|Blue Jackets head coach Ken Hitchcock almost won back-to-back Stanley Cups when he led Dallas to the finals in 1999 and 2000.
Ken Hitchcock, the coach of Columbus, knows all about that climb. Hitchcock nearly pulled off the feat, guiding the Dallas Stars to the 1999 Cup championship and getting to Game 6 of the 2000 Final before losing to the New Jersey Devils.
Hitchcock's Stars played 23 games in the run to the 1999 championship, which they won on Brett Hull's goal in the third overtime of Game 6 in Buffalo.
A year later, in their 23rd game of the 2000 postseason, they fell in Game 6 of the Final to the New Jersey Devils on a Jason Arnott overtime goal.
As hard as climbing the mountain to claim Lord Stanley's chalice once was, doing it again proved to be an even tougher assignment than even the cerebral Hitchcock could have imagined.
"I find it's the target that you wear and you have to wear it for a long time," Hitchcock said. "It's not one team, it's not one area, it's just the cumulative effect of getting every team, every player's best game night in, night out, night in, night out, and it's really wearing on you, and it's really hard to continually go deep into the playoffs because it's such a price. Our sport, the price to pay to win is so high, much higher than any of the other three sports because you've got to do it for such a long period of time; that it's really physically and mentally wearing on players.
"And then when you get the other team's best game … I just know there's no better feeling than knocking off a defending champion, (so) it's a special group that can get back there again."
Hitchcock's Stars team in 2000 mostly was unchanged from the club that won it all in 1999 and nearly repeated the feat a year later.
They were a veteran group that featured Ed Belfour in goal, Derian Hatcher as muscle on the blue line, and Sergei Zubov and Darryl Sydor as point men on the power play. Providing offense were Hull, Mike Modano, Jere Lehtinen, Joe Nieuwendyk and Jamie Langenbrunner.
In the salary-cap world of today's NHL, Ducks General Manager Brian Burke was able to keep his defending champions mostly intact from last season.
The summer signing of Mathieu Schneider makes them deeper on defense, but offense will be a question. While Teemu Selanne returned after the All-Star break to complement an offense that includes All-Star Ryan Getzlaf, Chris Kunitz and Todd Bertuzzi, the Ducks scored the fewest goals among the 16 playoff teams.
Dustin Penner was lost in the offseason, and Andy McDonald, last year's team leader in playoff goals, was sacrificed to St. Louis to fit Scott Niedermayer's salary under the cap. Doug Weight, who came from the Blues for McDonald, has been injured and inconsistent. Corey Perry, who led the team in goals during the regular season, is questionable for the Ducks' first-round series with the Dallas Stars, which starts Thursday.
"The first series, to me, for an established team is by far the hardest because I think there's a part of you that knows how difficult it is and how high the hill is to climb," said Hitchcock. "I think the electricity from the other side is that nothing would feel better, and they feel if they knock off the defending champions, that they've got a great road to getting to the Cup.
"I find some of the most emotional series were the year that we played after winning in '99. We played in 2000, the playoffs were unbelievable; the first two series were unbelievable.
"I feel like it's going to be really a challenge for Anaheim to get their level up to where they need to because they are the target and they're going to be the target from now on, and I think they're going to get Dallas' best game every night."
Even if Anaheim survives Dallas in the first round, the Presidents' Trophy-winning Detroit Red Wings are the potential opponent in the conference semifinals. And if the seeds hold and the Ducks advance back to the Western Conference Final, they could meet the San Jose Sharks, who won 18 of their last 22 games.
"I think one of the problems is when you have so many good teams that what's left of your team at the end of the three series that you have to play in sometimes isn't much," said Hitchcock. "I think a lot of it depends on the damage that gets done in some of these series.
"I think when you look at the competitiveness of the teams and the closeness of really almost all eight teams in the (Western Conference) playoffs, I think health is going to be a major issue on whoever comes out from this series because it has the makings -- especially in these early rounds -- of some really long series here."
The Ducks needed 21 games to climb the mountain and win last season's Stanley Cup, and had less than three months to celebrate before beginning the 2007-08 season in London, England. They survived a grueling, 82-game regular season to reach the base of the mountain again.
Their attempt to get back to the summit starts Thursday.
Contact Adam Kimelman at email@example.com.