The Anaheim Ducks were back among the top teams in the Western Conference for a second straight season but are hoping for a better conclusion after an opening-round exit in 2013. To do so, they'll have to defeat the Dallas Stars, a team back in the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time in six seasons and that boasts one of the most exciting duos in the sport.
Anaheim stormed to the top of the NHL standings and was 36-8-5 at one point before a two-month bout with mediocrity. The Ducks rebounded near the end of the season to reclaim the top spot in the Pacific Division and the Western Conference.
The Ducks were one of the top offensive clubs in the League, led by a dominant duo of their own, forwards Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry, and great depth at forward. Anaheim's ability to remain near the top of the NHL standings was in part because of the best goaltending depth in the League.
Dallas has been close to securing a playoff berth a couple of times before falling short during the past five years, but the Stars finished with a flurry. New general manager Jim Nill made a series of bold moves in the offseason and new coach Lindy Ruff helped guide the Stars back to the postseason.
The Stars, led by forwards Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn, are also one of the top-scoring teams in the League and this series could feature plenty of goals. These teams have met twice in the playoffs, with Anaheim prevailing en route to the Cup Final in 2003 and Dallas winning in 2008.
Dallas has won two of the three games this season. There were 20 goals in the three games, and each side claimed a 6-3 victory.
Getzlaf could finish second in the MVP voting to Sidney Crosby, and is almost certain to be a Hart Trophy finalist. He and Perry, the 2011 Hart winner have experienced playoff success together before. Neither was particularly great against Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg and Detroit Red Wings last season, but they could rebound in a big way this spring.
There is lots of depth on the wings, so much so the Ducks were willing to part with Dustin Penner, a linemate of Perry and Getzlaf for much of the season, for a draft pick. Kyle Palmieri, Matt Beleskey, Patrick Maroon, Jakob Silfverberg and Emerson Etem could be factors, and Bruce Boudreau has proven to be someone who likes to tinker with the lineup and move guys up and down.
Nick Bonino, Saku Koivu and Matthieu Perreault will line up behind Getzlaf, and they need to hold their own against teams that will be more talented than the Ducks at center (every other Western Conference contender not named the Chicago Blackhawks), though Bonino has been among the players to see time next to Getzlaf and Perry. That potential weakness might not be an issue in this series. Koivu has teamed with Andrew Cogliano on the third line for much of the past two seasons, and Cogliano had a huge year.
Teemu Selanne is a bit of a wild card. He's played on a couple of different lines and shown flashes of his old self at times. He also played really well for Finland at the 2014 Sochi Olympics, so a couple of turn-back-the-clock type performances from him can’t be discounted.
Seguin arrived in Dallas via trade from the Boston Bruins in the summer and has not only become a franchise center, he's elevated Benn's game. The No. 2 pick in the 2010 NHL Draft, Seguin eclipsed 80 points for the first time (84). Benn, 24, also enjoyed a career year. The former fifth-round pick (2007) had 79 points to easily surpassed his previous career high of 63.
Rookies Alex Chiasson and Valeri Nichushkin provided a glimpse of the offensive depth the Stars are going to have for years to come. Chiasson, 23, had 35 points in his first full season in the NHL. Nichushkin was Dallas' first-round pick at the 2013 NHL Draft (No. 10); the 19-year-old got off to a slow start but showed flashes of how dangerous he could be, including a four-point performance against the Philadelphia Flyers in December; he finished with 34.
Cody Eakin, who arrived in a trade with the Washington Capitals two years ago, made an impact this season. The 22-year-old center had 16 goals and 35 points and could be a solid player behind Seguin for the foreseeable future.
Seguin appeared in 42 playoff games during his time in Boston and helped the Bruins win a Stanley Cup as a rookie in 2011. Whitney and Cole won a championship with the Carolina Hurricanes in 2006 against Horcoff's Edmonton Oilers.
Cam Fowler had a breakout season for the Ducks and earned a spot on the United States Olympic team before a knee injury cost him three weeks. He returned near the end of the season, and how effective he can be could be the difference between a long playoff run and a short one.
Stephane Robidas has been quite helpful since arriving from Dallas before the NHL Trade Deadline. This team was probably short a top-four defenseman and an elite No. 2 center, and Robidas has filled one of those two holes.
With a healthy Fowler, it should allow rookie Hampus Lindholm to slide back to the third pairing. He's been successful when Boudreau has been able to shield him from tough situations. Another rookie, Sami Vatanen, has been one of the better possession players, but could be the odd-man out when everyone is healthy. He shouldn't be.
The Stars defense is led by Alex Goligoski, who has taken his game to another level this season. Goligoski eclipsed 40 points for the first time in his career (42) and averaged more than 24 minutes of ice time per game. The 28-year-old is joined on the top pair by veteran Trevor Daley, who missed nearly all of December because of a high ankle sprain. The 30-year-old is capable of chipping in offensively while giving the Stars more than 20 minutes on a nightly basis.
Brenden Dillon was solid in his second season in Dallas. Goligoski and Daley were the only defensemen to average more ice time than Dillon, who went undrafted and signed as a free agent with the Stars in 2011. The 23-year-old provides Dallas with grit and offense; he scored two shorthanded goals this season.
Dillon is joined by Jordie Benn, the older brother of Jamie. Jordie was very reliable for the Stars during the regular season, averaging more than 19 minutes per game with a plus-16 rating.
Sergei Gonchar gives Dallas more experience on the back end. His offensive production declined significantly this season, but the 40-year-old adds 135 playoff games to a young group.
This is likely to be the second consecutive season when Jonas Hiller has lesser statistics than his backup but retains the starting job for the postseason. Frederik Andersen has been great in limited duty, but Hiller is likely to be the guy again.
Hiller had a strong start to the Olympics for Switzerland, and he was solid for the Ducks last season against the Red Wings. It's not likely to happen, but an injury or two could put prospect John Gibson into play. The comparisons to Patrick Roy in 1986 would begin immediately. Gibson played well in limited duty for the Ducks near the end of the season.
The Ducks don't need Hiller, or whoever the goaltender ends up being, to steal a series for them, but he's going to have to be very good against any of the great possession teams.
Kari Lehtonen carried the load for Dallas this season and posted solid numbers. Lehtonen may be 30 years old, but he doesn't have much experience in the postseason; he played two games for the Atlanta Thrashers in 2007, when they were swept in the opening round by the New York Rangers.
Should Lehtonen falter, the Stars have an insurance policy: Tim Thomas, who led the Bruins to the Stanley Cup in 2011 and was acquired at the NHL Trade Deadline from the Florida Panthers. Thomas has a 2.07 goals-against average and .933 save percentage in 50 postseason games, and won the Conn Smythe Trophy in 2011.
Anaheim's Bruce Boudreau has secured about 66 percent of the points available to his teams in the regular season. That means he's basically coached at a 105-point pace for his entire NHL career (seven seasons). Toss out the year he changed jobs (2011-12) and that figure rises.
He took over a team in 2007-08 that couldn't score and turned the Washington Capitals into the most exciting team in hockey. He took over a team that was rapidly declining at the offensive end, and has made the Ducks one of the best scoring teams in the past two seasons.
Boudreau has won championships in the ECHL and American Hockey League, but his Stanley Cup Playoffs record is 20-24. A deep playoff run would cement Boudreau as one of the League's top coaches. He already is, but not everyone thinks so. Perception is a fickle thing, but it would change quickly if the Ducks play deep into the spring.
This is Lindy Ruff's first season with the Stars after coaching the Buffalo Sabres from 1997-2012. The 54-year-old made an immediate impact and has changed the culture in Dallas, helping the franchise find its way back to the playoffs.
Ruff has used the Stars' speed to his advantage, and he will continue to when the pucks drops on the postseason. He will have his team attack from the get-go, rather than sitting back and waiting for the puck to come to his players.
The playoffs are no stranger to Ruff; he guided the Sabres to the postseason eight times, including a trip to the Stanley Cup Final in 1999.
The Ducks' shooting percentage at even strength when the score is close is easily the highest in the League (which could be a problem in the near future), but that's not the case on the power play. Anaheim is near the bottom of the League standings in shooting percentage and converting chances with the extra man.
A team with the array of offensive weapons available should be better on the power play. Anaheim was a middle of the pack team on the penalty kill.
Despite skill up front, the Stars struggled on the power play, finishing 24th in the NHL. The penalty kill finished 21st, and each will need to be better against one of the top teams in the Western Conference.
Cam Fowler -- Fowler's health and effectiveness could play a large role. If Fowler is playing well it gives the Ducks a top five worthy of competing with the best groups in a loaded Western Conference.
Tyler Seguin -- Seguin is so fast and talented he can create havoc for the opposition. Winning in the playoffs usually boils down to goaltending, but in this case, it's imperative Seguin builds off his sensational regular season and carries the Stars to the second round. He's talented enough to pull it off.
DUCKS WILL WIN IF ...
Ducks will win if … Getzlaf and Perry put the 2013 Stanley Cup Playoffs behind them, and Hiller is solid or better in net. Even if one of those things doesn't happen, the Ducks might have enough depth to get into the second round and hope for improvement.
STARS WILL WIN IF …
Stars will win if … They use their speed to their advantage and are relentless on the forecheck. The young group is basically playing with house money against one of the top teams in the West, so the majority of the pressure will be on the Ducks.
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