The Anaheim Ducks have been locked into second place in the NHL’s Western Conference since blanking the Edmonton Oilers 3-0 on Monday. After five subsequent days of scoreboard and standings monitoring, they got last-minute confirmation that the Detroit Red Wings will drop in on the Honda Center for Game 1 of the 2013 Stanley Cup playoffs.
Detroit ensured its playoff qualification as well as seventh place in the Western Conference with an identical 3-0 triumph over the Dallas Stars on Saturday.
Is it safe to let the ice chips from those three games be dumped out? Probably. But there may be some things left over from the regular season that are worth inspecting as we look ahead to the postseason.
On that note, here is the breakdown of the second-versus-seventh Western Conference playoff series.
Unless otherwise indicated, all statistics for this report were found via nhl.com
Anaheim: The Pacific Division champions endured two four-game funks late in the season, but that was long after they had established their rise from the wreckage of a 34-36-12 run in 2011-12.
First-year goaltender Viktor Fasth’s string of eight straight winning decisions between Jan. 26 and Feb. 16 set a tone for the turnaround. Going into Saturday’s action, Fasth and colleague Jonas Hiller had virtually identical records of 15-5-2 and 15-6-4 respectively, although Fasth has been decidedly stingier with four shutouts and a better GAA and save percentage.
Of course, the netminders’ "praetorian guards" needed to do their part to uphold the Ducks’ run and defenseman Sheldon Souray, Francois Beauchemin’s new first-unit associate, has personified the turnaround.
Only two years removed from spending a full season in the AHL, the 36-year-old pitched in 17 points and led Anaheim with a plus-23 rating going into Anaheim’s final regular-season game.
There has been a gratifyingly broad range of reliable strikers up front as well. Andrew Cogliano, Ryan Getzlaf, Kyle Palmieri, Corey Perry, Bobby Ryan and Teemu Selanne all struck double digits in the goal column while Matt Beleskey and Saku Koivu tallied eight apiece.
Detroit: The Red Wings had four sets of two consecutive victories and a separate pair of three game-winning streaks, one of which was all of a three-game homestand within the final week of the regular season.
All of those scraps of good fortune, but most noticeably that sweep of a homestand, effectively salvaged Detroit’s ongoing string of now 22 consecutive playoff appearances.
Three particular individuals might as well stand as symbols of those three victories that set the stage for the Wings to clinch their spot on Saturday.
The seasoned forward tandem of Pavel Datsyuk and first-year captain Henrik Zetterberg topped the charts with output in the 30-assist and 40-point range. Meanwhile, goaltender Jimmy Howard performed in defiance of a depleted defense that had lost Nicklas Lidstrom and Brad Stuart over the summer.
Any playoff team that hopes to surpass the Ducks will most likely need its go-to scorers to find a way around Beauchemin and Souray.
For Detroit, that challenge will most likely fall to the likes of Datsyuk, Zetterberg and presumptive linemate Justin Abdelkader. They formed a troika on most of their shifts in Saturday’s action and were, as it turns out, kind of the difference-makers.
While Datsyuk and Zetterberg hope to turn back the clock to their more successful Cup-chasing days, Anaheim has some older veteran forwards with a shorter supply of combined fulfillment. Teemu Selanne won a title in 2007, but is fast running out of time to duplicate that thrill, while his countryman, Saku Koivu, has never had any springtime glory.
Behind the benches, it is a similar scenario, with one coach trying to replenish a contender’s persona while another is seeking his first deep run.
This will be the fourth time in 10 seasons that Mike Babcock oversees one party or the other in an Anaheim-Detroit matchup. The veteran of three Stanley Cup Finals appearances hopes to prevent first-round fizzles from becoming a new norm in the Motor City.
Conversely, in his first start-to-finish season as the Ducks’ skipper, Bruce Boudreau is hoping to shed the old sweet-and-sour season routine from his Washington days. To date, with the exception of 2011-12, Boudreau has never failed to collect a divisional title in the regular season, but has twice lost in the opening round and twice in the second round in four career playoff runs.
Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry, Anaheim: At about the halfway mark of the regular season, the dynamic Ducks scoring tandem of Getzlaf and Perry were granted identical contract extensions of eight years apiece.
Virtually everything that has happened on the ice in the weeks prior to and the weeks since those extensions has been irreproachable. But the only way for these two veterans of Anaheim’s 2007 championship team to emphatically validate their extended stay is to stoke the electricity in the postseason without fail.
Pavel Datsyuk, Detroit: Entering Saturday’s action, Datsyuk was tied with Jonathan Toews for the most takeaways in the league with 56 apiece.
In addition, he boasts a better winning percentage at the faceoff dot than any qualified leaders on the Ducks. He is all but the sole reason Detroit has a winning record at the dot, whereas Anaheim has a rare weakness in that it is sub-.500 in that department.
Both of those assets, which have made Datsyuk a perennial part of the Selke Trophy conversation, will be critical to ensuring enough possession time for Detroit to rack up the requisite points.
Johan Franzen, Detroit: Franzen produced in 10 of Detroit’s first 12 games this April and has an impressive postseason transcript of 38 goals and 73 points in 88 career contests. That production lagged a tad in the previous two playoffs, but he will doubtlessly be leaned on to rekindle it this spring.
Viktor Fasth and Jonas Hiller, Anaheim: Fasth has made a sound impression in the Ducks’ crease this shortened regular season, but Hiller has prior Stanley Cup playoff experience, albeit 13 games from 2009.
Either way, Boudreau is blessed with options and the combined competence of Fasth and Hiller may be paying dividends in advance. In the final three weeks of the regular season, they each saw action in five of Anaheim’s last nine games, splitting duties on April 10, which should mean both will be sufficiently rested.
Jimmy Howard, Detroit: The Wings workhorse started each of the last 15 regular-season games and played in 42 overall, going 21-13-7 on the year.
Already a veteran of three NHL playoffs and a winner of two out of five series, Howard is decidedly more proven than the Ducks’ tandem. However, he may be prone to wearing down this May after playing virtually every minute in April while his team was in pseudo-playoff mode.
Howard may have the better track record and generally better numbers than either Fasth or Hiller, but a more pressing question in this series is which stable of skaters is going to make a given goalie’s life easier.
Going into Saturday night’s games, Anaheim had racked up 1,125 hits whereas Detroit was second-to-last on the league leaderboard with 851. Similarly, the Ducks had blocked a cumulative 760 shots for fifth in the league versus Detroit’s 542, which was third-to-last before their faceoff in Dallas.
With the playoffs being an inherently more intense animal and the so-called “dead puck era” brewing another potential storm ahead (certainly if last season is any indication), Anaheim’s advantage should be amplified in this department.
Taking the likes of Datsyuk, Franzen and Zetterberg out of the equation on offense and leaving it up to Detroit’s depth forwards should allow the Ducks to put the Wings on the spot in a hurry. That can be accomplished with the aforementioned art of wearing them down with general physicality and constantly stepping into their shooting and passing lanes.
At the other end, the Ducks entered their season finale late Saturday night ranked third in five-on-five success (1.30) and fourth on the power play with a 21.4 percent conversion rate.
They can exploit that by attacking in droves with their usual suspects and supplement that with the hungry input of such youngsters as Emerson Etem and their various thirtysomething midseason additions.
Granted, most of what Radek Dvorak, Matt Lombardi and Dave Steckel deliver, if anything, will be intangible grunt work. Although Lombardi’s last postseason appearance, as a Phoenix Coyote in 2010, did see him charge up six points in seven games against none other than Detroit.
Red Wings rooters should be cautious about investing too much hope based on the fact that their team swept a two-game three-night stay in Anaheim in late March. But that does not mean it will be unconditionally impossible to duplicate that success in the postseason.
Detroit could benefit from some more of those timely outbursts from scorers who have otherwise been relatively quiet this season, like when Abdelkader cultivated a March 22 hat trick at the Honda Center to thrash the Ducks 5-1.
In the crease, Howard can put a stamp on his top-notch persona by sustaining his April stinginess (19 goals-against in 15 games) through the young weeks of May and stifling the Ducks strike force. His skating mates could help by getting through the moat to the Anaheim net and instilling some self-doubt to one or both of Fasth or Hiller.
Willpower can only get a team so far, but getting past the first round is not much to ask for a team as accomplished and well-rounded as the Ducks have been in 2013. Their assortment of talent will doubtlessly be fueled by an incentive to give the 42-year-old and likely retiring Selanne one last deep ride and another aging Finn, the 38-year-old Koivu, a crack at his first Cup.
In addition to playing for those two and the team in general, the leaned-on likes of Getzlaf and Perry, as hinted in a previous slide, have more than enough cause to compete for their own purposes. There will be no excuses for not showing up this time of year in the wake of their new contracts.
Willpower will also be a key to the Wings’ fueling every item in the engine that brought them success down the stretch. But comparative physical wear-and-tear will work against the peaking scoring tandem of Datsyuk and Zetterberg and the goaltender, Howard, who has hardly had a breather in the last month.
Look for Anaheim to prevail in five games.