The Red Wings had to go to the final night of the season to extend the longest current Stanley Cup playoff streak to 22 seasons. The retirement of Nicklas Lidstrom left a huge hole on the blue line that was aggravated by injuries, and the offense has often struggled to score. Goaltender Jimmy Howard doesn't get a lot of attention but he might have had his best season; his play was the one constant in a season of change.
The Anaheim Ducks raced out to a big lead and coasted to the Pacific Division title, though their level of play dropped markedly in April. Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry, two-thirds of the Ducks' first line, each signed a big contract last month to stay in Anaheim; now they have to produce. The Ducks need more scoring from forward Bobby Ryan and Teemu Selanne, who slumped after good starts. The defense is solid though unheralded, and the goaltending combination of Jonas Hiller and 30-year-old Swedish first-year player Viktor Fasth gives coach Bruce Boudreau options in net.
The Ducks open with two games at Honda Center, where they won 13 in a row in one stretch this season. But Anaheim was 7-5-1 in April, and it'll be facing a Detroit team that's gotten better as it's gotten healthier.
Detroit won two out of three meetings this season and won the prior time these teams met in the Stanley Cup playoffs, taking a seven-game Western Conference semifinals in 2009.
Although Anaheim's offense was inconsistent down the stretch, the Ducks have solid depth spread across four lines. Six forwards reached double-digits in goals in the 48-game season. Saku Koivu wasn't one of them, but he finished fourth on the team in scoring.
The Ducks' 1-2 punch is headlined by Getzlaf and Perry, who each signed lucrative, long-term contract extensions during the season and remain as dangerous as ever. It's been a revolving door at times on their right side -- Ryan's goal total is down, but he remains the most logical fit.
Koivu and another ageless wonder, Selanne, give opposing coaches who might stack their top checking forwards against the Ducks' No. 1 line something to consider. Andrew Cogliano remains steady as ever, Kyle Palmieri had a productive first full NHL season, and offseason signing Daniel Winnik, young veteran Matt Beleskey and prospect Emerson Etem have filled their roles well.
Anaheim also brought in a pair of bottom-six forwards down the stretch who could pay dividends in the postseason. David Steckel is one of the NHL's top faceoff men who can chip in with the odd goal. Radek Dvorak is a 17-season veteran who has been to the Stanley Cup Final with a pair of teams. He scored four goals in his first eight games after playing part of the season in Switzerland.
Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg again have been at the forefront of Detroit's success offensively this season. Though the Red Wings don't have the consistent scoring depth that has marked their playoff teams in the past, the dynamic duo had no problem doing the majority of the heavy lifting.
Coach Mike Babcock has the option of splitting the pair to spread the offensive wealth, or keeping them together to create a dominant line that's able to control play in the offensive zone.
The rest of the forward group is solid, if unspectacular. Johan Franzen can play on the top two lines and remains a beast in front of the opposing net on the power play. Daniel Cleary and Valtteri Filppula are capable of chipping in with big goals. Also, all three have enough playoff experience that no situation will overwhelm them.
The Red Wings also have a few inexperienced players, but the rookie trio of Gustav Nyquist, Joakim Andersson and Damien Brunner will be counted on to contribute. Brunner, 27, has adjusted well in his first North American season, and he has played important games in the Swedish Elite League and the World Championship.
One wild card who could help is Todd Bertuzzi, who missed most of the season with a back injury. He's close to full health, though, and, if available would provide a big, nasty, experienced body who can take shifts on the top six and on the second power-play unit.
Francois Beauchemin returned in February 2011 for his second stint on the Anaheim blue line. He's enjoying what most regard as his best all-round season at age 32, one that has drawn talk of Norris Trophy consideration. He logs the most ice time on the team, draws the toughest assignments, and has one of the NHL's best plus/minus ratings (plus-19) while also averaging 0.50 points per game.
The Ducks defense in general is a veteran group; Beauchemin is joined by fellow 30-somethings Sheldon Souray, Bryan Allen and Toni Lydman. Souray, a free-agent signing this past summer, was tied for the League lead in plus/minus among defensemen (plus-19) and scored seven goals. Ben Lovejoy, 29, fit right into the mix after coming in a trade from the Pittsburgh Penguins in February.
Cam Fowler, who scored 10 goals among his 40 points as a rookie in 2010-11, missed some time due to injuries and almost went the entire season without a goal before scoring April 21 against the Edmonton Oilers. At 21 he's still the future on defense, along with 23-year-old Luca Sbisa, who spent the tail end of the season battling a lower-body injury.
It will be curious to see what role, if any, 21-year-old rookie Sami Vatanen plays during the postseason. He got an extended look in the final weeks while Souray and Sbisa were nicked up, and scored a pair of goals.
As if losing Lidstrom and Brad Stuart in the same offseason wasn't bad enough, the Red Wings watched blueliner after blueliner go down with injuries. It was a struggle on some nights to find six to fill out the lineup. Finally, though, the core group appears healthy and the pairings are developing chemistry through consistency.
Niklas Kronwall and Jonathan Ericsson will play the majority of the minutes in all situations. After a slow start that saw Kronwall total 10 points and a minus-9 rating in 14 games, he has been a plus-player and grown into the No. 1 spot.
Kyle Quincey and Brendan Smith make an offensive-minded second pair, and each is efficient in the defensive zone. Jakub Kindl will see major minutes in important situations.
Danny DeKeyser, who signed earlier this month after three seasons at Western Michigan University, made a seamless transition to the NHL. He's passed Ian White and Carlo Colaiacovo on the depth chart to earn the shot to at least start the playoffs on the ice.
If DeKeyser hits a speed bump, or another injury crops up, White and Colaiacovo are wonderful luxuries as depth players. Brian Lashoff also earned valuable experience and could step into the lineup if needed.
Who starts in the playoffs is a difficult decision for Anaheim, which didn't have a backup goaltender this season so much as a No. 1 and a No. 1A.
Hiller is the known commodity to Ducks fans, having arrived in town the season following their 2007 Stanley Cup win. He eventually claimed the job from Jean-Sebastien Giguere, had a strong playoff run in 2009, and recovered from a bout with vertigo to start 73 games in 2011-12.
Fasth, who is less than six months younger than Hiller, was brought from Sweden with the intention of giving his Swiss counterpart a few additional rest days. But when all Fasth did during the first month was win games -- the first eight of his NHL career, to be exact -- he began to earn a larger bulk of the workload than the coaching staff originally envisioned. He finished his first North American season in the top 15 in goals-against average, save percentage and shutouts.
Howard signed a six-year contract extension earlier this season, proof the organization believes in him as the franchise foundation in net.
Howard has proven himself in the regular season; now he has to do it in the playoffs. He allowed 13 goals in the Red Wings' five-game first-round loss to the Nashville Predators. In his past 16 playoff games, he's allowed two or more goals in 15 of them. The Red Wings have not advanced past the second round with Howard in net.
Though Howard isn't expected to throw a shutout every time out, to win as a lower seed usually requires a goaltender to steal a few games. The 2013 playoffs will be a test to see if Howard can be that kind of goalie.
Backup Jonas Gustavsson has never skated in a Stanley Cup playoff game, but did backstop Farjestad to a title in the Swedish league in 2009, and helped Sweden win back-to-back bronze medals at the 2009 and 2010 World Championship, so if he does have to play, the big moment shouldn't bother him.
Boudreau took over during the 2011-12 season with the Ducks in a tailspin and won three of his first 14 games. But the team finished on a 24-14-6 run, showing the coach's message was starting to sink in, then started this season like gangbusters.
If there was a knock on Boudreau when he coached the Washington Capitals, it was never getting past the second round despite having elite talent. He developed a reputation there for being excessively offensive-minded, but it should be noted the Ducks were not only in the top 10 of the league in scoring, but in defense as well.
Babcock was voted the best coach in the League in a poll of experts on NHL.com, and his resume makes it clear why. He's guided the Red Wings to five division titles, two trips to the Stanley Cup finals and one championship in eight seasons. He coached Canada to an Olympic gold medal in 2010, and prior to joining the Red Wings, coached the Ducks to the Cup finals in 2004.
Babcock demands his team play an attacking, puck-possession style while remaining stout in the defensive end. He's been able to work around injuries and add young players to the group without much drop in team play.
Boudreau's influence definitely was felt on the Anaheim power play, which improved significantly from the unit that finished No. 21 last season at 16.6 percent. This season, the Ducks converted at 21.5 percent to rank No. 4. They spread the offense around with the man advantage, which might be the key. Though they didn't have a player in the top 25 in power-play goals, nine forwards and three defensemen scored at least one.
The penalty kill ranked in the middle of the pack, remaining about as efficient as last season, though the additions of Winnik, Steckel and Dvorak can't be understated. Winnik logged more than 120 minutes -- or two full games -- of shorthanded ice time this season, Steckel's prowess in the circle will make him invaluable on defensive-zone draws, and Dvorak has 24 career shorthanded goals, fifth among active players.
Beauchemin is a rock on the back end, averaging more than three minutes on the penalty kill per game. Getzlaf scored three of the team's four shorthanded goals.
The Red Wings' special teams were middle of the road during the regular season, but with the experienced players they have, there's little doubt those numbers can rise in the playoffs.
With Datsyuk and Zetterberg running the power play, opposing shorthanded groups can't take a moment to relax. Datsyuk especially has been effective with the man advantage, scoring eight of his 15 goals on the power play.
Franzen, like Tomas Holmstrom before him, is a near-immovable force in front of the opposing net.
The penalty kill was a major reason the Red Wings were able to make such a strong final push for the postseason. Detroit has the ninth-best PK rate in the tournament, killing 81.7 of its opportunities.
The Red Wings scored two shorthanded goals all season, but keeping pucks out of the net when a man down is the most important thing, and they certainly have done that.
Teemu Selanne: At the beginning of the season it was asked if Selanne could produce at an elite level at age 42. A pair of four-point performances in the opening month suggested the answer was yes, but the Finnish Flash has slowed significantly since. Boudreau gave him some rest after Anaheim clinched, and if he can summon up a turn-back-the-clock type run to start the playoffs, it would give the offense an added dimension. In the Ducks' prior trip to the postseason, two years ago, Selanne was their best player, scoring six goals in a six-game series loss to Nashville.
Damien Brunner: It's been an up-and-down season for Brunner, who arrived with high expectations. The forward has gotten better as the season has gone on, and will be counted on to play a big role in the playoffs. At 27, Brunner is older than the average first-year NHL player, and while this is his first foray into the Stanley Cup Playoffs, he has played a number of important games in Sweden and internationally. The Red Wings can't count on Datsyuk and Zetterberg to carry the offense alone. They'll need secondary scoring, and Brunner is one place the team will look.
Ducks will win if … Hiller and/or Fasth continue to provide the level of consistent goaltending they delivered during the regular season, and their teammates generate enough offense in front of them. Anaheim ranked in the top 10 in the League in goals per game, but the offense sputtered at times down the stretch. The Ducks were held to one goal or fewer in eight of their 15 games from March 22 through April 19 -- not surprisingly, they were 5-9-1 during that span.
Red Wings will win if … They get offense from all corners of the lineup. Datsyuk and Zetterberg are outstanding players, but they can't win in the postseason by themselves. There's no lack of candidates, but at least one or two of them will need to step up and carry the load offensively.