If you are heading to Southern California for game one of the Stanley Cup Finals, you might be in for a surprise.
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There is no orange mile. You can drive for hours without seeing a car flag. Fans in Ducks regalia are few and far between around town. Sports shops have more merchandise from the middling Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim -- how's that for a mouthful -- than they do from the Western Conference Champions.
Regardless of what Anaheim Mayor Curt Pringle says, Anaheim is not Hockeytown West. Yet once the puck drops at 5 p.m. Monday, the focus of the hockey world will be on the building at the corner of Douglass and Katella.
If the atmosphere matches game six of the conference finals, the rest of the hockey world might be in for a shock, given those facts. California sports fans -- not just hockey fans -- have a well-deserved reputation for being passive and disinterested. While the Ducks may not have taken hold of the entire metro area, things were no different in 2002 when the Angels and Los Angeles Lakers each won championships.
Tuesday at Honda Center, you could have been in any loud barn in North America. Despite the 6 p.m. start time, Ducks fans arrived early, screamed loudly, and exhibited a strong knowledge of the game.
It does not compare to Ottawa, where thousands of fans attended a lunch hour rally Thursday and seemingly everyone in town is a Senators fan. But for California, it is a step in the right direction, and that is because of the play on the ice.
In the conference finals, the Ducks did not play well from the 10 minute mark of game three until the 18 minute mark of game five's third period. They found themselves shorthanded nearly two times more per game, many on questionable calls. Star defenseman Chris Pronger was suspended for the critical game four. And as many observers noted, the team did not necessarily play up to their potential until game six.
And by the way, they dispatched of top-seeded Detroit in six games.
Along the way, the line of Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry, and Dustin Penner went from being the second line to the clear 1A line. Getzlaf continues to look like a young Brendan Shanahan, while Perry seemingly ups his game to a new level every night. Penner struggled at times in the series, finding himself demoted to the fourth line in favor of Brad May on several occasions, but he put forth his best physical effort of the season in game six.
The traditional top line, of course, features Teemu Selanne and Andy McDonald. A likely season-ending injury to Chris Kunitz shook things up somewhat, but once Todd Marchant joined the unit on a full-time basis, the ship was righted. Marchant gives the line a strong forechecking presence, improves the trio's two-way play, and adds a stellar faceoff man to the top unit.
Of course, the talk will not be about Anaheim's offensive lines -- it will be about Ottawa's dynamic trio of Daniel Alfredsson, Dany Heatley, and Jason Spezza. Few argue the line has been the top unit of the playoffs, and Alfredsson is an early leader for the Conn Smythe Trophy. After years of taking the brunt of Ottawa's playoff struggles, Alfredsson has put forth a legendary performance this post-season.
Heatley is a natural goal scorer, while Spezza is one of the game's premier playmakers. One of the league's top checking lines could not handle the trio in the New Jersey series, but Anaheim hopes history will not repeat itself this time around.
The Ducks counter with a stellar checking line of Selke Trophy finalist Sammy Pahlsson, Rob Niedermayer, and Travis Moen. They shut down Marian Gaborik and Pavol Demitra in the first round, the Sedin twins in the second round, then Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg in the conference finals.
Those who have watched the Ducks have known about the defensive play of Pahlsson and Niedermayer for several years -- they have seen time on the same line since Anaheim's run to the 2003 Stanley Cup Finals.
The checking line will have some help in shutting down the so-called Pizza Line (XM Home Ice 204 is currently running a contest for a better nickname), as Anaheim features Chris Pronger, Scott Niedermayer, and Francois Beauchemein on the blueline. Each of the trio is capable of playing more than 30 minutes per game, meaning the Senators will become well acquainted with all three.
Yet Ottawa does not struggle themselves at the same position. Chris Phillips and Wade Redden traditionally get more of the press, but Anton Volchenkov has been stellar through the first three rounds. Perennially among league leaders in blocked shots and hits, Volchenkov has taken his game to a new level in the playoffs.
Considering the amount of shots that come from the Ducks' point in the way of Pronger, it will be interesting to see how Volchenkov's shot blocking prowess changes Anaheim's game plan. Even without Pronger's well-known point shot, Anaheim struggled mightily with Edmonton's shot blocking proficiency in last year's Western Conference Finals. That will have to change this year if Anaheim is to win the series.
The common thought is Anaheim has the edge between the pipes with 2003 Conn Smythe winner Jean-Sebastien Giguere, and he has been outstanding through the playoffs. Yet it would be a mistake to sell Ray Emery short in the process.
True, Emery has not had to be spectacular through the first three rounds, but that is a function of the team in front of him. Ottawa does not give up a lot of chances, and they have the firepower to get a goal back in a hurry. At the same time, Emery has arguably outplayed Marc-Andre Fleury, Martin Brodeur, and Ryan Miller in the first three rounds -- not bad at all.
Not to take anything away from either goalie, but both of these masked men can get the job done -- and then some.
Although the two teams have not faced each other in more than a year -- and nearly four years in Anaheim -- there is an interesting subplot to the series. Following the 2003-04 series, Bryan Murray left his post as Anaheim general manager to take the coaching job in Ottawa.
While Anaheim's roster has changed significantly since then, many of the squad's players were acquired by Murray. Most notably, the Getzlaf-Perry-Penner trio were all products of the Murray era, meaning the Ottawa coach has been familiar with these players for several years.
PREDICTION: It seems "too close to call" is the popular prediction this spring, but it is true. If the Pahlsson line can shut down Ottawa's big line, the Ducks will be in good shape. However, nobody has been able to do that so far, so Anaheim will need production from their two scoring lines to advance. This series has seven games written all over it. Ducks in seven.
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