The Anaheim Ducks will host the Dallas Stars tonight in Game 1 of the 4 vs. 5 Western Conference quarterfinal.
The two teams enter the playoffs from either end of the success spectrum. The Ducks were the hottest team in the West over their final ten games, going 8-2-0; while the Stars struggled and sputtered to a 3-5-2 clip. However, one key element of the post-season that must be taken into consideration is that once the puck drops on the first game, the regular season means next to nothing. It immediately becomes a battle between two teams for who can win four of the seven games.
This is why the Stars 5-3 advantage in the season series boils down to very little at this point. Several of those games were at the beginning of the season while Teemu Selanne and Scott Niedermayer were still deciding whether or not they wanted to play. The Ducks are a drastically different club when they've got all of their weapons at their disposal.
Speaking of weapons, the Ducks will however have to start without leading goal scorer Corey Perry. The young winger will miss the opening portion of the first round with his torn quad, but is targeting a return for later in the series, perhaps as early as Game 4. The Ducks will certainly welcome his goal scoring touch to a powr play that struggled throughout the regular season.
If there is one area that the Stars can exploit the Ducks, it is on special teams. The Ducks' power play ranked 20th overall during the season, succeeding only 16.6% of the time. That is a scary statistic for Ducks fans, since the Stars had the NHL's second best penalty kill, killing 85.5% of short-handed attempts. Also, the Ducks finished in top spot in terms of times short handed at 408, almost fifty times more than the closest competitor.
So the key to the series may be the power plays. If the Ducks can't stay out of the box, they may find themselves behind early, and leads are always more difficult to overcome in the playoffs.
Another key element to the series is going to be the Dallas offence against the Anaheim defence. The Ducks have far and away the strongest defence core of any team in the playoffs, spear-headed by Scott Niedermayer and Francois Beauchemin, followed by Chris Pronger and Sean O'Donnell. If the Stars somehow find a way to get past that thick wall, they still have to crack goaltender J-S Giguere, who has a career playoff record of 31-13. Giguere has made it to Conference Final three times, twice advancing to the Stanley Cup Final where he earned the Conn Smythe Trophy in a losing cause against New Jersey.
The Ducks "D" will have their hands full, however, as the Stars have several offensive weapons. Mike Modano, Mike Ribeiro and Brad Richards lead the attack for the Stars, who had the 9th highest goal total in the NHL this season. The Ducks finished 28th in the same category, and much of that has to do with the stuggles of Doug Weight.
Weight may be a healthy scratch when the series begins, but his playoff experience may be enough to force coach Randy Carlyle to insert him into the lineup. Weight was instrumental in the Carolina Hurricanes' Stanley Cup success in 2006, and needs to step up and play the role he was brought in to play when acquired from St. Louis for Andy MacDonald. MacDonald was a key member of the Ducks' success from last season and if his efforts can't be replaced, the Ducks may find themselves heading home earlier than expected.
Todd Bertuzzi also needs to bring his 'A' game in the first round. Big Burt has been hit and miss in the playoffs ever since his glory days ended following the Steve Moore incident, and it is important for him to start strong to avoid losing his confidence. Even if Bertuzzi isn't contributing on the scoreboard, he needs to make sure that he plays the tough, physical play he is capable of as grittiness is part of Anaheim's attack.
The Ducks need to play a team game and rely on their experience and tenacity to carry them to victory. If they struggle early in the series they need to stick to the game plan, and not try to change the way they play, since the playoffs are not the time of year you start tinkering with strategy. That isn't to say that they shouldn't make small adjustments to address their weaknesses, but the team needs to remember that it was this type of play that got them the Cup last season. Playoff games are rarely high-scoring, so the fact that they finished so low in goals for should not be a cause for great concern.
If both teams stick to their guns and use the type of attack that made them so dangerous during the regular season, this should be one dandy of a series to watch.
Prediction: Ducks in 6.