The second-seeded Anaheim Ducks will try to get a jump on the Detroit Red Wings in Game 1 of the Western Conference finals, as the clubs open the best-of-series Tuesday in Orange County.
The Ducks are coming off the franchise's best regular season since winning their one and only Stanley Cup title in 2006-07, as Anaheim surprised its way to the second Pacific Division crown in club history.
Head coach Bruce Boudreau, who took over the reins for Anaheim in November of the 2011, became a Jack Adams Award candidate in Year 2 with the Ducks, leading the team to a stout 30-12-6 record.
The Ducks played a balanced brand of hockey under Boudreau this season, finishing eighth in the NHL in team offense with 2.79 goals per game and placing ninth in defense with an average of 2.40 goals surrendered. Anaheim's winning percentage of .688 also was the best in club history, besting the 2006-07 club, which was the only other Ducks' team to win a division title.
Anaheim made the playoffs for the second time in four seasons during this lockout-shortened campaign, and the resurgence of captain Ryan Getzlaf was big in getting the Ducks back to the postseason after finishing 13th in the West last year.
In 2011-12, Getzlaf managed only 11 goals and 57 points while playing in all 82 games. The goal total was the worst of his career while his 57 points only bettered the 39 points he had in 57 games as a rookie back in 2005-06. The club's top centerman bounced back in a big way this season, however, recording 15 goals and 34 assists for a total of 49 points in 44 games.
Corey Perry, Anaheim's top sniper, also played a big role for the Ducks this season, matching Getzlaf for the team lead in goals and finishing second with 36 points. Both Getzlaf and Perry were rewarded for their efforts midway through this season, as they each signed eight-year contract extension to keep them in Anaheim through the 2020-21 seasons.
"This is an exciting time of the year. Any time the season ends and the real fun begins, that's why we play the game," Getzlaf recently told his club's official web site.
Outside of an impressive array of top forwards, which also includes Bobby Ryan and Teemu Selanne, the Ducks' next-biggest strength is in net, where both Jonas Hiller and rookie Viktor Fasth turned in strong seasons.
Hiller went 15-6-4 with a 2.36 goals against average and .913 save percentage this season and he really played well down the stretch, recording a 1.79 GAA over his last seven starts. Fasth went 15-6-2 with a 2.18 GAA, .921 save percentage and four shutouts, but Hiller will start at the beginning of the playoffs due to his playoff experience. He is 7-6 with a 2.23 GAA and .943 save percentage in the postseason, while Fasth's only playoff reps came while playing in Sweden.
Detroit, meanwhile, is in the playoffs for a 22nd straight season, but it wasn't easy making the postseason without legendary defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom in tow. The Red Wings closed the regular season on a four-game winning streak to help keep the playoff streak alive, but the seventh-place finish in the West gives the club its worst seeding since it last missed the postseason in 1989-90.
Fittingly, a couple of Swedes in Niklas Kronwall and Jonathan Ericsson form the top pairing for Detroit in the post-Lidstrom era. Kronwall is now Detroit's top blueliner in the wake of his countryman's retirement and he led the Red Wings with 29 points (5G, 24A) from the back end. He also led the entire club with 24 minutes and 21 seconds ice time per game.
Jimmy Howard also turned in a fine season between the pipes for the Red Wings, starting 42 of 48 games and posting a 21-13-7 record to go with a 2.13 GAA and .923 save percentage. He also recorded five shutouts to tie four other netminders for the league lead.
Howard, who was signed to a six-year extension during the season, still has a lot to prove in the playoffs. The 29-year-old is 13-15 with a 2.63 GAA in 28 career postseason games and he surrendered 13 goals in five games during last spring's first-round exit against the Predators.
The Red Wings' offense is still led by their top forwards Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg, but Detroit's overall offensive depth is not what it used to be. Still, Datsyuk was one of five Detroit players with double digit goals this season, as he led the team with 15 markers to go along with a team-best 49 points.
Zetterberg was fourth on the team with 11 goals, but just one point behind Datsyuk for the club lead.
This is the sixth playoff meeting between the Red Wings and Ducks, who met five teams in the postseason from 1997-2009. Detroit has won three of the five series and beat Anaheim in seven games when the clubs last met in the 2009 conference semifinals.
The Red Wings also won two of the three regular-season encounters this year, taking the last two meetings after Anaheim earned a 5-2 rout in Detroit on Feb. 15.
Getzlaf and Perry each had a goal and two assists over the three encounters in 2013, while Justin Abdelkader led Detroit's offense with three goals and one assist during the season series.
Howard clearly outplayed either Anaheim goaltender over the course of the three meetings, going 2-1-0 with a 2.01 GAA. Hiller was 0-1 with a 2.50 GAA and Fasth went 1-1-0 with a 3.61 GAA.
The next meeting in this series is scheduled for Thursday evening in Anaheim before the venue shifts to Detroit for Games 3 and 4.
The Red Wings were 11-9-4 as the road club this season, while the Ducks compiled a 16-7-1 mark at the Honda Center.