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Anaheim finally seemed to figure out the Dallas Stars in March. In fact, there weren't many teams the Ducks couldn't handle down the stretch of the regular season.
The fourth-seeded Ducks, one of the league's hottest teams over the past two months, look to defend the franchise's first Stanley Cup championship when they host the fifth-seeded Stars on Thursday night in the first round of the playoffs.
Anaheim (47-27-9) is trying to become the first team to repeat as Stanley Cup champion since Detroit won titles in 1997 and '98. Having gone 20-5-1 to close the season, the Ducks appear poised for a run in a tough Western Conference playoff field that includes Detroit, owner of the league's best record.
"You want that feeling back again," Anaheim defenseman Chris Pronger said of the team's quest to win another title. "We've been there, but it's a whole new year and we just went through a long grind of a season to finally get to this point to have the opportunity again."
The Ducks' outstanding play over the past two months includes two wins over Pacific Division rival Dallas (45-30-7). Anaheim beat the Stars 3-2 in a shootout March 30 and won 2-1 on March 19 after losing five of the teams' first six matchups this season.
Also, the Ducks will be facing a Stars team that stumbled over the last month. Dallas went 6-8-2 after acquiring high-scoring center Brad Richards in a trade with Tampa Bay.
A late-season slump doesn't seem to bode well for the Stars' chances of making it out of the first round of the playoffs for the first time in four years.
"We'd love nothing more than to erase some of the bad memories of the last few years," Dallas center Mike Modano said. "We just need to get out there and play our type of game, have some fun and enjoy it."
Modano is one of four Stars with 21 goals or more, but Dallas must contend with a bruising Anaheim lineup that features physical defensemen Pronger and Francois Beauchemin. Ducks goalie Jean-Sebastien Giguere has had one of his best seasons, going 35-17-6 with a career-best 2.12 goals-against average.
Giguere backstopped the Ducks' run to a title last season with a 1.97 GAA. He was 15-6 with 1.62 GAA in 21 appearances during the 2003 playoffs, when he won the Conn Smythe Trophy as postseason MVP despite a Game 7 loss in the finals at New Jersey.
Giguere, though, has been inconsistent versus the Stars this season, going 3-5-0 with a 2.92 GAA.
Dallas' chances rest heavily on the shoulders of Marty Turco, who posted a 1.30 GAA in a seven-game loss to Vancouver in the first round last year. He had three shutouts in series, but the Stars scored only 12 goals.
The Stars struggled down the stretch of regular season even though Turco had a 2.37 GAA in 13 games since the beginning of March. Dallas will need Modano, Mike Ribeiro, Brenden Morrow and Niklas Hagman to find a way to solve Giguere.
Ribeiro leads the Stars with 83 points (27 goals, 56 assists), but has not found the back of the net in 10 games. The veteran center had three goals and seven assists in eight games against Anaheim this season, but was held off the scoresheet in the last two contests.
Also, Dallas has been without Sergei Zubov since Jan. 19 because of a hernia that required surgery. Zubov, who led Stars defensemen with 35 points (four goals, 31 assists), is uncertain for Thursday's game.
Anaheim is led offensively by Ryan Getzlaf and Teemu Selanne, who cut short his early retirement to return at midseason for a shot at another championship. The Ducks, though, will be without top goal scorer Corey Perry to start the playoffs.
Perry, who has a career-best 29 goals, is out with a lacerated leg tendon.
The Ducks finished the regular season tied for 21st in the league with 108 goals at home, but they went 28-9-4 at the Honda Center. Anaheim's 60 points at home was second-best in the West, and it allowed an NHL-low 88 goals in its building.
Dallas, however, isn't intimidated by playing on the road, going 22-14-5 away from the American Airlines Center and scoring a West-leading 118 goals on the road.
"Anaheim is obviously a tough building to play in and they have most of their key guys back from last year so we have our work cut out for us," Modano said.
Both teams have also proven to be resilient. The Ducks had an NHL-best 21 wins after trailing 1-0 (21-23-5), while the Stars were second with 20 (20-20-2).
This is the first playoff meeting between the teams since the 2003 conference semifinals, won by Anaheim in six games.