Wednesday, May 17, 2006 Updated: May 19, 1:12 AM ET
Conference finals breakdown: Ducks vs. Oilers
By Scott Burnside ESPN.com
Let's just say this about the Western Conference finals between the Edmonton Oilers and Anaheim Mighty Ducks: better hope they have double, reinforced boards, because they're in for a workout.
The Ducks and Oilers may represent the bottom end of the conference in terms of seeding (they are sixth and eighth, respectively), but no two teams have played a more physical, punishing style of hockey in the playoffs.
The buzz coming out of the Eastern Conference is that finalists Buffalo and Carolina represent mirror images of each other. The same could be said of the Ducks and Oilers, but that mirror would be smashed into a thousand jagged pieces.
The Oilers are coming off a six-game series win over favored San Jose in which they took control through the physical play of Raffi Torres, Michael Peca and Ryan Smyth. The Ducks, on the other hand, will have to rediscover that upper gear after cooling their blades since May 11, when they swept the Colorado Avalanche. Judging by the way rookie head coach Randy Carlyle runs things, it should take about five minutes.
The Oilers, in their first conference finals since 1992, will be carrying the Stanley Cup hopes of a nation with them, while the Ducks will be hoping to top off a storybook season with a trip to their second Stanley Cup finals in the last three NHL seasons.
Either way, the winner will pay a heavy price for the opportunity.
Why Anaheim will win: We admit that we are late-comers to the Mighty Ducks' Stanley Cup party. We didn't think they had the sand to best the Calgary Flames, but they did. We thought they might let down against a superior offensive team from Denver, but all they did was dismiss them like a gorilla might dispatch a gnat. So we're in. We believe.
The interesting thing about the Mighty Ducks is that the only thing that binds this squad to the one that snuck into the 2003 Cup finals is the name. This Ducks team is built for the long haul, and from GM Brian Burke on down, there is no sense of "just happy to be here." In fact, this isn't, in general, a happy bunch, but rather a much focused group. Burke admitted the team may have exceeded others' expectations, but with each playoff win, the team gets greedier and greedier.
In the playoffs, greedy is good. Satisfied is to go home.
The Ducks, like they did in the regular season, have found another gear in the postseason, winning seven of their last eight games, including a must-win at home in Game 6 against Calgary and a decisive road win in Game 7.
Many will point to Carlyle's gutsy move to yank 2003 Conn Smythe Trophy winner Jean-Sebastien Giguere after Game 5 against Calgary and insert Ilya Bryzgalov. The anonymous Russian netminder, who reads philosophy and apparently has no idea what he's accomplished, established the second-longest shutout streak in NHL playoff history at 249 minutes, 15 seconds. His numbers are plain sick. He has allowed seven goals on 214 shots. His goals-against average is 0.87 and his save percentage is .967. Even if he comes back to earth a bit, the Ducks still look to hold a commanding edge in goaltending over Edmonton's Dwayne Roloson.
But Bryzgalov is only a piece of the Ducks' formidable playoff puzzle.
There's veteran Teemu Selanne, looking for his first Cup and playing like a man a decade younger. Selanne leads the Ducks with 10 points and two game winners and doesn't look the least bit worn out for having played in the Olympics. His next point will establish a career-best in playoff scoring.
There's all-world defenseman Scott Niedermayer, who looks like a genius now for having ducked the Olympics, because he might be the best player still skating in the postseason. He will be the focal point of the Ducks' attack against Edmonton.
And then there are the kids.
Selanne keeps joking that no one should tell Bryzgalov he should be nervous, but the same applies to Ryan Getzlaf, Chris Kunitz, Corey Perry, who looks to be ready after missing the Colorado series with an injury, and Joffrey Lupul.
Lupul, 22, had just one point in the first round, but exploded with six goals and an assist against Colorado. Included in the barrage was a four-goal game in which he became the first NHLer to score at least four in a single playoff game.
Both teams will bring a strong physical edge, sometimes crossing the line. Both have excellent penalty-killing units, although Anaheim's will hold a slight edge having allowed just one power-play goal in its last eight games.
The blend of youth and veteran experience in the Anaheim lineup is similar to that of the Oilers, but with just a smidgen more in terms of skill, enough to turn the tide in what promises to be an oh-so-tight series.
Why Edmonton will win: Did we mention that we picked the Oilers to upset San Jose? We did? OK.
The Oilers proved in six games against the Sharks that their first-round upset of the NHL's top team, Detroit, was no fluke.
In many ways, the two series victories have revealed two very different Edmonton teams and reflect the tremendous coaching job of Craig MacTavish. There was the patient, opportunistic team that frustrated the talented Red Wings and the edgy, physical team that took control of the Sharks series by battering them at every turn.
The Oilers were willing to step to the line and over it in the San Jose series, and there's no reason to think they'll approach the Ducks any differently.
One of the reasons they can afford to play with such abandon is the play of Roloson and the success of the penalty-killing unit. The Sharks were a miserable 2-for-35 on the power play in the West semifinals. Although blessed with more offensive talent, the Sharks could not take advantage and, in the decisive sixth game, squandered a long two-man advantage that was reflective of the entire series.
The Oilers may not be so lucky against an opportunistic Ducks power-play unit.
Roloson may not have Bryzgalov-like stats (does anyone?), but the veteran netminder has delivered key saves at key moments in both series. Does anyone remember that the Oilers were down 2-0 to the Sharks and trailing 3-2 in the third game? It was Roloson who held the fort and allowed the Oil to bounce back. He was a virtual wall in Game 6, calmly turning aside all 24 San Jose shots in a decisive 2-0 victory.
The 36-year-old will have to do that again against a Ducks team that promises to present more traffic than the Sharks mustered in the last four games of their series.
If there is one skater on whom the series might well hinge, it's the big man on the Oilers blue line, Chris Pronger, who continues to be a revelation this spring. In a matchup of titans, it was Pronger who helped keep San Jose center and MVP candidate Joe Thornton from getting the Sharks back in the series. Pronger has been a force, logging an NHL-high 32:45 a night prior to Wednesday's game. He will play almost every shift against the Ducks' top line of Andy McDonald, Selanne and Kunitz.
In this series, however, the matchup will be different; Pronger will have to outplay his defensive counterpart and former 2002 Canadian gold-medal Olympic teammate, Scott Niedermayer.
Anaheim's forecheckers will try and pressure Pronger, hardly a unique strategy, while the Oilers will try and use their speed and physical style to pressure Niedermayer and the rest of an Anaheim defense corps that is relatively short on playoff experience.
The problem for the Oilers is that Niedermayer, like Pronger, rarely leaves the ice. He ranks second behind Pronger in ice time in the playoffs, and brings such an offensive element that, in the battle of the two larger-than-life defenders, this one goes to Niedermayer and the Ducks.
Prediction: Ducks in six.
Scott Burnside is an NHL writer for ESPN.com.