Wednesday February 6th, 2008

The 2007 Stanley Cup Champion Anaheim Ducks spent part of their day off on Feb. 6 at the White House being honored by President George W. Bush. It was only their win over the New York Islanders the previous night that prevented this obvious photo op cutline: One lame duck meets a whole flock of them.

U.S. law prevents Bush from maintaining his title beyond next January. It's a little tougher to define what's getting in the way of the Ducks keeping theirs. But one win removed from an ugly six-game losing streak, it's clear that the champs look a lot better on paper than they do on the ice.

Despite season-long struggles with chemistry, expectations have remained so high in Anaheim that plenty of folks were ready to plan the parade route when foot-dragging heroes Scott Niedermayer and Teemu Selanne finally came riding in to save the their stumbling compadres. But championships are defended with results, not reputation. After blanking the punchless and skidding Islanders, these Ducks woke up in the morning with just 63 points, good for fifth place in the Western Conference. If the season ended today, that would be enough for entry into the postseason tournament.

But the season doesn't end today. If they continue to struggle to find an offensive mix that clicks, especially on the road, these Ducks won't have to worry about hanging on their title.

They'll have to worry about missing the playoffs entirely.

The Ducks' 3-0 win over the Isles was easily the best performance in two weeks by a team that looked inspired by the return of prodigal son Selanne. It also gave them a four-point lead on the ninth-place Predators. But just eight points separate the Ducks from the 12th-place Blues. That may seem like a comfortable pad, but consider this: St. Louis has five games in hand on Anaheim. And five of the six teams sitting between the two have three games in hand. The other, Columbus, has two.

Of course, games in hand are like lottery tickets. They're worthless until they're cashed in. But the opportunity for so many teams to catch or blow by the idle Ducks simply by taking care of business illustrates how precarious their situation is. It took 96 points for Calgary to secure the eighth seed last season. Thanks to the vanillafying effect of parity, the magic number might be as low as 92 now. At the moment, the Ducks are waddling along at a 91-point clip.

Injuries have been an issue. The loss of Sami Pahlsson, the heart of their shutdown unit, for nearly half the season has hurt. But every team has to fight through something like that. The real problems have been systemic. Hunger, for one.

Last year's team played like starving dogs, tracking down the puck as if it were a hunk of meat. Intensity and relentless physicality made the Ducks the league's most frightening date on the schedule. This year? They're still big and strong, but they're not as ferocious on the forecheck. That's led to fewer scoring chances, a fact borne out by their standing as the meekest offense of any team holding a playoff spot in either conference.

The absence of Selanne and the traded Andy McDonald has diminished the effectiveness of alternate captain Chris Kunitz and left Anaheim without reliable secondary scoring. Francois Beauchemin, overworked and overextended, is a shadow of the player he was last season. And the lack of a right-handed triggerman has meant the power play, so critical to Anaheim's success last season, has floundered when the first unit is off the ice.

One thing Ducks fans can count on is that GM Brian Burke, arguably the best in the business, won't hesitate to alter the mix further before the Feb. 26 trade deadline. The question is: can he find the right body?

Burke has certainly struggled like the rest of his club this year. His major off-season signings, Todd Bertuzzi and Mathieu Schneider, haven't met expectations. Both have experienced bursts of success, but neither has consistently filled the hole they were acquired to address. In-season moves to add size (Brian Sutherby) and scoring (Brandon Bochenski) have had little effect.

Burke's one blockbuster deal -- a cap-related move forced by the midseason return of Niedermayer -- has been an unmitigated bust. Doug Weight, picked up from the Blues in exchange for MacDonald, snapped a nine-game pointless streak in the win over the Islanders. He hasn't found chemistry with any of the wingers he's been slotted between. While getting his shots, he's not generating chances for himself or his linemates. He'll be given a chance to click with Selanne, but you can imagine how much more effective the Finnish Flash would be skating alongside his long-time center, McDonald.

It's unfair to expect instant results from a man who has been playing tennis for the past four months, but that's exactly what the Ducks and their moribund offense need from Selanne. His speed on the rush and the forecheck add a dimension that's been lacking this season and give the second line a different flavor than the Ryan Getzlaf-led first unit. As the league's top man-advantage marksman last season, Selanne adds a much-needed right-hand shot to the struggling power play.

Selanne helps not just on the ice, but in the room, where he was referred to as "a little bit of sunshine" by Burke.

That element may be more critical than you'd think. Because now there are no more excuses. No more waiting. Everyone knows the pieces are in place. And that may be enough to finally give the guys in that room the confidence in themselves that they need to finally start playing up to their paper.

They'll have to find themselves quickly. Unless these Ducks get their tail feathers in gear, the offseason's going to come awfully early this year.

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