The Anaheim Ducks were close to reaching the Stanley Cup Final last year.
They led the Chicago Blackhawks 3-2 in the Western Conference Final, but a meltdown in Game 6 followed by a narrow loss in Game 7 at home denied them the opportunity to play for the Stanley Cup for the first time since 2007.
The Ducks are a better hockey team this season and their primary competition might not be quite as good. The Blackhawks in particular have struggled mightily down the stretch.
How good are the Ducks?
Consider this: From Jan. 20 to March 7, Anaheim went 18-1-2, taking 38 of a possible 42 points. During that stretch they beat the Los Angeles Kings three times and had one win each against the Blackhawks and San Jose Sharks.
In that 21-game run the Ducks outscored their opponents 76-44. In 16 games they allowed two goals or fewer.
Those attention-grabbing numbers highlight why the Stanley Cup will return to Anaheim this season.
The Ducks can beat you in so many ways.
Want to play the grind-it-out, patient style that often dominates the postseason? The Ducks are OK with that.
Since Jan. 23 the Ducks have played 15 games decided by one goal, not including shootouts. They have won nine of them; five in regulation. Of their five one-goal losses in that span, two came in overtime.
Their goalies are fresh as John Gibson and Fredrik Andersen started fewer than 41 games and each posted a save percentage better than .917. That is a luxury few other coaches possess.
Video: ANA@LAK: Gibson makes a pair of tough stops in 1st
Speaking of coaches, Bruce Boudreau is looking to win the Stanley Cup for the first time. He's had his fair share of disappointments in that pursuit, but he has a winning record (38-35) in the playoffs and his failures have provided the blueprint for what must be done differently this time.
But in the end it's the players, not the coach and his tactics, that win games and championships.
Anaheim has its fair share of game breakers.
Right wing Corey Perry scored 30 goals for the sixth time in his NHL career. Center Ryan Getzlaf has 50 or more assists for the sixth time. Center Rickard Rakell and right wing Jakob Silfverberg have taken steps forward in their development. Center Ryan Kesler remains a workhorse that can create havoc at both ends of the ice.
On defense the Ducks have a top-four rotation that can do it all. Three of the four have more than 25 points, led by Sami Vatanen's 38. Kevin Bieksa didn't reach 25 points but is a valuable veteran presence.
If that were not enough, the Ducks have the singular ability to turn a game with their special teams, which is a valuable trump card to have when the margin of difference is so fine in the postseason. The Ducks entered the final day of the regular season No. 1 in power-play efficiency and penalty-killing effectiveness.
Put all those attributes together on a team still smarting from its opportunity missed last June and it is the formula for constructing a team that will raise the Stanley Cup.