<
>

Ducks have skill, speed ... and Scott Niedermayer

Some people wish they could sing like Sinatra. Or crush a drive off the first tee like Tiger. Or whip up a classic cut out of a bolt of cloth like Armani.

"A lot of guys in our business," said Jeff Friesen, who spent two seasons as a teammate in New Jersey before reuniting in Anaheim, "wish they could skate like Scott Niedermayer.

"I've seen tape of Bobby Orr, and watching Scott gives you the same kind of sensation.

"It's eerie. He … floats. I don't know how else to describe it. It's as if he's on a magic carpet or something."

Unlike Paul Coffey, there's no sense of the ground speed when Niedermayer starts leaving pursuers sputtering in his vapor trail. Coffey looked fast. Niedermayer just is.

In a league where ticket prices have gone through the ceiling, this is someone you'd gladly pay to watch practice his craft.

"What word can you use to describe a player who goes out and plays every situation night in, night out, has the ability to elevate his play in big games, does all the things necessary to provide you with leadership?" Mighty Ducks coach Randy Carlyle asked. "He's a superstar. I get to see a lot of it. When you're around him every day, it never ceases to amaze you the things he's able to accomplish. And he accomplishes them effortlessly."

Actually, not so effortlessly. Every shift Niedermayer takes, Jarome Iginla, Calgary's Captain Fantastic, is there. Hurrying him. Burying him. It's a physical matchup Flames coach Darryl Sutter is keen to continue.

"A series isn't decided in one or two games," lectured Iginla. "It's over the long haul. Everything you do, the hits you give and take, all the contact, it adds up. On both sides.

"You see who can take it and who can't. The idea is to break your opponent."

Mentally. Physically. Emotionally.

The idea is to pound Scott Niedermayer into a greasy sweat spot on the ice by Game 6 or 7.

"He's obviously the key to what they do, to their skating game, to their transition game," Iginla said. "We're just trying to finish every check on him, wear him down, make it tough on him. Obviously, we need to do a better job of that."

Under duress, Niedermayer has delivered, as usual. Folks in Jersey could've told you. He's always skated with wings on his feet and a target on his back. Better teams than Calgary have failed to stop him.

Teemu Selanne had gone goal-less until Game 4, sidekick Andy McDonald pointless. Goaltender Jean-Sebastien Giguere, nursing a "lower-body injury" and a scratch for Game 1, has been anything but convincing since re-entering the fray.

Yet the Mighty Ducks are tied at 2 with the Calgary Flames -- the 2004 Western Conference champeens and many people's pick to emerge from the Western Conference this spring -- in their quarterfinal series, which now switches back to the Pengrowth Saddledome.

All those smug Western Canadians who considered this a foregone conclusion, think again. As Sutter pointed out pre-Game 1, there isn't much to choose between the two sides. Five points during the regular season, during which the teams split their four games. Two games have gone into overtime. Three were decided by a goal.

Certainly, the Flames enter the arena loaded with experience in hothouse situations, that ferocity of spirit and the stone wall that is Miikka Kiprusoff.

But the Ducks have speed. The Ducks have skill. The Ducks have youthful enthusiasm. And the Ducks have Niedermayer.

As an unrestricted free agent after celebrating three Stanley Cups with the Devils, he sat tight and listened to offers. The reigning Norris Trophy winner was the gem of the summer jewelry box. The Vancouver Canucks unwisely chose not to afford him and the Flames, with Iginla and Kiprusoff on the books, simply couldn't. When he signed on in Anaheim for $27 million over four years, a lot of analysts were stumped as to why. The money would've been the same anywhere else.

Sure, his brother Rob played there. Weather is always a consideration. And Newport Beach was only a 20-minute haul away. But 32-year-olds usually make a beeline for contending teams, and the Ducklings were looking to rebuild under incoming general manager Brian Burke after having missed the playoffs in 2003-04. Burke off-loaded veterans (and veteran contracts), such as Sergei Fedorov, Sandis Ozolinsh, Petr Sykora and Keith Carney, during the season in an effort to remake Anaheim's hockey horizon.

"If winning was the only consideration," Niedermayer said, "I'd have stayed in New Jersey.

"Playing here with Rob has been great. It's special to be playing at this time of the year with him. But what I really needed was a new challenge, a fresh environment. New team. New city. New expectations. It's been fun. Refreshing. They're trying to change the hockey culture here and that's neat to be a part of.

"We're building something, the same way we did in New Jersey. We've got a pretty young group here but we've already come a long ways. But hey, it's still very early in the playoffs. There's still a long way to go, a lot of work to be done. That's a great team over there. They came within a game of winning two years ago for a lot of pretty good reasons."

And Niedermayer was part of those championship teams in Jersey for a lot of reasons, too.

During the regular season (a personal best 50 assists and 63 points, averaging 25:30 in ice time) and now in the postseason, when the intensity level gets ratcheted up, he's been everything the Ducks had hoped for. His speed and ability to bail teammates out has enabled the Ducks to groom rookie Ryan Getzlaf on the point during power plays, for starters.

Niedermayer also took on the captaincy.

In Game 2, his frisking of an unsuspecting Matthew Lombardi near the Anaheim blue line and breakaway deke of Kiprusoff powered the Ducks to a series-tying win in Calgary.

He's putting in over 30 minutes on the ice each game.

"The difference between the top-level player and the bottom is a lot closer than it used to be," Friesen said. "Between, say Kariya, and the bottom guy 12 years ago. Huge gap. The differential has shrunk dramatically. But this guy … this guy is still that much better than anybody else.

"He's so calm, so unruffled, makes it look so easy. His competitiveness is something that gets overlooked, in my opinion. Maybe he isn't out there showboating or making a big fuss, but very quietly he goes out and competes.

"Nobody wants to win more than him."

Nobody is more accustomed to winning than him. And winning is something the Mighty Ducks are two games away from doing.

"We just want to keep going," Niedermayer said.

Keep that magic carpet up in the air, floating at warp speed.

George Johnson of the Calgary Herald is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.