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Ducks closing in on a playoff spot

by Eric Stephens

"I think we still see an opportunity in front of us. We're behind in the playoff picture right now, but if we can go out and play well and win some of our games, I think we can make up that ground."
-- Scott Niedermayer

Like an aging luxury sedan struggling to keep up on the highway while the shiny, newer models zoom on by, the Anaheim Ducks have sputtered along throughout the 2008-09 season while their rivals in recent years have blown past them.

San Jose and Detroit, two legitimate Stanley Cup contenders, have been finely tuned machines that have taken their place at the top of the Western Conference. The Ducks? They're an engine that has coughed and wheezed, stopping and starting along the way.

But they're showing that they aren't ready to be scrapped in the nearest junkyard. A three-game winning streak has put Anaheim back in position to grab one of the final spots for the Stanley Cup playoffs with its biggest games of the season lying directly ahead.

"I think we still see an opportunity in front of us," Ducks captain Scott Niedermayer told "We're behind in the playoff picture right now, but if we can go out and play well and win some of our games, I think we can make up that ground."

A season that hasn't come close to the expectations built from three straight playoff appearances and a 2007 Stanley Cup victory is now down to 10 games that'll determine if the Ducks have enough drive left for a final postseason push.

Anaheim, which sits in a tie with Minnesota for ninth place, plays at Nashville tonight and can jump ahead of the eighth-place Predators with a victory. The Ducks then fly immediately to Colorado to play the Avalanche Wednesday before coming home to face Edmonton, which sits three points ahead in seventh place.

A rousing 6-2 home victory over Phoenix Sunday has the Ducks in an optimistic mood.

"We're digging ourselves out of a hole, but we're still in it," defenseman Chris Pronger told the Orange County Register. "The beauty of it is the teams that are ahead of us are the teams we're playing right now."

An overtime victory over Nashville at the Honda Center and home-and-home wins over the Coyotes have made up Anaheim's modest three-game streak. The significance of it is it's been more than three months since the Ducks won three in a row.

Since a four-game win streak from Nov. 22-30 pushed their record to 14-8-3, the Ducks have been the picture of mediocrity with a 21-23-3 mark counting the four wins in their last five games.

Sadly, it's not surprising to Niedermayer, who isn't accustomed to sitting out the postseason.

"It's been a tough year, for sure," said the former Norris Trophy winner, third on the team with 49 points. "We've been up and down. Usually a year goes that way but this year it just seems to happening much more quickly, going up and down. But we're still fighting."

Consistency has eluded Anaheim all season, exasperating both coach Randy Carlyle and new general manager Bob Murray. Maybe falling to 12th place in the Western Conference after a home loss to San Jose heightened the sense of urgency.

Niedermayer senses it in the dressing room. But, as the calm and collected defenseman pointed out, there's a right way and a wrong way to play when everything is one the line.

"Mentally, for sure, we know exactly the situation we're in," he said." Everyone would like to go out there and display the right way to go about that. Sometimes it backfires when you try to do too much and go away from doing your job on the ice.

"In the last few games, we're just forgetting about everyone and everything and concentrated on the task at hand."

Two developments that have fueled the Ducks' recent surge are what they'll need to keep it going. A power play that went dormant for an eight-game stretch has reawakened. Anaheim has converted seven of its 12 man-advantage chances, including four of five in Sunday's win over Phoenix, after getting just one goal in its previous 28 opportunities.

"Until the last little stretch, the power play has been something that's performed OK for us," Niedermayer said. "When you get down to the tough games like we're in now, we need both [the power play and penalty kill] going."

The Ducks are also getting contributions from the players they've acquired since Murray began shaking up the roster prior to the March 4 trade deadline.

Defenseman Ryan Whitney, whom they got from Pittsburgh for winger Chris Kunitz, is logging over 22 minutes and has four assists in 10 games. Former Chicago defender James Wisniewski, who's playing alongside Niedermayer, got his first goal as a Duck.

Petteri Nokelainen, picked up from Boston for defenseman Steve Montador, has taken over the lead checking center role from the departed Samuel Pahlsson and has chipped in two goals in seven games. Erik Christensen has yet to score, but has four assists in seven games since begin acquired from Atlanta.

The new guys are starting to get comfortable and, perhaps more importantly, the existing Ducks are more at ease with them.

"Obviously, when there's a big change like that when you have three, four or five guys who have come and gone, it is an adjustment," Niedermayer said. "I think in the last little bit, guys are looking more comfortable out there."

Niedermayer jogged his memory when asked the last time he's been in a scenario where his team had to fight to the end just to get a playoff spot.

Hint: It's been a long time.

"In '96 [with New Jersey], we went right up until the end and missed the playoffs on the last day," he said. "It depends upon how you look at it. In one way, it's exciting. Every game is important and kind of the attitude that you need to take is that it's fun."

As the postseason approaches, the Ducks are trying their best not to get left out of the fun.
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