What do the Anaheim Ducks get for establishing franchise records in points and winning percentage while taking the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference for the first time in team history? They get a team that beat them two out of three games this season, including the last two meetings. Still, don't think that many people are going to pick the Dallas Stars (who earned their first playoff berth in half a decade) to upset the Ducks in the opening round, but the wild-card team did give the top seed a tough time this season. A year ago, the Ducks had the second-best record in the West but lost an opening-round series to the seventh-seeded Detroit Red Wings, a tough but important experience for an Anaheim team that had many young players getting their first taste of postseason action.
"Going into last year's playoff series, we had a lot of young guys that learned a lot of good lessons," captain Ryan Getzlaf told ESPN recently. "Sometimes it's unfortunate, but you learn a lot more from losing than you do from winning. I think that those guys have come back this year and they're just as hungry, if not more, to get back to that position and have a chance to move on."
For the Stars, quite the tip of the hat to GM Jim Nill. He was brought in last offseason to rebuild the organization from the ground up, and there's no question Nill is still focused on the big picture and long-term forecast for the organization. But to make the playoffs in his first season thanks in large part to the blockbuster Tyler Seguin acquisition and the hiring of Lindy Ruff as head coach, both done last summer, is like having your cake and eating it too. Nill, by the way, did the classy thing at the trade deadline and moved pending UFA veteran Stephane Robidas to Anaheim, giving the longtime Stars blueliner a chance to go to a Cup contender. Now the Stars will be trying to ruin that chance. Interesting subplot indeed.
Stars: Tyler Seguin
Holy smokes, what a season for the 22-year-old star, putting up career-high numbers after being switched back to his natural center position and finding instant chemistry with captain Jamie Benn. The spotlight is on Seguin, however, because of how his playoffs went a year ago with Stanley Cup finalists, the Boston Bruins. Seguin put up only one goal in 22 playoff games, struggling mightily despite his team's success and, in some ways, laying the foundation to his summer trade. Now, he has a chance to enhance his playoff reputation.
Will it be Jonas Hiller, Frederik Andersen or John Gibson in goal? Coach Bruce Boudreau was mulling over that decision all weekend long. Gibson was fantastic in his two starts this past week. The highly rated rookie will eventually be the franchise goalie. But like Ken Dryden in 1971, is the future now? What about Andersen? All he did in his rookie season was go 20-5! And there's the veteran, Hiller. Perhaps you start him but have a quick hook if he struggles like he did over the final few weeks of the regular season. The positive for the Ducks is that this is a tough decision, yes, but one not made out of desperation but rather of luxury. They have three solid choices. Know this: Boudreau would not be scared to go to a rookie. He had Semyon Varlamov supplant veteran Jose Theodore in a playoff series between the Capitals and Rangers in 2008-09 when nobody had ever heard of Varlamov. So the Ducks coach isn't afraid to make that move, whether it's now or later in the series.
Hero In Waiting
Stars: Kari Lehtonen
The Finnish netminder will have to be the difference-maker in this series if the upset is going to happen, just as he was on so many nights in the regular season when he saved his team's bacon. There is no question that he has the talent to steal a series. On a team that still gives away the puck too much, Lehtonen has had to cover that up many times. If the Stars pull off the upset, you'll know who the hero was.
Ducks: Matt Beleskey
The 25-year-old winger seems to be coming into his own, playing late in the regular season on the top line with Getzlaf and Corey Perry and looking like he belongs there. A physical force who can also chip in offensively, it wouldn't surprise me one bit if he's got a couple of clutch goals in him during this series.
Stars: Protecting the puck
This is a team that made the playoffs despite not protecting the puck terribly well, with the fifth-most giveaways this season. That's representative of a blue-line corps that still needs work but also of an overall club whose defensive coverage from the forwards back doesn't give you much confidence it can go far in the playoffs.
Ducks: Special teams
For a team with so much talent that won so many games, it's somewhat bizarre that the Ducks had a power play that was in the bottom third of the NHL and a penalty kill that was middle of the road. It also tells you how strong the team is at even strength, the Ducks ranking second in 5-on-5 goals for/against ratio. Still, while the Bruins of 2011 and Kings of 2012 proved that a lukewarm power play won't prevent a team from winning a Cup, those clubs did have a rock-solid PK, so at the very least, that's an area the Ducks hope to improve as the playoffs go on.
Not overlooking the Stars, or their regular-season success against the Ducks, but this time around Anaheim is ready for more playoff success. The club is simply deeper and more talented than its wild-card opponent. Ducks in 5