When Brian Burke took over the post as Anaheim general manager in the summer of 2005, the future of then-Ducks coach Mike Babcock immediately came into doubt.
Sure, Babcock took the Ducks to the Stanley Cup Finals in 2002-03, the first of his two years in Southern California. Yet from day one, it seemed there would be a clash between Babcock and Burke.
Babcock's Ducks teams played a stereotypical trap. They were passive forecheckers, clogged the middle of the ice, and played a lot of 1-0 and 2-1 games. Meanwhile in Vancouver, Burke had built a strong team around aggressive forechecking, a wide-open offensive style, and all-around physical play.
So it did not come as a surprise when Burke's first move was to dismiss Babcock as Anaheim's bench boss. Yet at the same time, it would be tough for Babcock to not hold some bitterness, especially considering his relative success in a short period of time in the land of sun and fun.
In the end, both sides have done alright. The Ducks hired Randy Carlyle to replace Babcock, and he has taken the squad to the Western Conference Finals each of his first two years behind the bench. Meanwhile, Babcock accepted one of the league's most prestigious jobs, becoming coach of the storied Detroit Red Wings.
Few are making a big deal of the Babcock-Burke issue, but it could just stoke the fire of what should already be an evenly-matched conference finals. For his part, Babcock has built a Detroit team that has some similarities, but some critical differences, from his teams in Anaheim.
Like his Ducks teams, Babcock's Red Wings are defensively oriented. The Wings give up few shots and even fewer scoring chances. Part of that is a trapping system at center ice, similar to what the Ducks employed in the early part of the decade. But aside from that, Detroit features an outstanding blueline. The loss of Mathieu Schneider to a broken wrist will hurt, but Nicklas Lidstrom remains one of the best rearguards of all time.
And that Chris Chelios youngster is not bad either. Chelios is the only NHLer old enough to remember the Original Six era -- he was five when the league expanded to 12 teams in 1967 -- but his play has been ageless this season. Chelios' first name has been changed by the media to "45-year-old," yet he has played some of his best hockey in the past six or seven years during this year's playoffs.
Against most teams, Detroit would have the edge on the blueline. Anaheim is clearly not most teams. With Chris Pronger and Scott Niedermayer on the blueline, the Ducks feature at least one Norris Trophy winner on the ice at virtually all times.
Many observers have commented Pronger and Niedermayer have not played their best game through much of the playoffs, yet Pronger finds himself leading all NHL defensemen with 11 points through 10 games. Niedermayer has seemed a step slower than last year at times -- perhaps the lingering effects of a mid-season foot injury -- but he remains among the game's elite.
The often-forgotten third link to the blueline is sophomore Francois Beauchemin. Normally paired with Niedermayer, Beauchemin is physical, intelligent, can move the puck, and has a great point shot on the power play.
Both teams have good puck moving defensemen, and they will need to be at their best. Anaheim and Detroit both like to clog the neutral zone, but the key difference between Babcock's Detroit squad and his 2003 Anaheim team is giving up shots on goal. Detroit routinely limits teams to the low 20s -- or less. His Ducks squads, on the other hand, were typically outshot on their way to the 2003 Stanley Cup Finals, but they were able to rely on goaltender Jean-Sebastien Giguere to steal the victory.
Some things never change. Giguere has been outstanding through the playoffs, leading the league with a 1.28 goals against and a .952 save percentage. On the other end, Dominik Hasek has an equally impressive 1.51 goals against and a .930 save percentage.
In other words, getting the first goal will be important. With Giguere and Hasek between the pipes and both teams showing a penchant for clogging center ice once they get the lead, low scoring games will be the rule.
Both teams have plenty of firepower, as Anaheim features the CAT line of Chris Kunitz, Andy McDonald, and Teemu Selanne along with the PPG line of Dustin Penner, Corey Perry, and Ryan Getzlaf. These two lines get most of the goals and press, but the checking line of Sammy Pahlsson, Rob Nidermayer, and Travis Moen ranks among the league's best.
On the other side, the Wings have elite forwards in Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk, but it is a less heralded yet gritty player who may be the key to Detroit's success. The Wings struggled when Tomas Holmstrom was out of the lineup with an eye injury early in the second round, but nobody in the game is better at screening goalies and cleaning up garbage in front of the net.
Penner is Anaheim's answer to Holmstrom, but he is still learning the role. If Holmstrom is able to withstand the pounding by Pronger and Beauchemin, he could make life difficult for Giguere.
The most interesting part of the matchup might be style of play. Although Detroit is a high-octane, puck possession team, much of their success comes between the bluelines, where they can stifle the opposition's attack. Anaheim started the season with quick ups -- in other words, getting the puck to the forwards as fast as possible and catching the opposition on their heels.
As the season has progressed, Anaheim's attack has become more deliberate, and that could be a problem against Detroit. If the Wings are given time to set up, they are incredibly effective at center ice.
When that happens, the offensive team is often forced to play a dump and chase -- or chip and support in modern terms -- to create any offense. Anaheim will need to bring their best forechecking game in that case, and the return of Todd Marchant could be a huge factor.
On the other side, Anaheim can trap and slow down the game with the best of them, and Detroit prefers to carry the puck into the offensive zone. All season, the Ducks have been called a team who will play any style the opposition wants. If the other team wants to clog center ice, they will dump and chase. If the opposition wants to open the game up, the Ducks utilize their considerable team speed.
In this case, Detroit will try to force Anaheim into a dump and chase style while maintaining a puck possession game themselves. The concept did not work so well for Minnesota in the first round, but Detroit's lineup features considerably more playoff experience than Minnesota's.
PREDICTION: Too close to call, but it would not be a prediction without... well, a prediction. Ducks in seven.