First-round preview: Ducks-Wings
Our guess is that a lot of folks will tag this series as an upset special. Part of that will be the fact the Red Wings rolled into their 22nd straight playoff tournament by winning four straight under trying circumstances after flirting with disastrous inconsistency in previous weeks. Part of that thinking will entail either partial or complete ignorance of just what kind of team the Ducks represent. When people talk about teams capable of knocking off the top-seeded Chicago Blackhawks, the Ducks are rarely, if ever, mentioned, head coach Bruce Boudreau noted. "Which is annoying but at the same time we're cool with it," he told ESPN.com. This is a series that will feature tons of top-end talent, including Corey Perry, Ryan Getzlaf, Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg, and two teams looking for more than a little respect from the hockey world in general.
1. Ducks bring the balance
One of the most interesting parts about this Ducks team that finished third in the league in wins and points is that they are less top-heavy than one might expect. Yes, they still rely on former Hart and Rocket Richard Trophy winner Corey Perry to produce timely goals. And, yes, Getzlaf has returned to form as one of the game's top centers (he finished tied for 10th in scoring) but the Ducks ended up second in the Western Conference and eighth in the league in average goals per game in spite of the fact their top goal-scorers (Getzlaf and Perry) had just 15 goals less than half the number of league-leader Alex Ovechkin. That means that Boudreau has been able to roll four forward lines that have all not just contributed but contributed regularly to keep the Ducks at the top of the Pacific Division, essentially from wire to wire. "Which, I think, has been the key for us," said Boudreau, suggesting his team bears some resemblance to the Boston Bruins team of 2011 that won a Cup with a relentless, balanced attack.
2. Not Grandpa's Red Wings
By comparison, these are not the free-flowing talent-rich Red Wings that we saw win a Stanley Cup in 2008 and then advance to the finals the following year. The Wings finished tied for 19th in goals per game and relied very heavily on the production of skilled veterans Datsyuk and Zetterberg, who is in his first year as captain following the retirement of future Hall of Famer Nicklas Lidstrom. Throw in Johan Franzen, and the trio produced 40 of the Wings' 124 goals. Down the stretch, the Wings received timely contributions from guys such as Damien Brunner, who had 12 goals in his first NHL season, and Justin Abdelkader, who finished with 10 goals. But the Wings play a lot more grinding style than they have in the past and that means a lot more close games, which puts a lot more pressure on netminder Jimmy Howard. For the Wings to upend the Ducks, they will need to get continued production from a lineup that at one point leading up to the final week of the regular season had failed to win back-to-back games in a month. "Can Detroit's puck-possession game negate the [Ducks'] size? Not sure Detroit is good enough anymore to control tone of games as they did for so long," one veteran NHL executive told ESPN.com Sunday.
3. Size will matter
Both teams boast considerable size on the back end, which is pretty much the standard for anyone hoping to compete in the Western Conference. The Ducks possess a more attractive blend of size and skill with Francois Beauchemin, who will get Norris Trophy consideration, and Sheldon Souray, who had seven goals and was plus-19, both enjoying a significant West Coast renaissance. Cam Fowler is healthy and adds to the Ducks' puck-moving abilities when he's been playing the way he has of late. Some believe the Wings can exploit the Ducks' lack of defensive mobility. Up front, the Ducks are also a team that doesn't mind the hard going with some of their most skilled players such as Getzlaf, Perry and Bobby Ryan suited for a hard-checking type of game. "We welcome that style of play," Boudreau said. "I think we play pretty well any way you want to play."
4. Who will be in goal?
Boudreau said he really has no idea how he was going to handle his goaltending assignments after the postseason begins. Both Jonas Hiller and Viktor Fasth have been terrific, and both had 15 wins. Fasth, the former Swedish elite league standout who is in his first season in the NHL, had a better save percentage (.921 to Hiller's .913) and had four shutouts to Hiller's one. But Fasth has no NHL playoff experience while Hiller played in 13 postseason games for the Ducks in 2009. He also played for Switzerland at the Vancouver Olympic Games, if you're looking for a history of play under pressure. One thing Boudreau has liked about the tandem is that the equal playing time has pushed each goaltender to be better. Whether he starts with a defined rotation or simply rides the hot hand and makes a switch whenever circumstances dictate, it would be a shock if we don't see both during the Ducks' run. And given how evenly their workload was distributed during the season, it doesn't really seem to matter to the rest of the team which of the two netminders suits up. The opposite is the case for the Red Wings, where it's Jimmy Howard or bust. Howard probably doesn't get the respect he is due but the Red Wings are aware of the value to the franchise as they signed the 29-year-old to a six-year contract extension worth $31.750 million near the end of the season. Only once in his last 11 appearances did Howard give up more than two goals. That's the kind of goaltending that can level a playoff playing field in a hurry. It'll have to be so if the Red Wings are going to knock off the higher-seeded Ducks.
5. Now isn't that special?
One would expect this to be a closely fought series given the defensive posture of both teams -- both were in the top 10 in goals allowed per game -- which suggests that the team that can get the best out of its special teams will be in a good position to win those tight one-goal games. The Ducks would appear to have an edge with the man advantage as they boasted the fourth-ranked power play in the NHL while the Red Wings were a middle of the road 15th. But the Wings' power play did show signs of life and produced in crucial moments down the stretch. The Wings scored five times with the man advantage in their last four games all victories. Meanwhile, the Ducks began the season with one of the worst penalty-killing units in the league but over the last half of the season they were very good on the penalty kill, settling in at 13th overall, just one place behind Detroit. Boudreau felt that along with the balanced scoring, the improvement in the penalty kill was one of the keys to the Ducks' successes this season. If it continues in the coming days, it will bode well for a victory over the Red Wings.
This should be a fun, drama-filled series. Both head coaches, Boudreau and counterpart Mike Babcock -- once upon a time the Ducks head coach -- are emotional and love to talk the game. But in the end, we think the Ducks are going to emerge from the shadows of west coast anonymity and move on. Ducks in 6