BEFORE A GAME inearly February, Ducks sniper Teemu Selanne, who had spent three seasons withSan Jose, went after Sharks coach and former boss Ron Wilson outside the lockerrooms. Joking and teasing, the pair wrestled like reunited frat brothers. Thisseason few confrontations between Anaheim and San Jose, the top teams in thePacific Division, have been that lighthearted. In fact, after the Ducks tradedfor burly 6'6" defenseman Chris Pronger in July, general manager BrianBurke specifically spoke to the advantage of sending him out against Sharksforwards.
Much is at stakefor the two teams, who on Monday night met for the sixth time this year, withthe Ducks winning 3--2 to take a 4--2 lead in the series. The Pacificwinner--Anaheim led San Jose by seven points--likely will get a No. 1 or No. 2seed, which means that team could start the playoffs at home the first tworounds and be matched in the opening series with the Calgary Flames, whose roadrecord (7-15-8) is the worst of all prospective playoff clubs. The runner-up inthe Pacific would be a fourth or fifth seed, and it might open the postseasonon the road and against one of the Central powerhouses, Nashville orDetroit.
"There are twoelite teams in the Central, but there is no such thing as an easy playoffdraw," says Burke. "Look at the arms race over the last few years: SanJose picks up [center Joe] Thornton; we add [defenseman Scott] Niedermayer;Nashville gets [center Peter] Forsberg."
San Jose is one ofthe most balanced squads in the NHL. Oilers forward Ryan Smyth says the Sharksare most daunting because an opponent can't key on one player or one line.Meanwhile the injury-plagued Ducks have stars on the mend. They were 2-7-2 fromDec. 29 through Jan. 19--during that time Pronger sat out nine of 11 games witha broken foot, but the team has been 7-5-2 since his return. Anaheim, whichdidn't lose its first game this season until the 17th match, is returning totop form.
"Games againstAnaheim are intense," says Sharks forward Jonathan Cheechoo. "It's justtwo points, but it feels like more."