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Friday, March 24, 2006
Updated: March 28, 3:23 PM ET
No surrender in Mighty Ducks

By Terry Frei
Special to ESPN.com

ANAHEIM, Calif. -- Out here in the shadows of the ersatz Matterhorn, and with the delight of screaming kids on spring break within earshot of late, the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim quietly have pulled off one of the season's biggest recoveries.

And to think that because of alleged fan preferences in the wake of the sale of the franchise, the team is on the verge of shedding the adjective in the offseason and becoming, simply, the Anaheim Ducks.

(Has Emilio Estevez been consulted? And did they consider becoming the Los Angeles Ducks of Anaheim, since they don't have a proven first baseman, either?)

Scott Niedermayer
Some of the Ducks players say defenseman Scott Niedermayer has been the team's true leader this season.

The Ducks lost eight straight in November, though the streak wasn't completely pointless because of two losses in overtime and one in a shootout. Even before missing seven games with a strained hamstring, goalie Jean-Sebastien Giguere was so ordinary (or worse), his remarkable 2003 playoff performance seemed even more aberrational. The Nov. 15 unloading of the still-enigmatic Sergei Fedorov to Columbus at least raised the question of whether the Ducks were beginning to write off the season, as much as hoping for addition by subtraction in the process. Scott Niedermayer, the reigning Norris Trophy winner wearing the "C" after his offseason signing for four years and $27 million, could have been excused for wondering whether he had walked into a mess, and not just a reunion with brother Rob Niedermayer.

Yet since, the Ducks have been one of the best teams in the league, and after their 6-3 victory over Nashville on Friday night, they had won five in a row. Anaheim moved into fifth place in the Western Conference and seemingly is in good position to secure a postseason spot as seven teams fight for five spots. (Detroit and Dallas are locked into the top two spots, and Nashville is a given as No. 4. The rest are up for grabs.)

"We had a little bit of a tough stretch, and we always believed we were a better team than that," said Scott Niedermayer. "We just kind of stuck with it and continued to work and build as a team. It paid off. It's a long season and you're going to go through different stretches for sure. We managed to shorten it as quick as we could and turn it around as soon as we could. We've got ourselves into a fun place right now, playing for a playoff spot.''

Giguere is having a great March and seems on track to secure his reputation as a goalie who gets better as the season progresses.

"With all the changes that happened here in the offseason with the new management, we knew it was going to be a slow start and stuff like that," Giguere said Wednesday morning. "It's hard to all be on the same page. But once we all got on the same page, and started working in the same direction, we ended up being a very good team."

Giguere said he didn't pay much attention to the rumors that he might be on the trading block, as well. "It's in the back of your mind, I won't lie to you," Giguere said. "But we're in position here to make the playoffs, and I thought they could get good use out of me, so I wasn't too nervous."

General manager Brian Burke, hired to run the franchise by new owners Henry and Susan Samueli prior to the lockout, was facing not so much a reconstruction project as a refocusing and tweaking plan. Especially in the wake of Fedorov's departure, it has helped that center Andy McDonald, the former Colgate Raider, is having a breakout season with 27 goals. Also, Teemu Selanne, who was troubled by a bad knee and wasn't given much of a chance at significant ice time in his one season at Colorado, has been the NHL's comeback player of the year with 31 goals at age 35.

Selanne's incredible 1992-93 rookie season at Winnipeg came when the Jets had a one-time Norris Trophy winner on the back line, winding up his career. "I saw him score 76 in his rookie year," said that one-time defenseman, Ducks coach Randy Carlyle.

Carlyle read Selanne the same riot act, in effect, that he heard at Colorado. The Ducks' first-year coach, who previously had been coaching the AHL's Manitoba Moose for Burke and the Canucks, said the staff told Selanne "that when it was his turn to be first in the forecheck, he'd be first. When it was his turn to be first on the backcheck, he'd better be first or he wasn't going to see the minutes with offensive opportunities. He's fulfilled his end of the bargain, and hopefully we have given him the opportunity to have success.

"I think the year off in getting his knee reconstructed and then rehabbing was a difficult one and probably the hardest he's worked at it," Carlyle said of Selanne. "His conditioning level was at the highest level I've ever seen it, ever. He was light and he had that jump back. And he hasn't lost that.''

For his part, Selanne deflects talk of the past, saying he wants to move forward, but emphasizes he is healthy again and a major part of the Ducks' recovery in his second stint with the franchise.

The Ducks missed the playoffs and were 12th in the conference in 2004, but this wasn't a complete disaster. What Burke has done in the wake of the New NHL's redrawn financial parameters is working, and it's a stark contrast to the Kings' collapse -- panic and potential playoff-spot ouster up the freeways in downtown Los Angeles.

The Ducks' party lines are all-in-this-together, knew-it-all-along predictability. But it's not disingenuous, because the early-season struggles led to more head-scratching, involving an underlying recognition that there was sufficient talent on this roster and potential for a turnaround rather than panic.

"If you have a team that works this hard, and any credit goes to anyone besides the players and the coaches, there's something wrong," Burke said. "Right now, the coaches have done a good job and the players have worked their tails off. That's what's happened."

Say what you will about Fedorov -- and what you certainly can say is that he is more of an enigma than ever. His departure arguably was a step in the right direction for the Ducks. When his mind is in the arena, he still can take over games, but that isn't often enough. And that kind of is-he-here-tonight (or this week, or this month) questioning in the long run is a detriment.

In deadline-week deals, the (Mighty) Ducks sent defenseman Sandis Ozolinsh, the wandering Latvian who had been getting his act together in a long-overdue visit to the NHL's substance-abuse program, to the Rangers; shipped defenseman Keith Carney to Vancouver; picked up center Jeff Friesen from Washington; and acquired defenseman Sean O'Donnell from the Coyotes.

The sum of the parts is a potential playoff threat, and that's where the been-there, done-that leadership of Scott Niedermayer will be even more valuable.

"It's a little different here," he said of his leadership and center-stage role. "But I think it had gradually progressed in New Jersey, though, especially when Scotty Stevens got hurt and it was, 'Here's the C, see what you can do with it and what you've learned from Scotty after 12 years.' I'm still learning about that, and it's a bigger job maybe than you think when you don't have it on. I've been trying to do my best with that. But there are great guys in this room and I'm enjoying it."

The other thing that has happened is that even his teammates have realized that sometimes you have to see a player night in and night out to come to grips with how good he really is. Niedermayer has been terrific, especially of late, and has done nothing to diminish his chances of becoming a coast-to-coast, repeat Norris winner.

"He's just so smart out there," McDonald said. "When you're on the ice with him, he makes everything easy for you. He continues to amaze everybody on this team with the plays he makes."

Giguere called Niedermayer "the best hockey player I've ever played with. He's our leader. He's the guy we look to when we need direction, and he's always showing us the right direction."

And right now, that direction is up.

Terry Frei is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of "Third Down and a War to Go" and "Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming."