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Ducks learn important lessons in loss to Predators

by Curtis Zupke
ANAHEIM, Calif. -- The Anaheim Ducks filed into the corridors of Honda Center on Tuesday at about the same time they would for a morning skate, but they never stepped on the ice.

Game 7 of their Western Conference quarterfinal-round series against Nashville would have been Tuesday night at home, and there was a feeling they should still be playing.

"I think we're too good a team to be sitting here," Bobby Ryan said.

Instead the Ducks will spend the summer thinking about losing Game 5 in heartbreak manner before they finally yielded in Game 6 to a defensive-oriented Nashville team that will serve as a blueprint for Anaheim in 2011-12.

"I think we're too good a team to be sitting here." -- Bobby Ryan

The Predators exposed the Ducks as a top-heavy scoring team whose lack of depth was the difference in the postseason.

"Their third and fourth lines killed us," Anaheim general manager Bob Murray said.

"There's where I've got to take a step back and (look at) some of the things we did. You worry too much about trying to beat the San Joses and the LAs of the world and forget about other things. The answer is, some of our kids have to come back and be better next year, and they were told that."

Four players supplied 57 percent of Anaheim's goals in the regular season: The top line of Ryan, Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf and the ageless Teemu Selanne. They also accounted for 13 of the team's 20 playoff goals.

It was telling that Perry, a 50-goal scorer, and Getzlaf each had no points in Games 5-6 as Anaheim's cadre of youngsters employed on the third line -- Nick Bonino, Brandon McMillan, Matt Beleskey, Dan Sexton and Kyle Palmieri -- were simply not ready for postseason roles.

"The younger players, they have to realize that the work is not done," veteran Saku Koivu said. "Now is the time that they really have to push even harder because people expect good things from them next year. But I think they're going to be better next year and the years to come, and they will have an impact on this team in the future."

Murray and coach Randy Carlyle are also concerned about the team's defense, which started the post-Scott Niedermayer era comically porous because of injuries, improved as the season went along and cracked in the postseason.

The Ducks ranked 19th in the NHL in 5-on-5 goals against and were 27th in shots allowed per game (32.3).

"Our defensive game has got to be a little bit better within in our zone," Getzlaf said. "I think we proved that in the playoffs that having to score four goals a night to win a hockey game isn't the way you want to win."

In retrospect, the Ducks did well just to make the postseason after some freakish injuries and ailments.

Anaheim lost Getzlaf to nasal sinus fractures when he took a puck to the face and went 10-4 in his absence. Then the bottom fell out when goalie Jonas Hiller, in the middle of a Hart Trophy-like season, was shut down in February with vertigo.

But Ray Emery and Dan Ellis were brought in and helped Anaheim win 15 of its final 20 games. Emery, coming back from career-threatening hip surgery, went 7-2 with a 2.28 goals-against average and won two playoff games.

The never-boring Ducks also had terrific subplots with Perry's run to 50, the emergence of Lubomir Visnovsky as the NHL's leading scorer on defense, rookie sensation Cam Fowler and of course Selanne, who finished eighth in the league scoring race at age 40.

Hiller and Selanne will handcuff Murray this summer.

Hiller said Tuesday that he has been feeling better but his symptoms, mainly delayed reaction time when he's on the ice, remain unsolved. His uncertain health status could put Murray in an awkward position if free agency begins and he needs to sign a goalie, if only for insurance purposes.

Emery is due to become an unrestricted free agent.

"I don't know exactly what's going to happen this summer," Murray said. "It would be nice to know, but how am I going to know? And how is he going to know? I'm not avoiding any issue here, it's just we're going to have to wait it out and hopefully he feels better."

Asked about possibly re-signing Emery, Murray said, "It's a possibility."

Selanne will again wait until the summer to decide to return for a 19th season at 41. He indicated in January that he felt this was his final season but the team's push to the playoffs might have changed his mind.

Besides Emery and Selanne, the only other significant pending unrestricted free agent is veteran center Todd Marchant, who said Tuesday that, "I don't know what the future holds for me. I'll sit back, take some time and re-evaluate where I'm at and make the decision on whether I want to continue playing or go the other course."

The flip side to all the uncertainty is that Anaheim has seven defensemen under contract through next season, including Fowler and the promising Luca Sbisa.

For all their inexperience, McMillan, Palmieri, Bonino and Beleskey proved themselves at times throughout the season and will enter next season better prepared and hungrier.

The onus is on them to grow and help the organization, four years removed from a Stanley Cup, reacquire an identity beyond their superstar top line. The Ducks haven't had a definitive third line since the days of Travis Moen, Samuel Pahlsson and Rob Niedermayer, and the days of Scott Niedermayer and Chris Pronger patrolling the blue line are long gone.

Murray said the emotions were "too fresh" to make any serious decisions, but at some point he will sit down with club personnel and deconstruct why the team ultimately had another early summer.

"The question that I have to go away with my people on is, ‘Can we win with this core group?'" Murray said. "And that's what I got to figure out."
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