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Star defensemen highlight Ducks-Red Wings series @NHL

DETROIT (AP) - Perhaps years from now, hockey historians will look back at this year's Western Conference finals as the best showcase of defensemen ever.

All three Norris Trophy finalists - Detroit's Nicklas Lidstrom along with Anaheim's Scott Niedermayer and Chris Pronger - will be on the ice when the Red Wings and Ducks open their series Friday night at Joe Louis Arena.

Detroit also has 45-year-old wonder Chris Chelios playing effectively in an NHL-record 22nd postseason on the blue line, more than a decade removed from his third Norris Trophy.

Lidstrom was honored as the league's top defenseman last year - for the fourth time. Niedermayer won the Norris Trophy in 2004 and Pronger claimed it in 2000.

"If we win, it will be cool," Pronger said with a smile Thursday.

Regardless of who advances to the Stanley Cup finals from this matchup of the West's first- and second-seeded teams, the play of the defensemen will show up on the highlights along with the jaw-dropping saves and sensational scores.

Detroit coach Mike Babcock has had two of the three Norris Trophy finalists on his team and Pronger has been an opponent for years, giving him a unique perspective.

"Lidstrom is just Mr. Dependable, does everything right, slides on the blue line in the offensive zone as good as anybody, makes as good a first pass, great stick," Babcock said. "Scott Niedermayer skates better than any D-man in the league. Pronger can play the game mean and nasty, has an absolute bomb on the power play."

The Red Wings drafted Lidstrom in 1989 and acquired Chelios before the trading deadline in 1999. Anaheim added its star defensemen more recently.

Niedermayer was signed as a free agent shortly after the NHL lockout ended in the summer of 2005. Anaheim traded for Pronger in July, not long after he helped Edmonton eliminate the Ducks in the conference finals.

"The acquisition of Chris Pronger put a huge statement on our hockey club that we were very serious about our season and taking the next step and becoming an elite hockey club," said Ducks coach Randy Carlyle, who won the Norris Trophy in 1981.

The defensemen play in front of stellar goaltenders who help make them look good.

Detroit's Dominik Hasek, a six-time Vezina Trophy winner, is giving up 1.5 goals a game in the playoffs and he shut out the San Jose Sharks in the series-clinching win Monday. Hasek's 1.97 goals-against average ranks second among goalies with at least 100 playoff games.

Jean-Sebastien Giguere is allowing a league-low 1.28 goals this postseason. He can draw on the experience of eliminating Detroit during the 2003 conference semifinals in his NHL playoff debut.

During that run to the Stanley Cup finals, Babcock coached Giguere and the Ducks. Anaheim came within a victory of a title, but the team failed to make the 2004 playoffs and the next season was canceled by the lockout.

The Ducks were sold and the new front office did not want to make a long-term commitment to Babcock in 2005. Detroit did, giving him a four-year contract.

Anaheim general manager Brian Burke said there was a simple explanation for what happened: "I felt given what Mike Babcock had accomplished in Anaheim, he deserved another year, another chance, so I offered him a one-year deal. He was able to get a longer-term deal here (in Detroit).

"It worked out perfectly. It was the right situation for him, and I got the coach I really wanted."

That was Carlyle.

In his first NHL coaching position, Carlyle has led the Ducks to the conference finals in each of his two years. They won a franchise-record 48 games and their first Pacific Division title this season.

"We have the same philosophy," Burke said. "We like a north-south style. We hit, fight and score a lot of goals. From a style perspective, (Carlyle) was a natural fit. He's been terrific."

Babcock has been just what Detroit needed, too, and he doesn't seem bitter about his exit from Southern California.

"As much as I miss the pool and the sun, my home in Anaheim," he said, "where I live in Northville is no slouch either - pretty nice spot."

The Red Wings needed to develop a grittier style of play after the post-lockout NHL forced them to cut their payroll in half while some future Hall of Famers went elsewhere or retired.

Babcock has done just that, leading to more hits and fewer observations about Detroit's lack of toughness or speed.

"We know we have to do all the little things to be successful," Lidstrom said.

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