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NHL

A year after missing the playoffs, the Ducks can win the Stanley Cup

Photo: John Cordes/Icon SMI

The Ducks lead the NHL with 14 comeback wins this year, including a victory over the Blackhawks Wed.

So what do we make of the Anaheim Ducks these days? Are they the legitimate Stanley Cup contenders who rallied on Wednesday to knock off the Blackhawks, the team with size and speed that is never out of a game and should really be considered favorites to get out of the demanding Western Conference? Or are they the team that barely registered a pulse for much of a lackluster 5-1 loss on home ice against the Red Wings in their very next game? Is it Jekyll or Hyde we're dealing with here? Is a team that missed out on the playoffs one season good enough to win a championship the next year?

Yes, the team is for real, but there are questions, since most championships teams are not quite put together this way. The contest against the Blackhawks was a sort of challenge game for Anaheim. The Ducks had been patiently watching the hockey world swoon over the magnificence of the Blackhawks this season, probably saying, "um, hello, what about us? We're right there." Anaheim may be the conference's most feared team: skilled, big and, based on a fabulous comeback in the third period at the Honda Center, certainly resilient. Anaheim's 13th consecutive win on home ice was also its league-high 14th come-from-behind triumph this season, one more than the Ducks had all of last season.

In the regular season, especially a shortened campaign when one game leads into another so quickly and practice time is at a premium, everyone is going to have a letdown. So Friday's 5-1 loss to Detroit was more of a sleepwalk. The Wings are a veteran club, capable of making even the best teams look bad. Consider that one an anomaly. The Ducks are legit for several reasons.

First, the strong offensive showings of Bobby Ryan, Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry are expected, but never assume Teemu Selanne is in a slump. The Finnish Flash, 42-years young, had gone nine games without a goal before Anaheim's victory against Chicago. Then Selanne went to work. With the score tied, 2-2, Ducks' captain Ryan Getzlaf jumped on a turnover in the neutral zone and fed Selanne for a stunning conversion that gave the Ducks a 3-2 lead. This wasn't a play that took a long time to develop, but rather a sudden strike. My hands are faster than yours and the puck is in your net. He gave Anaheim a short-lived 1-0 lead against the Red Wings, taking a pass from Kyle Palmieri on the rush and beating Detroit goalie Jimmy Howard. It was a young player's goal that required some swiftness and power.

Selanne's goals gave him 1,426 points for his career, moving him into 15th place all-time, ahead of Bryan Trottier, who amassed most of his for the Islanders. Next on the list: Stan Mikita with 1,467. Yes, Selanne has lost some of the speed he first had when he broke into the league with Winnipeg and scored a record 76 goals as a rookie. But more important, he still has the instinct to know where the nearest open alley happens to be, and he jumps into holes as well as anybody. He is down to just over 16 minutes a game, but he's still a player you can rely upon to score an important goal or make an important play at an important time.

Second, the emergence of Francois Beauchemin and Sheldon Souray as an All-Star defense pair is stunning. Coach Bruce Beaudreau put them together four games into the season and the pairing has been a masterstroke.

Beauchemin is 32, was coming off shoulder surgery in April and had a career rating of minus-39 before this season. Souray is 36 and had a career mark of minus-41. So of course by putting them together, you would give them the fountain of youth and watch them lead all defensemen in plus-minus ratings with +20 each. Sure, we saw that coming a mile away. Beauchemin has always loved to stand up to other players. He moves the puck very well out of the zone, but most important he has picked up his offensive game. He moved from the left side of the ice to the right side, playing that position as a regular for the first time since he toiled in juniors. The angle is different on backchecks out of the zone and entry passes into it. If a player such as Beauchemin has spent 12 years looking over one shoulder and he suddenly has to look over the opposite one, it's a bit like a right-handed person having to write his signature left-handed.

Souray has always been a rugged player with a booming shot. He has over 1,100 penalty minutes in his career and twice scored more than 20 goals in a season. Now with his fifth team, Souray still has it. Consider his goal on Feb. 6 against Colorado. With his momentum taking him in the wrong direction, Souray kept a puck in the zone a slapped an unscreened 60-footer past Avalanche goalie Semyon Varlamov, who dropped into his butterfly stance too slowly to stop it.

Beyond Beauchemin and Souray, can you even name the rest of Anaheim's defense corps? Give it a shot, but the likes of Cam Fowler, Luca Sbisa, Toni Lydman, Bryan Allen and Ben Lovejoy don't light up the scoresheet. They have combined for exactly one goal all season. Remember the Miami Dolphins' no-name defense during their Super Bowl-winning days? The defense was well known because the players were unknowns. This may be hockey's answer to that.

Next, consider the winning European goalie combination of Jonas Hiller and Viktor Fasth. Hiller, a 31-year-old Swiss netminder, has apparently put his issues with vertigo behind him and has successfully split time with Fasth, the 30-year-old Swedish rookie. If there is a question mark here, it is simply which goalie will Boudreau choose to be his starter come playoff time? The goalies have won only seven playoff games between them in their entire careers. Hiller has played 17 games to 15 for Fasth, though Fasth has the better numbers so far (11-2-1, .922, 2.15 to 11-2-3, .909, 2.52). Neither has ever gone on a Stanley Cup run before, so the coach will have to figure out which one can do it.

Finally, the team has some moxie. Wednesday's he's-tough;-he's-a-hockey-player award went to Anaheim's Andrew Cogliano, who took a nasty stick in the chops from Chicago enforcer Brandon Bollig after a faceoff with 4:17 to play in the third period. Cogliano quickly went to the dressing room as announcers insisted he was done for the game, but the scrappy forward was back a minute later, breaking up a Chicago rush and wasting valuable seconds. Then on Friday, with his team down 4-1 late in the second period, Getzlaf made a beeline for Detroit's Jonathan Erickson to start a scrap, hoping to infuse some emotion with his team. Just 37 seconds later, after Detroit's Brian Lashoff bumped too aggressively with Selanne, Palmeiri took him on despite a four-inch height disadvantage. The Ducks are not as aggressive as the team that won a Stanley Cup a few years ago. Big as the Ducks are, they have amassed 338 penalty minutes, a fairly modest total and they have taken exactly 100 minor penalties, the league's second-lowest total, even though their 20 majors ranks among the league's top ten.

Don't look now, but with 48 points in 30 games, Anaheim is still looking up at Chicago, which has 51 points in the same number of contests. Red-hot Pittsburgh has 48 in 32. The Ducks have still lost only lost two home games all season. The other was a 5-0 drubbing in their home opener against Vancouver on Jan. 25. They needed a shootout to beat Nashville, 3-2, in their next home game the very next night, but have been virtually untouchable since. They needed overtime to beat Colorado, 4-3 on Feb. 24, but had dispatched every other team in regulation before the loss to Detroit. In a quirk of the shortened season, Anaheim's next home game is against the Red Wings on Sunday. The Ducks visit Chicago for the teams' final regular season tilt on Mar. 29.

Can a 42-year-old sniper hold up and be able to make significant contributions in the demanding months of spring hockey? It is asking too much for a grizzled pair of defensemen and an unproven pair of goalies to continue playing as well as they have? Can Boudreau, a coach who was booted out of Washington, keep working his newfound magic? Don't bet against it.

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