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Ducks are first obstacle to Sharks' dream

by Staff

All thoughts of an NHL best 53-18-11 regular-season record now are tucked away in the recesses of the minds of San Jose Sharks players and coaches.

For San Jose, the real challenge is now, namely to erase years of playoff disappointment and produce the Stanley Cup so many feel the club is capable of earning.

One can understand the high expectations for the Sharks when you look at core players like Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, Devin Setoguchi and Joe Pavelski up front, Rob Blake and Dan Boyle on defense and Evgeni Nabokov in goal.

Standing in the way are the Anaheim Ducks, a club that struggled to find an identity for much of the season, but a team that righted the ship to the tune of a 42-33-7 record and 7-2-1 mark in its last 10 games. Anaheim also is a club not far removed from its 2007 Stanley Cup championship, still icing Cup winners in Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry, Scott Niedermayer, Teemu Selanne, Chris Pronger, Rob Niedermayer, Todd Marchant, Francois Beauchemin and J.S. Giguere.

The team that produced the third-most goals in the Western Conference is a balanced group with six players who scored at least 20 goals, including two -- Patrick Marleau and Devin Setoguchi -- who topped the 30-goal plateau.

Marleau scored a career-high 38 goals to lead the team while posting a tidy plus-16, a far cry from his 19-29-48 and minus-19 disaster in 2007-08.

Joe Thornton is one of the most-feared playmaking centers around and placed No. 11 in League scoring with 25-61-86. He and Marleau spent much of the season on the same line. Rounding out the top six forwards are Setoguchi (31 goals), Joe Pavelski (59 points), Ryane Clowe (52 points) and Milan Michalek (57 points). Of that foursome, only Michalek didn't set a new career high in points.

Jonathan Cheechoo, a former League goal-scoring champ, struggled mightily for a second-straight season, producing just a dozen goals in 66 games. If you remember last season, though, Cheechoo was a mess in the regular season yet managed 8 points in 13 playoff games.

The Ducks' roster features four 20-goal scorers, two of whom topped 30 goals. Those four players -- Ryan Getzlaf (25 goals), Corey Perry (32), Bobby Ryan (31) and Teemu Selanne (27) -- accounted for 115 of the 205 goals scored by Anaheim forwards, so there is little question about how Anaheim generates its offense. Simply, the Ducks live and die with the Getzlaf-Perry-Ryan line.

Ryan (62 games, 31-26-57) can be a game-breaker. He wasn't even recalled from Iowa of the American Hockey League until Nov. 15, yet still managed to lead all NHL rookies in scoring. He also had one of the League's top shooting percentages at 17.8 percent.

Anaheim attempted to balance the scoring at the trade deadline by acquiring Erik Christensen from Atlanta, and he responded with 2 goals and 9 points in 17 games. Petteri Nokelainen, brought in from Boston at the same time, has been a pleasant surprise with 4-2-6 in 17 games. Rob Niedermayer and Todd Marchant are veteran leaders from the 2007 Stanley Cup team.

Before the season, GM Doug Wilson imported three Cup-winning defensemen to revamp the blue line. Those additions were headlined by Dan Boyle, who won with Tampa Bay in 2004. Rob Blake (2001, Colorado) and Brad Lukowich (also in 2004) were the other two champions added to the mix. As you can imagine, these proven vets get major minutes. A fourth Cup-winner, Kent Huskins (2007, Anaheim) was acquired at the trade deadline, but a broken foot has kept him sidelined since January.

Boyle, sixth among all defensemen with 57 points, posted the second-best total of his 10-year career. He's one of the best at moving the puck out of the defensive zone and starting the transition play, especially on the power play, where he averaged a team-best 4:39 of ice time per game. Blake is physical and owns a big shot, and his 45 points were his best total since 2005-06. Christian Ehrhoff and Marc-Edouard Vlasic are the other primary defensemen on this team.

Herein rests Anaheim's strength. Scott Niedermayer and Chris Pronger can dominate at both ends of the ice and led the club to the Cup in 2007. Ryan Whitney was a main cog in Pittsburgh's march to Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final last season.

Niedermayer is 22-66-88 in 189 career playoff games, but his value is so much more than stats. The veteran can control the pace of a game with his skating and puck-handling skills. Plus, he has poise in pressure situations. Pronger, at 6-foot-6 and 214 pounds, can drop anyone in his path and has a heavy point shot.

Whitney, acquired in February, had 10 assists in 20 games with Anaheim. James Wisniewski came from Chicago at the trade deadline and went 1-10-11 in 17 games with the Ducks.

Tale of the tape

HEIGHT: 6' 0" WEIGHT: 200
'08-09 Stats:
SV%: .910
GAA: 2.44
height: 6' 1"
weight: 201
'08-09 Stats:
SV%: .900
GAA: 3.10
Evgeni Nabokov was quietly spectacular, overshadowed considerably by the exploits of a high-flying offense. He posted 40 wins before appearance No. 60, becoming the sixth goalie in NHL history with back-to-back 40-win campaigns. Nabokov was in the Top 10 in goals-against average (2.44), wins (41) and shutouts (7).

One knock against Nabokov is his sub-par 30-27 lifetime postseason record. Backup Brian Boucher has a career playoff mark of 11-8 and went 12-6-3 with a 2.18 GAA this season.

Not since he became the No. 1 in 2001-02 has Jean-Sebastien Giguere (46 games, 19-18-6, 3.10 GAA) had a backup make 40 or more appearances. But 2008-09 was a trying season and Jonas Hiller (46 games, 23-15-1, 2.39 GAA) proved capable. In fact, Hiller was so good that a controversy was brewing. But Giguere, the 2003 Conn Smythe Trophy winner, could be the go-to guy once again.

Todd McLellan had a historic debut season as an NHL coach, as his 53 wins were just four off Tom Johnson's record for first-time coaches. Prior to taking over the Sharks, McLellan was Mike Babcock's assistant for three seasons in Detroit, where he was credited with running a highly successful power play, and he's brought a well-oiled man-advantage attack to San Jose. McLellan also coached a Calder Cup-winning team with Houston of the AHL in 2002-03.

Randy Carlyle has the most wins in franchise history, a Cup ring as a coach, and a sharp, tactical mind from being a Norris Trophy-winning defenseman. He's won at least 40 games in each of his four seasons at the helm for Anaheim. The Ducks have lost more than 250 man-games due to injury this season, so this might have been his best coaching effort yet.

If you put the Sharks on the power play, they will make you pay. San Jose produced 87 power play goals, the second-best total in the League. That lofty total came courtesy of a success rate that hovered around 25 percent before settling at 24.2. At one point, the Sharks scored a man-advantage goal in 11 straight games, establishing a franchise record. Four players -- Thornton, Marleau, Setoguchi and Clowe -- had 10 or more power play goals. On the penalty kill, San Jose was effective 83.3 percent of the time for a Top 10 finish.

With one of the all-time best power-play scorers in Teemu Selanne (206 goals), the Ducks were in the fifth-best in the League in proficiency at 23.6 percent despite having the third-fewest opportunities (309). Stopping power plays, however, was not a forte of Anaheim as they were only 79.7 percent on the kill.

Devin Setoguchi, Sharks -- Aside from importing a bushel of former Cup winners to make a tangible difference, the Sharks now have a quick-strike goal scorer in Setoguchi. The ability to score early and often was something many of the Sharks teams that disappointed in the recent past lacked. Setoguchi, though, has scored a team-high 8 first goals, 11 power-play goals, and scored more often on the road (17) than at home (14).

Sharks will win if... They keep playing the way they have through the regular season. There are a number of reasons the Sharks were the most consistent team in the League this season, and they will own home-ice advantage for as long as they stay alive in the postseason. But the most obvious reason is that San Jose has as much, if not more, talent as any team in the League, especially the No. 8 seed in the Western Conference playoffs.

Ducks will win if... They find a goalie ready to carry the load. Most likely, that will have to be Giguere, who has been through the playoff wars in the past. In four previous trips, Giguere has reached the Final twice, but also bowed out in the first round twice -- in alternating seasons. So does that mean the Ducks still will be playing in June after going out in the first round last season? It could be, if Giguere -- with help from his formidable defense -- is on his game.

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