The Anaheim Ducks took the drama out of whether they would contend for a berth in the Stanley Cup Playoffs with their sizzling start to the 2012-13 season.
In fact, after they won 22 of their first 29 games (and picked up a consolation point in four of the seven losses), there seemed to be little doubt about a Pacific Division title and top-two seed in the Western Conference for the Ducks.
However, Anaheim endured its share of struggles down the stretch before holding off the Los Angeles Kings and San Jose Sharks to claim the second division crown in franchise history. The first one was won in 2006-07, a season that ended with Anaheim claiming its only Stanley Cup championship.
The Ducks have some questions they must answer now in their pursuit of a second title. Here are five pressing ones:
1. Can the team regain its earlier mojo?
When the Ducks beat the Chicago Blackhawks 4-2 on March 20, their record stood at 22-3-4 and they seemed a legitimate threat to wrest the Presidents' Trophy from the grasp of their Windy City rivals, who themselves began the season by recording at least a point in 24 straight games.
However, the Ducks finished the season on a middling run that made them look rather ordinary. Their difficulties on home ice, where they won 13 in a row at one point, were particularly glaring.2. Who's the No. 1 goaltender?
Viktor Fasth was brought in to provide a reliable backup to Jonas Hiller, who appeared in 73 games last season, but the 30-year-old veteran of the Swedish leagues was so reliable he basically ended up sharing the duties with his Swiss teammate. Each posted impressive numbers, though Fasth had the slightly lower goals-against average and higher save percentage.
Though Hiller has six NHL seasons under his belt, he's appeared in 13 postseason games -- all of them four years ago. Fasth doesn't have any experience competing for the Stanley Cup, but he boasts some clutch performances at the international level, including at the World Championship.
3. What does the Finnish Flash have left in the tank?
Teemu Selanne gave serious consideration to retiring after lifting the Cup with the Ducks six years ago. All he's done since then is score more than 100 goals and total nearly 300 points, adding to career totals that rank among the game's all-time greats.
Selanne posted 80 and 66 points during his past two full seasons and started this one with a two-goal, four-point night against the Vancouver Canucks. Ten games later, the 42-year-old torched the St. Louis Blues for another four points.
Since then, however, Selanne has started to act his age. He hasn't had another multipoint game and he's been held off the score sheet entirely in more than half the Ducks' games. Secondary scoring is critical to winning a Stanley Cup, and the Ducks will need another vintage performance from Selanne at some stage.
4. Will the defense hold up?
SOG: 74 | +/-: 19
Luca Sbisa has been dealing with injury woes as well, and Cam Fowler has battled injuries and seen his offensive numbers continue to regress from his rookie season, though he's been better defensively. The Ducks also have veterans Toni Lydman, Bryan Allen and Ben Lovejoy, and rookie Sami Vatanen. Can they cobble together a healthy and competent six-man unit that can provide enough protection in front of Fasth or Hiller to keep the games from turning into shooting galleries?
5. Was the Ducks' regular-season success against the Blackhawks for real?
The two teams only can meet if both advance to the Western Conference Finals, but the Ducks must prepare to go through Chicago if they plan on winning a championship.
Anaheim swept the three games played this season in thrilling fashion. There was a 3-2 shootout win at United Center on Feb. 12 that let the League know the Ducks were for real. That was followed by the 4-2 victory at Honda Center on March 20, which punctuated their blazing start. Even after the Ducks dropped their next four games, they got back on track for a while by claiming a 2-1 win in Chicago on March 29 on a goal by Souray with 2:08 left in the third period.
An upstart could oust the Blackhawks in the first or second round, or the Ducks could meet an early elimination, but what a wild ride it would be if the West's top-two teams from the regular season face off in a best-of-7 series for the right to go to the Stanley Cup Final.