Reaching the Western Conference Finals in back-to-back years is quite an accomplishment for a franchise that is less than 15 years old. But the Anaheim Ducks will have much higher expectations when the postseason begins in April.
The Ducks will be looking to be the first team to repeat as Stanley Cup Champions since the Detroit Red Wings accomplished the feat in 1997 and 1998, and many experts believe they have the team to do it.
Of course nothing in professional sports is ever guaranteed, and in the ultra-competitive Western Conference, there isn't even a guarantee that the Ducks will be able to get out of the first round.
When the Ducks face off at the Honda Centre later tonight against Pacific division-leading San Jose, they will be in search of their 12th consecutive home win. In fact, the last time they dropped a contest on home ice was way back on February 15 against the Dallas Stars, and that was the first game back after a grueling 8-game road trip. A trip on which they incidentally went 5-3-1, picking up 11 of a possible 16 points.
Having the best home record in the NHL has certainly helped their cause, but it hasn't been enough to get them into the top three. The Ducks will certainly be looking for revenge tonight. One week ago today, the Ducks fell 2-1 to the Sharks but were unable to register a shot on goal in the third period, which, for a playoff team, is downright embarrassing.
Something will have to give tonight, as the Sharks have not lost a regulation game in their last 17, and the Ducks have won 11 straight on home ice, as previously stated.
The Ducks will look to ride the hot hand of Teemu Selanne. The Finnish Flash has 19 points (10-9) in his 22 games this season, and Ducks fans have to be wondering where they could be right now if Selanne had been in the lineup all year.
Like any other team, the Ducks have battled through injuries this season. The team is currently without leading goal scorer Corey Perry, for at least another three weeks; Ryan Getzlaf, the team leader in points (who is expected back in the lineup tonight); and goaltender J-S Giguere.
The Ducks' perseverance is certainly an admirable quality, and one that will give the team a huge advantage come playoff time, since NHL playoff hockey is all about battling through adversity.
I wrote a column earlier this year that said the Ducks should look into acquiring a veteran back-up goalie for Giguere. On deadline day, GM Brian Burke traded for J-S Aubin, who was sent to the AHL and is thus clearly not in the immediate plans.
Rookie Jonas Hiller has done an admirable job if filling in for Giguere in his recent absence due to back problems. In fact, the rookie has posted outstanding numbers all year. Hiller is 9-6-1 with a .928 save percentage and a 2.02 GAA, both of which are better stats than Giguere. That doesn't mean Hiller will be replacing Giguere any time soon, but it will be comforting for fans to know that the organization knew what they were doing when they put Ilya Bryzgalov, who won playoff starts in each of the past two seasons, on waivers.
The Ducks also lost captain Chris Pronger to an eight-game suspension last week after he stomped on the leg of Vancouver's Ryan Kessler. In typical Ducks fashion, they have responded well to the hole on the blueline. The team is 4-1-0 in his absence, and the suspension can actually be a blessing in disguise.
Sitting out for eight games will allow Pronger's injured jaw to heal completely, and also provide him with rest for the playoff drive. When Pronger returns for the final regular season game against Phoenix, he will be the most rested player on the roster. Also, one of the younger defenceman to get increased minutes over the final games of the season, which will help their development and confidence.
Speaking of the playoffs, there are a number of teams that the Ducks may matched up against for the first round, since the Conference is wide open. It is unlikely the Ducks will make up the six points to pass the Sharks for first in the division and second in the Conference. It is also unlikely that the Dallas Stars will make up the six points to pass the Ducks for fourth. So the Ducks have fourth spot pretty much sewn up and will just have to sit back and watch the rest of the Conference duke it out for the remaining positions.
Any of Dallas, Calgary, Colorado, Vancouver and even Minnesota (currently 3rd) can end up with the 5th position, and the Ducks will certainly have teams they would prefer to face more than others. Here is how the Ducks stack up against their five potential playoff opponents:
3. Minnesota (91 points): 1-3-0
5. Dallas (90 points): 2-5-0
6. Calgary (90 points): 3-1-0
7. Colorado (88 points): 3-1-0
8. Vancouver (86 points): 1-3-0
Now these stats can often be misleading, as it is more important to note how teams are playing at this point in the season. For example, the Stars have the advantage over the Ducks in the season series, but three of the five wins were the first three games of the series. The Stars are struggling mightily right now, making them an attractive first round dance partner.
Similarly, while the Ducks have beaten the Avalanche three times in four tries this season, the Avalanche look like they can be a scary team if they get everyone healthy.
The Canucks got bad news yesterday when they found out centre Brendan Morrison will be lost for 4-6 months and goaltender Roberto Luongo has left the team to be with his wife following the birth of their child. This puts the Canucks playoff chances in jeopardy, let alone their chances of moving up the ladder.
Minnesota is a strong defensive team who seem to be built for playoff hockey, and will give even the most explosive offences nightmares in the first round.
Calgary has battled consistency all season long but there is no question that they have the goaltending and the leadership to make a run deep into the postseason.
So for Ducks fans, the most attractive first round opponents are probably Dallas and Vancouver, although any team in the western Conference is a force to be reckoned with for various reasons.
To conclude, the Ducks to have a legitimate shot at repeating as Stanley Cup champions. The additions of Mathieu Schneider and Todd Bertuzzi, brought in to replace players who have since rejoined the team, will provide invaluable experience. If Giguere can stay healthy, and the Ducks can stay in it long enough to get Perry back, the sky is the limit.