ANAHEIM, Calif. - Now the real season starts for the Anaheim Ducks, attempting to become the first team since the Detroit Red Wings in 1997 and 1998 to win consecutive Stanley Cup championships.
Coach Randy Carlyle and his players sounded like a confident bunch - but not cocky - after the Ducks beat the Phoenix Coyotes 3-2 in a shootout Sunday night to wrap up the NHL's regular-season schedule.
"We recognized that we've got some special players in our room, and we've played to a high level at times. But we've also come out and played some poor hockey, too," Carlyle said. "We think that we have the ability to get to the next level that's required, but we have to go out and prove it."
The Ducks, who kicked off the league's 91st season in London by splitting a two-game set against Los Angeles, will begin the defence of the franchise's first championship at home against Dallas on Thursday night. Anaheim finished fourth in the Western Conference with 102 points and a 47-27-8 record.
Since Edmonton completed its run of five Stanley Cup titles over a seven-year span in 1990, only four defending Cup champions had more wins the season after winning the championship than the Ducks had this season. Pittsburgh had 56 in 1992-93, Colorado 49 in 1996-97, Detroit 48 in 2002-03 and New Jersey 48 in 2000-01.
"As coaches, you're always asking for perfection," Carlyle said. "I think people will say that 102 points is pretty good in the Western Conference. Were there points that we left on the board? For sure there was. But I'm sure every team feels the same way."
Chris Kunitz and Bobby Ryan scored 43 seconds apart in the third period against former teammate Ilya Bryzgalov, and Ryan Getzlaf had the deciding goal in the shootout. Getzlaf was Anaheim's leading scorer with 81 points, setting a club record for centres with 58 assists.
Anaheim captain Chris Pronger returned to the Anaheim lineup for the finale after serving an eight-game suspension for stomping on the leg of Vancouver's Ryan Kesler. The Ducks were 6-2 during his absence.
"Obviously it was nice to get back in there and get a feel for the tempo of a game and a little more structure - as opposed to practice, practice, practice," Pronger said. "The real test will be Thursday when we start against Dallas."
The Ducks finished with a league-high 1,481 penalty minutes.
"Discipline and staying out of the box is going to be more of a factor," Pronger said. "Special teams for us is probably going to decide how far we go, whether it be killing penalties or whether our power play is going to be able to produce."
Daniel Carcillo opened the scoring for the Coyotes on a power play at 15:11 of the second period against goalie Jonas Hiller and added his 13th of the season with 16 minutes remaining. Center Kyle Turris, the third overall pick in the draft, recorded his first NHL point with his assist on Carcillo's first goal.
Hiller, whose steady improvement led to the Ducks putting Bryzgalov on waivers Nov. 16, stopped 32 shots - including Peter Mueller's breakaway with 1:44 left in overtime. Hiller thwarted Mueller again on the Coyotes' first attempt in the shootout, which Anaheim won by a 3-2 margin.
Hiller was 10-7-1 as Jean-Sebastien Giguere's backup. Bryzgalov who was immediately picked up by Phoenix after the Ducks released him, was 26-22-5 with the Coyotes and 28-25-6 overall.
Anaheim stumbled out of the gate without stalwarts Teemu Selanne and defenceman Scott Niedermayer, both of whom were considering retirement before rejoining the team.
But the Ducks went 32-12-4 after the return of Niedermayer to the lineup on Feb. 16 - the same day centre Doug Weight played his first game for them after being acquired from St. Louis in a trade that sent popular forward Andy McDonald to St. Louis. They are 20-5-1 since Selanne suited up for the first time on Feb. 5.
"Coming into the year, you almost wanted to fast-forward 40 games," Pronger said. "There were a couple of guys who were lucky to do that, and some of us didn't have that luxury. But having said that, we certainly didn't play our best hockey in the first 30 or 40 games."
The Coyotes missed the playoffs for the fifth straight season and third under coach Wayne Gretzky. They finished 12th in the West with a 38-37-7 record.
"We are not where we want to be," Gretzky said. "Obviously we'd like to be playing Wednesday or Thursday, but we are one of the younger teams in the league.
"When you miss the playoffs, changes are made, and obviously some moves would make us better next season. The difference now is that we have a core group of guys who we know are going to be part of this franchise for years to come."
Notes: Phoenix did not have a penalty in the entire game. ... Corey Perry led Anaheim with 29 goals despite missing the final 12 games after his quad was cut by the skate of Colorado goalie Jose Theodore on March 6. It was the lowest total to lead the Ducks in a regulation season since their inaugural 1993-94 campaign, when Bob Corkum had 23.