"We're not an eighth seed," said Ducks defenseman Ryan Whitney. "Everyone in here knows that."
The Ducks are exactly that, of course: a 91-point regular-season team and the only low seed to advance into the Western Conference semifinals. Yet, they're an eighth seed in name only. These aren't the same Ducks who flew south for most of the winter. These are genuine, thick-billed Stanley Cup contenders who just happen to have a U for underdog stamped on their chests. No. 8, yes. But No. 8 with a bullet.
You could see these quackers coming. In their last 15 games of the regular season -- starting, not coincidentally, at about the time that Whitney was settling in after arriving in a late-February trade from Pittsburgh -- the Ducks went 11-3-1. Whitney's been skating next to snarling Chris Pronger most of the time, which will make any young defenseman grow, and that pairing is just one way in which Anaheim looks so different than it did during much of its thoroughly average 2008-09 season.
Does anyone even remember that 1-5 start in October?
What's new, above all else, is the defense -- as good a top-to-bottom group as any in the game.
Now the Ducks have Whitney, who is playoff-tested, unafraid and moving the puck as well as he ever has. He's given some serious length to their power play, helping to transform Anaheim from a good man-advantage team into one that can flip a postseason game around with a couple of man-up situations. Even when the Ducks don't score on the power play, all of their exquisite puck movement, all of the pressure they tend to maintain in the offensive zone can wear a team right out. Whitney's prowess manning the point only augments Pronger's and Scott Niedermayer's.
And now the Ducks have the very capable James Wisniewski, over from Chicago in early March. It's not true that nobody beats the Wiz -- you'll see that plain as a pig in quicksand if the Red Wings' Henrik Zetterberg or Pavel Datsyuk get a chance to scoot by him -- but he will stand a lot of guys up. Wisniewski can move the puck on the power play, too, and he's responsible shorthanded. Having this guy as a No. 5 defenseman, when he's easily top 4 material, underscores Anaheim's defensive depth.
And maybe most important, they now have Francois Beauchemin, the third-year Duck who came back just in time for the playoffs after missing most of the season with knee surgery. Think he's out of shape after being out all that time? He's playing more than 20 minutes a game; and opened with more than 22 in Game 1 against San Jose. Or think he's playing a little tentatively on that re-made knee? You try to block the shots he's been blocking this postseason.
Add those defensemen to the Hall-of-Fame caliber mainstays of Pronger (plus-6 so far) and Niedermayer (five points in six games) and Anaheim suddenly becomes very, very nasty to play against. The Ducks, as the Sharks can confirm, still like to mix things up. Former GM Brian Burke may be gone to Toronto, but the spirit of truculence he inspired in this team is still very much in the building.
Maybe by this time next week the Ducks will already be off the pond. Detroit is still much the better team. But no one can say that Anaheim doesn't have a shot to go on, to slay another giant. This is a team that won 22 road games this season, the most of any Western Conference team except Detroit. This is a team with a core of players who are just 22 months removed from hoisting the Cup. This is a team that suddenly looks whole, and, feeding alongside voracious center Ryan Getzlaf, very, very hungry.
The Ducks are in fact a No. 8 seed, and the Red Wings a No. 2. Of course, they are meeting in the second-round of the NHL playoffs where all it takes to get into the conference finals is the top seed -- and four more wins.