Stanley Cup Playoff Preview - Anaheim vs. Minnesota

Stanley Cup Playoff Preview - Anaheim vs. Minnesota

Stanley Cup Playoff Preview - Anaheim vs. Minnesota
April 10th, 2007

(Sports Network) - Considered one of the top preseason contenders for the Western Conference crown, Anaheim lived up to its advance billing with an excellent overall season. The Ducks established a new club record with 110 points and withstood a strong challenge from San Jose and Dallas to capture the first Pacific Division title in franchise history.

Anaheim boasts one of the league's most talented defensive corps, headlined by a pair of former Norris Trophy winners in Scott Niedermayer and Chris Pronger and a playoff-tested goaltender in Jean Sebastien-Giguere. Niedermayer was an integral part of three Stanley Cup champion teams in New Jersey, Pronger played a major role in Edmonton's remarkable march into last year's finals, while Giguere (2.26 GAA, 4 SHO) earned the 2003 Conn Smythe Trophy after carrying an underdog Ducks squad within one game of capturing the Cup that spring.

The Ducks have plenty of offensive firepower as well. Veteran sniper Teemu Selanne finished third in the NHL with 48 goals, the 36-year-old's highest total in nine years, while center Andy McDonald earned himself a spot in the All-Star Game with a 27-goal, 51-assist campaign. Left wing Chris Kunitz (25 goals, 35 assists) and 21-year-old center Ryan Getzlaf (25 goals, 33 assists) each turned in breakthrough seasons.

The presence of Pronger (13 goals, 46 assists) and Niedermayer (15 goals, 54 assists) at the points helped Anaheim rank third in the NHL in both power-play goals (89) and percentage (22.4%). Selanne led the league with 28 goals with the man-advantage, while Pronger registered 28 power-play assists.

Anaheim will be in the rare position of favorite in a conference quarterfinal series. In the team's four previous playoff appearances, the Ducks were the lower seed three times during the opening round. Anaheim marched all the way to the Western Conference finals as a No. 6 last season and rode a red-hot Giguere all the way to the Stanley Cup championship round as a seventh seed in 2003.

MINNESOTA WILD (7th seed, West)

REGULAR SEASON RECORD: 48-26-8

2006 PLAYOFFS: Failed to qualify

The disciplined defensive philosophy of head coach Jacque Lemaire and a tremendous rookie season from goaltender Niklas Backstrom gave Minnesota its first postseason berth since 2002-03, the year the Wild advanced to the Western Conference finals as a sixth seed before being swept by Anaheim. Minnesota yielded an NHL-low 184 goals this season and owned the league's second-best penalty kill, a unit which thwarted 86 percent of shorthanded chances.

The biggest reason for those outstanding totals was the tremendous play of Backstrom, a legitimate Calder Trophy candidate, between the pipes. The 29- year-old Finn took over for injured No. 1 goaltender Manny Fernandez in late January and flourished with the regular playing time. Backstrom posted a sparkling 23-8-6 overall record and led all NHL netminders with a 1.97 goals against average and a .929 save percentage.

The Wild don't have a wealth of offensive playmakers, but do possess one of the game's most dangerous scorers in right wing Marian Gaborik. The Slovakian superstar racked up 30 goals and 27 assists despite missing 34 games with a groin injury. Minnesota was 33-9-6 when Gaborik was in the lineup, compared to a 15-17-2 mark when he was sidelined.

Gaborik and fellow Slovak Pavol Demitra (25 goals, 39 assists) form a powerful 1-2 punch on the scoring line, although Demitra's effectiveness could be limited because of a strained leg muscle which caused the 32-year-old to miss the final two regular-season games and rendered him pointless in the final five he did play.

All-Star right wing Brian Rolston (64 points) led Minnesota with 31 goals and is also a key component on the penalty kill, while players such as Marc-Andre Bouchard (20 goals, 37 assists), Mikko Koivu (20 goals, 34 assists), Mark Parrish (19 goals, 20 assists) and Todd White (13 goals, 31 assists) give the Wild strong depth up front.

Minnesota also had the fourth-fewest shorthanded chances (342) this season and was effective on the power play, ranking sixth in the NHL with an 18.9 percent success rate.

MATCHUP

Minnesota will be a tough out, especially if Backstrom keeps playing at the level he has over the last 2 1/2 months. Gaborik is the rare type of talent that can single-handedly change the outcome of a series, like he did during the Wild's postseason run in 2003, and any Lemaire-coached team is going to be tough to score on come playoff time.

Still, Anaheim possesses more skill and overall depth than the Wild and has all the ingredients -- strong goaltending, excellent all-around defensemen, balanced scoring and veteran leadership -- to make a serious charge at Lord Stanley's Cup.

It's not going to be an easy task, as all four of the regular-season meetings between the teams (the Ducks went 2-1-1) were decided by a single goal, but expect Anaheim to prevail in a hard-fought, low-scoring series.

Sports Network predicted outcome: Ducks in 6

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