A year ago, many in the media decided the Anaheim Ducks had little chance against the Calgary Flames in the opening round of the NHL playoffs.
Although the Ducks had been one of the hottest teams in the last half of the regular season, the team flew under the radar for the most part.
This time, the shoe is on the other foot. While many feel the Ducks are the best bet in the West to roll through round one with relative ease, the Minnesota Wild will have something to say about that.
Since breaking an 11-game road winless streak January in Vancouver, the Wild are 27-7-5, including an impressive 15-5-2 away from the confines of the Xcel Energy Center.
On the other hand, the Ducks played their best hockey early in the season. Anaheim was 28-5-6 after a Boxing Day victory in San Jose, but the wheels fell off over the next month.
The Ducks won just two of their next 11 games before righting the ship somewhat, but were still a pedestrian 20-15-8 after Boxing Day.
So often in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, it is an issue of when you peak. Minnesota is peaking at the right time. Cynics may note Anaheim peaked sometime around Halloween, but the Ducks are not to be counted out.
The first line of Andy McDonald (27 goals, 51 assists, 78 points), Teemu Selanne (48-46—94), and Chris Kunitz (25-35—60) has the potential to be dynamic, and they will have to be for Anaheim to advance. The ageless Selanne was 12th in league scoring with 94 points and third in goals with 48.
Two sophomores and a sort-of rookie comprise Anaheim's second line, and this could be the key to the series. Ryan Getzlaf (25-33—58), Corey Perry (17-27—44), and Dustin Penner (29-16—45) formed an outstanding line at the start of last season with Portland of the AHL and they have been reunited for the latter part of this season.
Although the 6'5" Penner is technically a rookie, he was called up late last season and had a huge impact -- literally and figuratively -- in Anaheim's march to the Western Conference Finals. The somewhat enigmatic giant scored 29 goals -- second on the team -- during the regular season. Yet at the same time, he often came under fire for inconsistent play, even finding himself benched late in the regular season.
The second line will have to produce for Anaheim, as the offensive cupboard is bare beyond that point. Sami Pahlsson (8-18—26), Rob Niedermayer (5-11—16), and Travis Moen (11-10—21) form one of the league's best checking lines, but Pahlsson leads the trio with just 26 points in 82 regular season games.
The fourth line has been a quagmire for the Ducks, a far cry from last year when the so-called fourth line of Getzlaf, Perry, and Todd Fedoruk was among the league's best. Look for three of Ryan Shannon (2-9—11), Brad May (0-4—4), Shawn Thornton (2-7—9), Mark Hartigan (1-2—3), and George Parros (1-0—1) to form the final unit on any given night. Just do not expect them to get more than two or three minutes of ice time.
The loss of Todd Marchant with an abdominal strain could be critical for Anaheim. Marchant will miss the entire first round and would be unlikely to come back in the second round if the Ducks advance. Without Marchant, the Ducks lose an excellent penalty killer, someone who can provide much-needed secondary offense, and veteran leadership.
Although much has been made of Anaheim's blueline, depth could be an issue there as well. The Ducks feature a 1A and 1B of top tandems -- Scott Niedermayer (15-54—69) and Francois Beauchemin (7-21—28) form one unit while Chris Pronger (13-46—59) and Sean O'Donnell (2-15—17) form the other. The ice time for all four players should be up in the 25-30 minute range most nights, as the third unit is not nearly as strong.
Journeymen Joe Dipenta (2-6—8), Kent Huskins (0-3—3), and Ric Jackman (2-10—12) round out Anaheim's blueline brigade. Anaheim clearly misses the physical presence of Vitaly Vishnevski (last season) and Shane O'Brien (traded to Tampa Bay at the trade deadline). The five and six defensive spots have been a weakness in recent weeks, and if one of the big four is injured, Anaheim will be in trouble.
While Anaheim may be top-heavy up front and on the blueline, Minnesota offers a stark contrast. No Wild player had more than 64 points – Brian Rolston (31-33—64) and Pavol Demitra (25-39—64) reached that tally – but the numbers do not tell the entire truth.
Marian Gaborik tallied 30 goals and 57 points in just 48 games. Projected over an entire season, Gaborik would have been among the league’s leaders in both categories. Gaborik and Demitra join Wes Walz on a potent top line for Minnesota.
Pierre-Marc Bouchard also posted 57 points (20-37—57) in the regular season, and he joins Rolston and Todd White (13-31—44) on a very solid second line for Minnesota.
With a defensive mindset on every shift, the Wild do not have a traditionally defined checking line, but the third unit of Mark Parrish (19-20—39), Mikko Koivu (20-34—54), and Adam Hall (6-11—17) provides significantly more depth scoring than Anaheim’s third and fourth lines.
Stephane Veilleux (7-11—18), Dominic Moore (8-9—17), and Branko Radivojevic (11-13—24) form a decent fourth line. Only Radivojevic (-9) has a minus rating, a good indication of the trio’s effectiveness.
Minnesota again features balance and depth on the blueline. The Wild have been going with units of Kim Johnsson (3-19—22) and Nick Schultz (2-10—12), Martin Skoula (0-15—15) and Kurtis Foster (3-20—23), and Keith Carney (4-13—17) and Brent Burns (7-18—25). Petteri Nummelin (3-17—20) rounds out the rearguards for Minnesota.
While none of the defensemen have the big names of Niedermayer or Pronger, Minnesota has more depth. One or two injuries would not devastate the Wild the same way it would the Ducks.
Between the pipes, both teams go two deep. Jean-Sebastien Giguere is expected to get the nod for Anaheim, but an illness to his newborn son means his status is in question. Giguere posted a 2.26 goals against and a ,918 save percentage while going 36-10-8 in 56 regular season games.
If Giguere is unable to go, Ilya Bryzgalov will again be pressed into playoff action. A surprise star in last year’s playoffs, Bryzgalov posted a 2.47 goals against and a .909 save percentage in 27 regular season performances. While Bryzgalov showed last spring’s form on occasion, he was also subpar on many outings. Still, he has played his best hockey of the season the last few weeks.
For the Wild, Niklas Backstrom has been outstanding in relief of the injured Manny Fernandez. Backstrom has posted a miniscule 1.97 goals against and an amazing .929 save percentage while going 23-8-6 in 41 appearances.
Fernandez has a 2.55 goals against and a .911 save percentage in 44 appearances. Third string Josh Harding, who many argue is Minnesota’s goaltender of the future, has amazing numbers in limited action. Harding has a 1.16 goals against and a .960 save percentage in 7 regular season games.
PREDICTION: Few teams have the top-end talent of Anaheim, but few teams have the depth of Minnesota. In the playoffs, it is usually depth and recent performance that is critical, and the Wild have the edge on both counts. Wild in six.
Other first round picks:
(8) Calgary over (1) Detroit in six games
(3) Vancouver over (6) Dallas in seven games
(5) San Jose over (4) Nashville in six games
(1) Buffalo over (8) New York Islanders in six games
(2) New Jersey over (7) Tampa Bay in six games
(6) New York Rangers over (3) Atlanta in seven games
(4) Ottawa over (5) Pittsburgh in seven games