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Searching for explanations for Ducks' 2-0 lead

by Eric Stephens / NHL.com
ANAHEIM, Calif.—If you just look at the sheer numbers, you can see why the San Jose Sharks were picked by nearly everyone to get past the Anaheim Ducks and tackle their greatest obstacle—the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Digest this sampling of basics:

-- More wins (53 to 42).
-- More points (117 to 91).
-- More goals scored: (257 to 245).
-- Fewer goals allowed: (204 to 238).

If you dissect the forensic evidence even further, the Sharks had a better power play (third to fifth), a better penalty-killing unit (third to 23rd), more 20-goal scorers (six to four) and a clear advantage at home (32-5-4 to 20-18-3).

So how do you explain Anaheim going into HP Pavilion and taking Games 1 and 2 for a commanding lead in the best-of-7 Western Conference Quarterfinal series that shifts to Honda Center for Game 3 on Tuesday night?

"I don’t think we’re surprised," said Ducks defenseman Chris Pronger, bluntly.

The Sharks, who’ve looked like the better team in a lot of instances, are still looking for an explanation. They’ve outshot Anaheim decisively in the first two games by a cumulative 79-43 count.
They’ve drawn enough penalties for six power plays in each contest. All-Star goaltender Evgeni Nabokov hasn’t been stellar, but solid as usual.

To be sure, the Ducks are doing the things necessary to win in the playoffs. They’ve killed off all 12 of San Jose’s man-advantage situations. Goalie Jonas Hiller has outplayed Nabokov, stopping all but two of those 79 shots. Players such as Andrew Ebbett and Drew Miller have provided clutch secondary scoring.

And there have been the efforts of young Mike Brown and veteran Todd Marchant, who have led the dogged penalty kill that has helped frustrate the Sharks.

"The playoffs are about people stepping out of their comfort zone and playing to another level," Anaheim coach Randy Carlyle said.

Having played in two Stanley Cup Finals for the Ducks, Jean-Sebastien Giguere knows how important supporting players can be in the postseason.

"This is the time of year where one of those guys can make a name for themselves," Giguere said. "When a team plays well and you have guys like [Scott] Niedermayer and Pronger and Teemu [Selanne] on your team, you’ve got to take advantage of those guys.

"They can help you raise your game to another level when you follow their lead. When you do that, and it seems like a lot of guys are doing that right now, it just creates a great opportunity for those guys."

Maybe it’s also because the Ducks are no ordinary No. 8 seed. They’re not Columbus, which made the postseason for the very first time. Nor are they St. Louis, which is hosting its first playoff games in five seasons.

The Sharks imported six players with Stanley Cup rings in order to get them over the hump. Just two years removed from their 2007 triumph, the Ducks have 12 of them still sitting on their roster.              

But for all the experience, the Ducks still had to get through an erratic regular season that saw them sitting 12th in the Western Conference with three weeks to go, a regular season where center Ryan Getzlaf said “everything was a problem for a while this year.”

General Manager Bob Murray, who took over for Brian Burke in November, shook the Ducks out of their malaise by dealing away several players that were instrumental in their Cup win over Ottawa, among them wingers Chris Kunitz and Travis Moen and center Samuel Pahlsson.

"It changed our whole makeup of our team," Getzlaf said. "We were in a situation where we had a bunch of really good players that had been together for three or four years. You get a little bit in a lull, I think. We’d come to the rink every day and everyone was doing the same thing and you saw the same faces every day. It became more of a right to be here than a privilege.

"Nothing against the guys that left, they’re all great hockey players. But it was time for a little bit of a change around here. We got some pretty good players back in here to shake up the dressing room a little bit."

Among them is defenseman James Wisniewski, another unsung sort whom they acquired from Chicago for Pahlsson. Along with rearguard Ryan Whitney, Wisniewski has helped loosen up a dressing room that had grown quiet.

Wisniewski loved playing with the Blackhawks but found himself further down on the blue line pecking order behind Duncan Keith, Brian Campbell, Brent Seabrook and Cam Barker. In 17 regular-season games with the Ducks, the Michigan native had a goal and 10 assists while averaging 20-plus minutes.

"This is the time of year where one of those guys can make a name for themselves. When a team plays well and you have guys like [Scott] Niedermayer and Pronger and Teemu [Selanne] on your team, you’ve got to take advantage of those guys." --Ducks goalie J.S. Giguere
"Personally, my career got a little stagnant there," Wisniewski said. "I believe that I was more of a player than they thought I was. … It just seemed like I got a little overlooked maybe. They just kind of looked at me as one of the guys. Coming to an organization like this, they saw something in me that I saw in myself."

The Ducks also don’t have the pressure of defending a Cup title as they did last season, which ended abruptly in a six-game loss to the underdog Dallas Stars. That’s now the Detroit Red Wings’ domain.

"It helps," Pronger said. "You don’t have to constantly answer the same questions over and over. You don’t have to talk about it. We’ve got a goal and that’s to win. There’s a lot of people that doubt that we can. We’re here not to prove them wrong but everybody in this locker room believes that."

Counting the first two games of this series against San Jose, the supposed underdog Ducks have won 12 of their last 15 contests. They’ve been in playoff mode for a while.

"Down the stretch, our focus was getting there," Getzlaf said. "That’s about all we were thinking about at the time. Obviously we were playing desperate hockey for the last month or two. We hope to continue that into the playoffs right now."

So far, so good.
 


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