First-round breakdown: Mighty Ducks vs. Flames
The Mighty Ducks, who spent most of the first half of the season masquerading as the Pretty Average Ducks, will be the sexy pick for many looking for first-round upsets. To be fair, if the Ducks prevail in this opening round, it hardly would be considered an upset given that Anaheim went 15-7 from March 7 through its 4-3 win Monday over Calgary.
Teemu Selanne, an afterthought of a free agent last fall, returned for his second stint in Anaheim (this time on two good knees) and wound up recapturing his youth with 40 goals, 90 points and a sparkling plus-28. Meanwhile, netminder Jean-Sebastien Giguere recaptured some of the magic that seemed to have dissipated after the Ducks' surprising run to the 2003 finals and gives the team much-needed playoff experience to balance the youthful enthusiasm of rookies Chris Kunitz, Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry.
"They're another well-coached team," an NHL scout told ESPN.com. They have raw rookies, "but they're good raw kids."
The Ducks and Flames split the regular season series, each winning twice at home. Over in the shadow of the Rockies, the Flames simply have trotted out their blueprint from 2003-04, gutting out wins with tight-checking, timely scoring and all-world goaltending from Hart and Vezina hopeful Miikka Kiprusoff. Their ability to keep pace with a deep offensive Ducks squad will be one of the keys to the series. The Flames' 218 goals are by far the fewest of the 16 playoff teams.
Of course, back in 2004, when the Flames went to a seventh game of the Stanley Cup finals, they were likewise one of the lowest-scoring teams in the playoffs. They will enter this postseason with the kind of confidence you can only get from having been there.
Why the Flames will win: It may take seven games, but the Flames will prove the old adage that you have to lose before you can win. The Ducks might have more razzle-dazzle with Selanne, Scott Niedermayer and the kids, but the Flames have a battle-tested crew that knows the ins and outs of the meandering Stanley Cup path.
The Flames had the fewest home losses in the NHL, while the Ducks were just .500 on the road. The Flames' home-ice advantage will be crucial in what will amount to a battle of attrition. Both teams' power plays were virtually identical in terms of efficiency, which is a bonus for Calgary, given they don't boast the same firepower up front.
Calgary's penalty-killing unit is superior, no surprise since they will have a significant edge in goal with Kiprusoff, who was tied for the league lead in wins with 42 and fourth with a .923 save percentage. That latter number is even more impressive given the Finnish workhorse played in 74 games, 39 games more than the leader in the category, Cristobal Huet of Montreal.
Both teams will rely heavily on youngsters to make a difference, but after watching rookie defender Dion Phaneuf play for about five minutes, you assume he's been in the NHL for a decade or more. Throw in Robyn Regehr, Jordan Leopold, Andrew Ference and Roman Hamrlik, and you have a defensive cast as good as any team in the league.
"I'm not in love with their team speed," said one NHL scout. "I am in love with their goaltending and their work ethic."
Why the Ducks will lose: GM Brian Burke has done virtually the impossible in Anaheim, remaking his new team on the fly, while making up significant ground in the standings. Gone are aging, expensive stars Petr Sykora, Sergei Fedorov, Steve Rucchin, Keith Carney and Sandis Ozolinsh. In are a core of young players such as Getzlaf, Perry, Joffrey Lupul, Chris Kunitz and Andy McDonald (Selanne's linemate who leads the team with seven game-winning goals).
True, Giguere has rekindled that warm, fuzzy feeling from 2004, but he simply can't match Kiprusoff, especially in a long series. Beyond Niedermayer, who is having a Norris Trophy worthy season, the Ducks' defense is largely untested when it comes to the playoffs and will be targeted by a vigorous Calgary forecheck.
And what of those youngsters who will be facing their first NHL playoff experience in a hockey-mad city such as Calgary? Even coaches have to learn, too, which means crusty Randy Carlyle will start behind the 8-ball against Darryl Sutter. All in all, too much too soon for a group that promises to be around for a long, long time.
Prediction: Calgary in seven.
Scott Burnside is an NHL writer for ESPN.com.
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NHL Playoffs: First Round
The matchups are set and the puck drops Friday. We're ready for the NHL playoffs, and Scott Burnside takes a look at each first-round series.
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• Canadiens vs. Hurricanes
• Rangers vs. Devils
• Flyers vs. Sabres