• Ducks: Pronger leads the Ducks in postseason scoring with 11 points, has scored in seven of 10 games and leads all NHL players in ice time. Chris Kunitz had 25 goals during the regular season, but has yet to dent the twine in the postseason (he does have five assists). In a series where offensive depth favors the Red Wings, the pressure will be on Kunitz to produce.
Sharks in seven. Oh, wait -- we used that one last round. Seriously, the way the Wings have played in the past three games makes believers of us. Detroit in seven.