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Ducks becoming a nightmare matchup for Sharks

by Eric Stephens
SAN JOSE -- Now these were the Anaheim Ducks that were supposed to look like Stanley Cup contenders.

A season for the Ducks that mostly served as a struggle to find any semblance of consistency has given way to a postseason that has delivered the first shocking development in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

A dominating 4-0 victory over the top-seeded San Jose Sharks in Game 4 only confirmed that the 2007 Cup champions were a team nobody wanted to face in the first round.

Once on the verge of missing the playoffs altogether, eighth-seeded Anaheim has parlayed a strong finish to the regular season into a shocking 3-1 lead over the Presidents' Trophy-winning Sharks with a chance to close out the upset series in Game 5 Saturday night (10 p.m. ET, VERSUS, CBC, RDS).

"I don't think they expected this," Ducks winger Bobby Ryan said. "We've said all along we aren't your typical eight seed. Obviously, we feel like we belong in that upper echelon in this Western Conference. A roller coaster year put us there. But we certainly knew we could make some noise."

With 16 players remaining from the team that won the Stanley Cup in 2007 to start the 2008-09 season, the Ducks thought they would challenge San Jose for the Pacific Division title after a first-round playoff loss to Dallas last year.

Instead, Anaheim was 32-31-6 and in 12th place in the West on March 15. The Ducks, who dealt key Cup performers Chris Kunitz, Travis Moen and Samuel Pahlsson, got a jolt of energy from their new additions and finished with a 10-2-1 flourish to clinch a playoff spot in their penultimate game.

Still, the Ducks dropped to the No. 8 spot when St. Louis won on the final day of the regular season. All it did was present a nightmare matchup for San Jose, which has come to fruition.

"I think everybody knows the fourth game is the most difficult to win," Ducks goalie Jonas Hiller said. "I think we showed a reaction (Thursday) after the last game where we were not happy how we played. (Thursday) everybody was fighting and giving a little more. We definitely deserved to win. If we keep going that way, we definitely have a chance for that fourth win."

The Ducks are beating San Jose as its own game. They're getting good goaltending, rock-solid play in the defensive end and their offensive stars are heating up.

All aspects were displayed in Game 4 Thursday night in Anaheim -– the first time either team has won at home in the series. Hiller made 31 saves to notch his second shutout in his fourth playoff start and the Ducks' group of six defensemen, led by stars Scott Niedermayer and Chris Pronger, completely shut down the Sharks.

Most of all, Anaheim's big top line of Ryan, Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry busted out with a huge performance. Ryan had two goals, Perry had a goal and an assist and Getzlaf set up goals for each of his linemates with sparkling plays.

During the regular season, Perry had a team-leading 32 goals and added 40 assists, Ryan led all rookies with 31 goals and 57 points and Getzlaf finished tied for sixth in the League in scoring with 91 points, including 25 goals.

Another player who's quietly having a big series is defenseman Ryan Whitney, who was acquired from Pittsburgh right before the trade deadline. Whitney has assists in each of the first four games.

"We've said all along we aren't your typical eight seed. Obviously, we feel like we belong in that upper echelon in this Western Conference. A roller coaster year put us there. But we certainly knew we could make some noise."
-- Bobby Ryan

It was Whitney who started the sequence on Ryan's first goal as he got the puck away from San Jose center Joe Thornton in the Anaheim zone and delivered a perfect pass to a streaking Getzlaf at center ice right before the center set up his winger with a nifty feed.

"Since I got here, it's been a pretty easy system to play in," Whitney said. "We do a lot of things that make it easy on defensemen. Playing with Chris Pronger makes a world of difference. He's always talking out there. Ask any player, when someone's talking and you've got time, it makes it easier.

"It's been great since I got here. I've really enjoyed myself. You can see that we're on a roll."

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