The Anaheim Ducks might have been the last team that the Detroit Red Wings expected to play in the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. After all, few thought the Ducks, the No. 8 seed, would get past the Presidents' Trophy-winning San Jose Sharks. But Anaheim did just that, dispatching the tournament's top seed in six surprisingly easy games.
The Ducks used the same formula they employed in winning the 2007 Stanley Cup -- clutch goaltending, timely scoring and deploying one of the NHL’s deepest and most diverse blue lines in flawless fashion to neutralize the top threats from the Sharks.
Now, however, the Ducks must find a way to neutralize the defending Cup champion, a team that seems to be hitting its stride after looking for traction for stretches in the regular season. The Wings dispatched a game Columbus Blue Jackets club in the first round with a stunning display of overall team efficiency and good goaltending from the heretofore struggling Chris Osgood.
Both the first-round form of these two teams, as well as the regular-season series between the two, suggest that this should be a wide-open, highly entertaining series. Detroit won three of the four regular-season meetings, but only one game -- the final one on Feb. 20 -- was a blowout. The first three contests were all decided by one goal, including Anaheim's overtime victory to start things off back in late October.
What more can be said about the depth, speed and experience of Detroit's forwards that hasn't been acknowledged already? The defending Stanley Cup champions left little doubt where the balance of power remains in the Western Conference following their four-game sweep of a determined, but overmatched, Blue Jackets team in the Western Conference Quarterfinal.
How deep is this unit? Consider that Pavel Datsyuk, the club's leading scorer in the regular season, happens to be No. 12 on the team in the playoffs with two points. In all, the Wings have 11 players on the roster with at least one goal, including seven forwards. With Datsyuk (10 hits), Henrik Zetterberg, Valtteri Filppula and Darren Helm (17 hits) centering the top four lines, the Wings are certainly in good shape.
Johan Franzen leads the team with six points. Dan Cleary (plus-6 rating, 16 hits) already has surpassed his playoff total of last season (three points) in 18 fewer games with five points and Marian Hossa, Jiri Hudler and Tomas Holmstrom (two goals on two shots this postseason) continue to exhibit that championship-caliber attitude.
The Ducks are a far different team now that Bobby Ryan has found his stride. Ryan, a finalist for the Calder Trophy, came on like gangbusters in the second half of the season and did not slow down against the Sharks, scoring a series-high four goals.
But it was depth that won the first-round series for these Ducks. Ryan Getzlaf, the team's top scorer in the regular season, had a team-high six assists and was a buzz saw at both ends of the ice. His physical play against Sharks’ No. 1 center Joe Thornton -- including a wild fight between the two to start Game 6 -- set the tone for the series.
Teemu Selanne and Andrew Ebbett, however, will need to provide more to make this a series against high-scoring Detroit. Each had just one goal in the first round. The Ducks have a solid defensive unit, spearheaded by cagey veteran Todd Marchant; but Detroit is a very hard team to line-match against.
There's a lot more to the Wings on the back end than six-time Norris Trophy recipient Nicklas Lidstrom and that showed in the opening round. The Wings were relatively flawless in front of goalie Chris Osgood and their penchant for puck control is one of the many areas that enabled them to frustrate the opposition.
The duo of Lidstrom (four points) and Brian Rafalski (plus-5 rating) proved again why they might just be tops in the League. Brad Stuart certainly ratcheted it up a notch this postseason with 11 hits and seven blocked shots alongside partner Niklas Kronwall (four points, nine hits, nine blocked shots). Perhaps the most surprising development for the Wings in its first-round ouster of the Blue Jackets was the play of 6-foot-4 rookie defenseman Jonathan Ericsson, who performed marvelously with partner Brett Lebda, who is in his fourth season.
This is the strength of the Ducks, just as it was in the run to the Stanley Cup two years ago. Chris Pronger is a physical game-changer and he was not on the ice for a single goal-against in the first-round series. Pronger, who has both size and a mean streak to go along with world-class talent, certainly had a paralyzing effect on San Jose's forward.
Despite his domination, Pronger was just one piece of Anaheim's blue-line puzzle. At 35, Scott Niedermayer is still one of the best two-way defensemen in the game, as evidenced by his
five points and plus-3 rating. Ryan Whitney, obtained at the trade deadline, played more than 21 minutes a game and produced four points. Francois Beauchemin, rounding into shape after a long-term injury, is starting to hit the stride that made him a star of the 2007 campaign during his breakout season.
Tale of the tape
G- ANA (#1)
height: 6' 2"
Since 2003, we have been extolling the virtues of J.S. Giguere in this space. He took the team on a surprising run to the Final in 2003 and was the backbone of the 2007 championship squad.
But Giguere had a middling 2008-09 season and was replaced by the little-known Jonas Hiller at the start of the playoffs. All Hiller did with the opportunity is stymie one of the most-potent offenses in the League. In six games, he stopped 220 of 230 shots and finished with a 1.64 goals-against average. His .957 save percentage is second-best in the playoffs, behind Vancouver's Roberto Luongo.
Mike Babcock might be the envy of every other coach in the League with the amount of talent he has, but the fact the Red Wings have continued to thrive and prosper under his tutelage in each of the past four seasons is an indication of his ability to extract the best from his players when it matters most -- the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Randy Carlyle has been down this road before, leading the Ducks to a title in 2007. He has the pulse of his team and is not afraid to make unconventional or hard decisions. His choice to go with Hiller before Giguere is a perfect example of his acumen. Carlyle, a former defenseman, is especially adept at deploying his defensemen in the most efficient way possible.
Detroit concluded its first-round series displaying a deadly power play. In the first round, the Wings went 7-of-22 for an amazingly good 31.8 percent conversion rate. That shouldn't come as much of a surprise, though, as the club closed out the regular season with the most effective man-advantage unit at 25.5 percent. The penalty-killing unit was fairing well in the first round until allowing two goals in as many opportunities. Still, Detroit allowed just one other power-play goal in the series, in 13 overall opportunities.
Anaheim usually punished San Jose when the Sharks got into penalty trouble, scoring five extra-man goals in the series. The team's 21.7 percent conversion rate has to be respected, especially because the team can strike from so many areas of the attacking. It is, however, Anaheim's penalty kill that will tell the tale against Detroit's top-rated power play. The Ducks allowed just 4 goals to San Jose in the first round, but will have to be even more effective now to keep games against Detroit within reach.
Dan Cleary was a big part of the team's Stanley Cup Championship last season, despite scoring just three points in 22 games. He has five points already this postseason and if he stays hot, Detroit becomes an even harder team to match up against. Even if he doesn't score, though, Cleary does so many little things right that he is a plus for the Wings.
Detroit will win if... They continue to get scoring from throughout its lineup. In the first round, Detroit dressed just 18 players and 15 of them scored at least one point. Amazingly, 11 of those players had at least three points in a four-game series. That means Detroit can get offense from all four lines -- as well as the blue line -- which makes them almost impossible to stop through simple line matching.
Anaheim will win if... Hiller continues his magic-carpet ride. The young Swiss goalie doesn't seem fazed by the task before him and he was very good in the first round, staying square to shooters and controlling rebounds. Clearly, the Ducks tried extra hard to protect Hiller in the first round, providing some of the most comprehensive own-zone coverage of the season against San Jose. But, can Hiller and his defense do the same against a Red Wing team that runs four lines deep.