- George Johnson, NHL
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Gotta admit, there's something ingratiating about those Ducks. Something fun and fresh and improbable that actually fits into this My NHL propaganda the suits on Fifth Avenue have been spewing since the game emerged from the dark abyss of its yearlong civil war.
In a springtime chock full of feel-good stories -- the four top seeds in the West reduced to good-looking corpses shipped to the playoff morgue in the first round, the upstart Oilers pushing San Jose to the brink, the no-name Buffalo Sabres, Jonathan Cheechoo, Ryan Miller, the resurrection of Dwayne Roloson, the continuing saga of the best-team-that-nobody-has-a-clue-about, the Carolina Hurricanes -- the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim just might be the best.
They rallied from a 3-2 deficit to send the Calgary Flames packing, a welcome victory for speed and skill over tenacity and dour, and then laid waste to the Joe Sakic-led Colorado Avalanche in four straight. So they sit at home healing up, waiting for the Oilers and Sharks to pummel each other into a frazzle.
But their attraction goes deeper than just advancing to the conference finals.
So what exactly is there to like about the Ducks? Why should the fence sitters out there consider adopting them instead of other worthy candidates still standing in these topsy-turvy playoffs?
• Teemu Selanne's smile, for starters. Amazing what a reconstructed knee can do for a fella. Apparently washed up, slowed to a crawl and contemplating retirement, the one-time Finnish Flash looked a shell of his former self while trying to resurrect the glory days alongside Paul Kariya in Denver two years ago.
The lockout year off gave him time to rehab, the air in Anaheim obviously suits the man better than anywhere, and he responded with a Comeback-Player-of-the-Year-quality regular season. And it's only gotten sweeter come playoff time.
For those of you out there who figured he was all style and no substance, for shame. What has made the Ducks so difficult to handle is that they're skill players; Selanne, Andy McDonald, Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry, et al, compete as hard as anyone.
• After years of being made fun of, of having people joke about Disney and Emilio Estevez and that whole movie tie-in, just when they are poised to eliminate Mighty from their name, as well as change logo and color scheme under the new ownership of O.C. billionaire Henry Samueli and his wife Susan, we've kind of gotten used to the whole Mighty Ducks thing. Now, it actually seems kind of quaint, not cheesy. This is a nice send-off for the old bird.
• Ilya Bryzgalov's rise to prominence. What's a playoff without an out-of-the-bullpen success story in goal? And Bryzy sure fits the bill this spring. He's cool. Rat Pack cool. He's fun. He's completely off-kilter. Hell, he's a goaltender who talks on game days. How whacked-out is that? He tied an NHL rookie record dating back to Frank McCool of the Leafs in 1945 by registering three straight playoff shutouts. Heading into the Western Conference final, Bryzy is 6-1 with a 0.87 goals-against average and .967 save percentage.
And here's the kicker: The guy honestly doesn't even seem to care about the significance of what he's accomplishing here! "He can do jumping jacks in the nude before games as long as he plays that way,'' joked the fractious Joffrey Lupul following the Game 7 blanking in Calgary. Surely, Bryzgalov hasn't entertained his buddies with that sort of Full Monty? Lupul grinned. "Not yet.''
• As a color, eggplant is very "in."
• The chutzpah to deal away veterans. In a league notoriously shy on risk taking, general manager Brian Burke dumped salary in the form of veterans Sergei Fedorov (to Columbus), Keith Carney (to Vancouver) and Petr Sykora and Sandis Ozolinsh (to the Rangers), while the Ducks were still fighting what seemed to be a losing battle to make the playoffs. Financially, the moves made sense, competitively somewhat less so. Just goes to show, doesn't it?
Well, Columbus and Vancouver never made the postseason in the first place and the Rangers are now but a distant memory, while the Ducks continue to soldier on. Making the Fedorov deal a complete steal (Anaheim shed $6.08 million in salary through 2007-08) was the addition of defenseman Francois Beauchemin. Beauchemin not only outplayed Calder Trophy finalist Dion Phaneuf in the first round, but his dust-up with Calgary captain Jarome Iginla (who he dropped with a surprise left to open the bout) early in Game 6 at the Arrowhead Pond was also cited as a turning point by all the Ducks in their dismissal of the 2004 finalists. Beauchemin is tough, dependable in his own end and has a .32 magnum for a shot. A star in the making.
• The elegance of Scott Niedermayer. Don't think Lou Lamoriello is kicking himself for not pushing harder to get his No. 1 defenseman re-signed? In a game so often determined by sheer brute force, measured in stitches and scar tissue, this is someone who bucks the trend. He is, at 32, still a Nureyev in a barn-dance hoedown, a welcome balm for tired eyes.
• An abundance of youth. Up front, Getzlaf and Perry are 21, Lupul 22, the towering Dustin Penner 23, Chris Kunitz 26, and Sammy Pahlsson and Andy McDonald, both 28. Waiting in the wings are keepers such as 6-foot-1, 225-pound right winger Bobby Ryan, the No. 2 overall selection in 2005 who piled up 95 points in 59 starts for the OHL's Owen Sound this season. And, say, isn't that Anaheim's top affiliate, the Portland Pirates, in the AHL conference finals? These guys are going to be good. For a long time.
• Despite giving away a few years to some of his contemporaries, we're betting a fiver that Anaheim's GM could pound the living daylights out of your GM.
George Johnson of the Calgary Herald is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.