There is a large and very visible school of hockey fans out there that openly rejects the notion of professional franchises in cities that are seriously lacking in hockey tradition. Most of theses cities are located in parts of America that are warm year-round, i.e. Los Angeles, Anaheim, Phoenix, San Jose, Atlanta, Dallas, St. Petersburg, and Sunrise, Florida. Throw in Raleigh, Washington D.C., and Nashville, and you end up with just over one third of the NHL languishing in one giant historical no man's land. As these purists note, hockey history is important, but these days, things are changing.
While I still count myself among the East Coast snobs that contemptuously scoff at anyone wearing an Anaheim jersey, I find myself oddly compelled by a Mighty Ducks team that is embracing its underdog status just as well as its baseball counterpart did in last year's World Series. The seventh-seeded Ducks already shocked the defending champions Detroit Red Wings with a miraculous four-game sweep and are now on the verge of upending the top-ranked Dallas Stars.
What is even more impressive about Anaheim's play is that each one of its seven victories has been by just one goal and four of them have come in overtime. The bottom line is that, while the Ducks will never blow out an opponent, they have nonetheless been scoring in the most clutch situations. In game one of the Dallas series, Peter Sykora delivered a devastating opening punch when he fired a quick shot past Stars goalie Marty Turco in the fifth overtime. The Ducks' victory in what is now the fourth-longest game in NHL history proved their early playoff success was no fluke.
In the past it has been all too easy to snicker at Anaheim with its teal and purple, Disney-owned uniforms. The team had only won a single playoff series in its brief history, and, for a long time, the only thing it had going for it was the fact that Ducks jerseys were the number one-selling piece of NHL merchandise. And even that honorable distinction disappeared when people grew tired of the knuckle puck and the flying V.
That's why very few hockey experts even mentioned the Ducks as a possibility to make a serious playoff run. Most of them just couldn't picture the NHL's cutest team winning anything more than the hearts of happy-go-lucky school children from the L.A. suburbs.
But take a closer look at Anaheim's roster. To start, the Ducks have three quality centers in Adam Oates, Rob Niedermayer, and Steve Rucchin. Oates is a seasoned veteran and still one of the best play-makers in the game. Rucchin has been a Duck his entire career and is one of the only players remaining on the original 1994 roster. His 20 goals and 38 assists during the regular season are a testament to the rewards of persistence and hard work. Niedermayer is one of those players who fans and analysts tend to overlook. Over the few years, he has played on some terrible teams and has been often overshadowed by his brother Scott, who has won two Stanley Cups with the New Jersey Devils. The Ducks were quite shrewd to acquire Niedermayer, who is both speedy and creative with the puck.
Anaheim also has some big-name scorers, notably Sykora, Steve Thomas, and Paul Kariya, but even more telling is the defense. Sandis Ozolinsh is one of the better offensive defensemen in the league and was a member of the juggernaut Avalanche teams of the late 90s. Keith Carney is both a veteran and a workhorse with an ability to play well on both ends of the ice. He played 81 games this season and hasn't finished with a negative plus/minus rating in over five years. Add to all this the fact that the younger no-name players have been outworking their opponents for every loose puck, and you get a team that can clearly contend.
To be fair to the analysts, no one could have predicted the one factor that put the Ducks over the top. It turns out that Jean-Sebastien Giguere was the hockey gods' pick to become this post-season's unbeatable goaltender. He has already thrice out-dueled Turco, who lead the NHL this season in goals against and save percentage. Giguere has also survived 10 periods of overtime without giving up a single goal and has robbed big guns like Mike Modano and Sergei Federov of sure goals multiple times.
It is too early to predict a Stanley Cup for Anaheim. The Ducks' luck could well disappear at any time, just as it has for the Red Wings, Avs, and Stars, but this is unlikely. It may just be that Anaheim has peaked at the right time, and if that's the case, the Canucks, Devils, and Senators should be shaking in their skates.