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Detroit vs. Anaheim: MOP Squad On the NHL's Final Four
By BRIAN PIKE, MOP Squad Sports Hockey Editor
May 10, 2007 - 4:54:43 PM

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Detroit Red Wings (1) vs. Anaheim Ducks (2): Western Conference Finals

The Goods: In the last five years the first seed has met the second seed just once in the Western Conference final, back in 2002. The winner that year? Detroit, who beat Colorado in seven games before going on to defeat Carolina for the Stanley Cup. The Wings now find themselves in the same situation, this time against the Ducks, but obviously they hope the final result is the same. That may well illustrate one of the biggest advantages Detroit has over their opponents in these playoffs: they have seven players on their roster that played on that team and a wealth of playoff experience. That experience really showed through against the Sharks; Detroit was down two games to one and in serious danger of losing game four, but somehow found a way to tie the score with less than a minute to play. From that point on they didn’t look back and dusted the Sharks in six. It takes a very composed, confident team to come up with that kind of performance. Detroit’s power play ranks sixth at 15.9% but came alive when they really needed it to, with two goals in each of games four and five against San Jose. Their penalty kill didn’t allow the Sharks power play a single goal in the final three games of the series; it also ranks sixth at 86.9%. The Ducks penalty kill, meanwhile, is the best of the playoffs, operating at a remarkable 94.6% success rate. It allowed just one goal in the entire series against Vancouver. Their power play is fifth at 16.4%, has managed some important tallies and has scored in the majority of the team’s playoff games. The Ducks have very rarely looked like they weren’t in complete control of their games in these playoffs. They lost game four to Minnesota pretty convincingly, but were already up in the series three games to none at that point. They ended up in three overtime games during the Vancouver series, losing one, but save for a handful of shaky moments and having to come from behind in game four looked like they’d have completely blown the Canucks out if it weren’t for superstar Vancouver goaltender Roberto Luongo. The truth is that Anaheim has thus far looked like a team that’s played just well enough to win most nights; instead of blowing out their opponents Anaheim has looked more like they’re toying with weaker prey, playing down to the opposition’s level and letting them think the opportunity is there for them before cruelly snatching it away. Whether or not they can play that game against Detroit remains to be seen.

Heroes: If Detroit were to win the Stanley Cup this season, it would be very difficult not to hand Nicklas Lidstrom his second career playoff MVP award. Lidstrom, the team’s captain, is tied for the team lead with 11 points, and while just three of those came against the Sharks, he was absolutely superb defensively, and he had one of the most amazing plays of this postseason when he dove across a crease vacated by goaltender Dominik Hasek to foil a Mike Grier scoring chance in game six. Speaking of Hasek, he has rather quietly made his own case for playoff MVP. And he has been rather quiet both on-ice and off. He hasn’t had to make the kind of heroic stops that almost single-handedly got the Sabres any success when he played in Buffalo in the late 90’s, but his technique has been sound and he looked simply unbeatable late in the second round. Maybe more importantly, he hasn’t been an off-ice distraction, something he’s been guilty of at times during his career. In Anaheim the team heroes break down in exactly the same fashion: the team’s best defenseman and goaltender are their leading MVP candidates. Much like he was last year for Edmonton, Chris Pronger has been dominant in all areas of the ice. His 11 points lead the team, his 31:14 of average ice time is the highest in the league, and his defensive game is impeccable. Just another average playoffs for Mr. Pronger. Jean-Sebastian Giguere, meanwhile, started these playoffs on the bench; a family problem just before the playoffs forced him to miss a few games and coach Randy Carlyle decided to go with backup Ilya Bryzgalov against Minnesota. But no one can question Giguere’s focus since taking over for Bryzgalov in game four of the first round. His numbers are absolutely ridiculous. A 1.28 goals-against average. A .952 save percentage. A 10 and 1 career record in playoff overtime games. Just one power play goal allowed. Suffice it to say, no one is thinking of starting Bryzgalov again right now.

Goats: Kyle Calder was very good for Detroit after coming over from Philadelphia at the trade deadline, scoring 14 points in 19 regular season games. But he’s virtually disappeared during these playoffs, spending most of his time on the fourth line and providing little in the way of the grit or forechecking the Wings hoped for, let alone any scoring; with just one assist in 11 games, he needs to be better. And while it’s not really their job to score goals on this team, it would be nice to get some offense from Kris Draper and Kirk Maltby. Those two are mostly responsible for playing well defensively and providing the team energy through physical play, but in playoffs past they could also be counted on for some timely scoring. This playoffs Maltby has just one assist and Draper just two points, both goals which came in a game three loss to Calgary. For the Ducks it might not be entirely just to pick on their first line, but while they’ve been pretty good, they haven’t been the difference-makers they should be very often. Centre Andy McDonald has four goals and six points, but four of those points came in game one against the Canucks. Chris Kunitz had three assists in that same game and added a couple more later in the series, but has no goals and didn’t have any points against Minnesota at all. And although Teemu Selanne has showed a lot of grit and leadership so far, getting cut by high sticks no less than three times in the Vancouver series but refusing to leave any games despite his face being a swollen, bloody mess, but, to be blunt, he’s paid to score goals and he hasn’t done that enough. They need to improve.

The Key: Wearing out defensemen. Both teams enter this series with some serious quality among their top few blueliners, but have a serious drop-off in talent on defense after that. This is even more pronounced right now in Detroit, where Mathieu Schneider left game five of the San Jose series with a broken wrist and won’t return for the playoffs. This is a Detroit blueline that was already missing its third-best defender in Niklas Kronwall, who was hurt late in the regular season; losing their second-best d-man now hurts. With those two out Chris Chelios seems to have leapt all the way from fifth to second on the team’s depth chart; at 45 years of age, he’ll not only have to keep his regular penalty-killing spot but he’ll have to play even more at even strength and should even get some power play minutes. Lidstrom, meanwhile, just turned 37. He’s a good bet to win his fifth Norris Trophy as the league’s best defenseman this summer. He’s already averaging 29:15 of ice time per game and with Schneider out he’ll be on for even more time against the Ducks. Believe it or not, there does come a point where Nicklas Lidstrom plays so much he gets fatigued and makes mistakes. The Ducks are maybe the most physical team in the league, even moreso than the Sharks, who have some very large forwards who took aim at Lidstrom and Chelios, and that could make a difference here. In Anaheim, meanwhile, few things can be said about Pronger and Scott Niedermayer that haven’t already been said. Having two defensemen of that quality on the same blueline is incredibly rare. And while Pronger has been the more glamourous of the two so far in these playoffs, Niedermayer has put in some impressive minutes against the opposition’s best and shut them down, even though he’s actually averaging fewer minutes than the Ducks’ other top defenseman, Francois Beauchemin. But while the Ducks defense has been very, very good, they’re not superhuman. Pronger was so bad in game two against the Wild that everyone just assumed he had injured something, even though last year Pronger played the entire playoffs with a broken bone in his foot and was terrific. Niedermayer has, on occasion, looked ordinary, and has even been beaten to a loose puck a few times, an extremely rare thing for one of the league’s best skaters. And Beauchemin, while good, hasn’t looked quite the same since taking a puck in the face in game three against Minnesota. These guys can get hurt, they can get fatigued, and they can look human. The Wings need to exploit that as much as possible.

Detroit Wins If: Todd Bertuzzi wakes up. It’s easy to make excuses for Bertuzzi. He spent most of the season on the injured list after back surgery. He was inserted in game three of the first round, and playoff hockey is a tough environment to try and immediately get one’s form back. That game was also his first in a Red Wing uniform, and he’s undoubtedly still getting used to his teammates and the Wings systems. But the time for Bertuzzi to put all that behind him is now, because the Wings badly need him. One of the things the Ducks have done really well in these playoffs is handle the opposition’s best line. Their checking line of Sami Pahlsson, Rob Niedermayer and Travis Moen is superb. They outplayed Vancouver’s Sedin twins so badly that those two had just a goal and an assist between them during the series, while the checking line scored three times and had eight points. That line, along with Scott Niedermayer or Pronger on the back end, is what Detroit’s top line of Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg and Tomas Holmstrom will be facing. Somebody on their second line needs to step up and if not score some goals, at least put some pressure on in the opposition’s zone and take some of the defensive focus away from Detroit’s top line. The best candidate to do that is Bertuzzi. At his best, he uses his superior strength to win fights for pucks along the walls, takes position up in front of the opponent’s net, and carries the puck with reckless abandon straight to the goal. The good news is that Bertuzzi looked good in the last game against San Jose and was doing some of those things well; the bad news is that it was one of the few times in these playoffs that he looked that good. He has to be better if the Wings are going to survive this series.

Anaheim Wins If: At least one of their top lines can manage to break out offensively. While the Ducks have played well enough to dispatch the Wild and Canucks, the team has been scoring, on average, half a goal less than they did during the regular season. And while this is offset by the fact that they’re giving up more than a half a goal less, the Ducks badly need somebody to break out and drive this team’s offense in a way that has only happened in short bursts so far in these playoffs. Now, during the season the guy that did that was Selanne; he had 48 goals, 25 of them on the power play, and along with McDonald and Kunitz made the first line particularly dangerous. But except for game one of the Vancouver series McDonald and Kunitz haven’t really produced and Selanne, while leading in a way he rarely has before, hasn’t scored enough. Still, the burden can’t fall completely on that line; the Ducks second line of Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry and Dustin Penner, after a good first round, had just three goals between them against Vancouver. At least one of these two lines has to break out and start driving the Ducks offense, put pressure on the Wings defense, and take the play to them, because playing just well enough to win like the Ducks did against Vancouver and Minnesota might not be good enough against Detroit. They need to carry the play offensively as well as they have defensively.

Bottom Line: Defensively the Ducks are just too strong, and without Schneider Detroit will be hard pressed to match that defense. Detroit’s been impressive getting this far, but there’s a reason why the Ducks were widely viewed as the top contender in the West way back at the start of this season. Many predicted a Ducks-Sabres final at the start of the year, and at this point that’s looking pretty likely. Ducks in five.

Copyright 2007 - MOP Squad Sports

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