For all their young talent and veteran experience, the Anaheim Ducks didn't really get it together until they were in danger of missing the playoffs late in the regular season.
Now that coach Randy Carlyle's talented underachievers have steamrolled the top-seeded San Jose Sharks in the NHL's biggest playoff upset, who would dare say that even the Detroit Red Wings are too much for them to handle?
Certainly not the eighth-seeded Ducks, who shot into the second round with a six-game first-round victory over the league's best regular-season team, capped by a decisive 4-1 win in Monday's clincher. Although Carlyle is pleased to see his group rounding into top form, he can't say he's surprised.
"We didn't have the consistency and the success that we anticipated with our group," Carlyle said. "We finally had our team playing well from the trade deadline on. Then we felt we could contend."
After taking Tuesday off, the Ducks will begin preparations to visit Detroit on Friday for the meeting of the last two Stanley Cup champions. It's hardly much of a reward for knocking off the Presidents' Trophy winners, but Anaheim doesn't expect anything to be easy -- certainly not as easy as much of its first-round series appeared to be.
"Now, I think we're playing what's the best team in the league in Detroit," defenseman Ryan Whitney said. "I know San Jose had a better record, but I think everyone thinks Detroit's probably the best. They're reigning champs. We just have to play the way we did. It's important to go there and play well, because we're going to be starting on the road again, but we'll take a night and a day to feel good about this one."
A date in Hockeytown doesn't intimidate the Ducks, who already have showed they're capable of taking an elite team's best shot. They won the first two games of the first round in San Jose, setting the tone for the series.
Two years after winning a Stanley Cup, the eighth-seeded Ducks understand postseason commitment more than the Sharks probably ever will.
"It doesn't matter who we're playing or what seed we are in the playoffs," said center Ryan Getzlaf, who fought Joe Thornton at the opening faceoff of Game 6 before scoring the clinching goal with 2:56 to play. "We consider ourselves a contender. We felt that way right from the start. This is just the first round, and we'll move from here."
Detroit and Anaheim have met four times previously in the postseason. The Ducks eliminated the Red Wings in 2007 on the way to their franchise's only Stanley Cup, and they didn't meet last year while Detroit won the championship.
The Ducks will be building from their series domination of the Sharks. Anaheim outscored San Jose 18-10, with Chris Pronger and Scott Niedermayer controlling the game from their usual spots on defense.
But the goalie they were protecting is the biggest surprise of the postseason so far. Jonas Hiller, the Swiss second-year NHL pro, showed all the veteran cool he learned in his native land's playoffs and world championships while thoroughly outplaying Sharks veteran Evgeni Nabokov.
Carlyle appeared to be taking a risk in sticking with Hiller over Jean-Sebastien Giguere, the 2003 playoff MVP and the goalie for Anaheim's 2007 NHL champions. Hiller made the Ducks look smart with two shutouts, a .957 save percentage and a 1.64 goals-against average
"It's always something different, the regular season and the playoffs," Hiller said. "It doesn't really matter what league you play in. Everybody in here knew it was going to be a best-of-seven series. You have to win four games, and we knew we could do it against that team. We were believing it, and its a great feeling now."