Despite the fact that only five points separate No. 4 Anaheim from No. 5 Dallas in the Western Conference standings, these teams enter the postseason heading in vastly different directions.
The defending-champion Ducks ended the season with a 20-5-1 finishing kick to show the same form that propelled them through last year's rugged Western Conference playoff bracket. The Stars, meanwhile, were forced to abandon any hopes of a division title by crawling home with a 4-8-2 mark in their last 14.
But the reeling Stars have to be buoyed by their success against the Ducks this season. Dallas won five of the eight regular-season meetings and earned a shootout point in another. Plus, the Stars outscored Anaheim, 24-15.
Additionally, Dallas is hoping its late-season makeover will pay off in the postseason. After all, that is the reason management was so aggressive at the trade deadline, prying center Brad Richards away from Tampa Bay. Richards scored 26 points in 23 games during the 2004 Stanley Cup Playoffs to earn Conn Smythe honors as the Lightning won the title. He has averaged more than a point per game in his past three playoff runs.
"Ten years ago it was different. The biggest goal for the season was making the playoffs. The whole thing has changed here now. We know how much it takes.” – Anaheim’s Teemu Selanne
But the Ducks made some in-season additions of their own, welcoming the semi-retired Scott Niedermayer and Teemu Selanne back into the fold. Selanne returned Feb. 5 and has managed 23 points in his 26 games. Niedermayer, the smooth-skating defenseman, returned earlier, making his first appearance Dec. 16 and kick-starting Anaheim's revival.
But in the end, it is likely goaltending that will determine this series as each team features an elite goalie and sound defensive system. The Ducks are one of just five teams to allow fewer than 200 goals this season, while Dallas allowed just 207.
"This is a really exciting time of the year. You notice from the guys that everyone here knows the situation and we know we are a better team than we have shown lately.” - – Dallas forward Niklas Hagman
Anaheim goalie Jean-Sebastien Giguere is having another fine season and was key to the Ducks’ title last spring, going 13-4 with a 1.97 goals-against average and .922 save percentage in the playoffs. Overall, he is 31-13 in the postseason.
Dallas' Marty Turco, meanwhile, was dynamite last spring in the Stars' first-round loss, posting a 1.30 GAA, .952 save percentage and three shutouts in the seven-game series against Vancouver.
This time around, Turco will need more offensive help if the Stars want to end a run of three straight first-round ousters.
Anaheim will win if -- It plays the physical, grinding game that served the club so well last spring. The Ducks are so big and strong up front that they can wear down opposing teams during an extended series through a punishing forecheck and incessant cycling attack. Plus, the Ducks will have to get scoring from the blue line. In the season series against Dallas, defenseman scored six of the Ducks’ 15 goals.
Dallas will win if -- It wins the special-teams battle. In the regular-season series, Dallas scored 11 of its 24 goals on special teams, striking for nine power-play tallies and two shorthanded goals. For a team that often has trouble scoring five-on-five, the Stars need to click regularly with the man advantage. Another stellar goaltending showing – mirroring last year's yeoman-like effort from Turco – sure wouldn't hurt, either.