Who's the favorite? The roles have changed out West

DETROIT -- This is the hockey witching hour.

The moments before a playoff series begins, when teams are dissected and probed and prodded from beyond the dressing room walls, those teams do their best to gird themselves against all of the words and voices that swirl around.

Teams see themselves as they want to be seen, not how others seem them, and do whatever it takes to maintain that illusion.

But, on the even of the conference finals, as much as the Detroit Red Wings and Anaheim Ducks insist there are no favorites, these teams have, in many ways, taken on the personae of the other.

Since 1997, when the Red Wings surprised many by winning their first Stanley Cup in 42 years, they have been expected to win every playoff round they've played. They delivered on those expectations in 1998 and 2002 with Stanley Cup championships.

Since then, the Red Wings have become just another team in the playoff mix.

Since then, there has been a string of playoff disappointment with just two playoff series wins since 2002 and a sweep at the hands of this Ducks team in 2003. The luster became more and more faded until, finally, this spring, the Red Wings were just another team in the playoff mix.

"I think right from the beginning of the season I think we were pegged to be the team that maybe got into the sixth spot and didn't do much damage and wouldn't do anything in the playoffs," admitted Detroit forward Kirk Maltby, who has been on hand for all the Cup wins -- and all the more recent disappointments.

On the other hand, the Ducks have suddenly become the darlings of the NHL. And with good reason.

Last season, they surged into the playoffs and upended Calgary and Colorado before bowing to Edmonton in the Western Conference finals. After acquiring Chris Pronger in the offseason, the Ducks were immediately forced to shed the comfortable cloak of the Cinderella Ducks and don the uncomfortable mantel of "Ducks, Stanley Cup favorites."

Pronger has an interesting perspective on these proceedings, having played in Edmonton last spring when very few expected the Oilers to win anything, let alone go to the Stanley Cup finals. Now, he finds himself as one of the go-to guys on a team that has a lot more to answer for.

Surely there are distinct differences between the two experiences. Well, aren't there?

"Actually, not much," Pronger said with a grin, always happy to put a hole in a reporter's hypothesis. "You know, I think the biggest thing to compare the two from last year to this year is that we believe we should win. You don't worry about what the media writes, what fans are thinking or what anybody outside of that locker room is thinking. It's what you believe in that locker room, what you believe you can accomplish."

Thus far, being a favorite hasn't hurt the Ducks as they've waxed Minnesota and Vancouver in respective 4-1 series wins. They've allowed only 17 goals in 10 games.
But those victories came against offensively challenged teams best described as "popgun."

The suddenly "underdog" Wings? A different story altogether.

"You know, pressure's an interesting thing," Detroit coach Mike Babcock said. "You can accept pressure or you can apply it. You can put it on the other team. The bottom line is that's not the case at this time of year. It's just about playing the game.

"We weren't a favorite against Calgary, we weren't a favorite against San Jose and we're not a favorite now. I don't know if that has any effect on the outcome of the series. The bottom line is, they have a good team we've got a good team. Let's play."

Fair enough.

But mentally speaking, teams have to start somewhere at the beginning of a series.

Early in the playoffs, there is more a sense of, "What the heck. Anyone can win it." As the playoffs move along, the better teams almost always move on because the very nature of the playoffs prevents teams from stealing their way from one series to the next.

"I think it doesn't really matter what the people say," Detroit netminder Dominik Hasek said. "If you are an underdog, you take it as a motivation. If you are a favorite, you want to win anyways.

"In the first round, we were probably favorites. In the second round, we were, I don't know, underdogs maybe. But if we are underdog, we take it as a motivation," he added. "Both rounds were tougher for us than for Anaheim. They are maybe more rested, but we had four days off and we feel pretty comfortable."

So, even though the Red Wings open this series with home-ice advantage, the Ducks will have to answer for any shortcomings in a way the Red Wings might not -- at least externally.

Internally? Maybe not.

"Well, you know, we don't really take what other people have to say about us seriously. We leave that to the experts. There's lot of them around," Ducks coach Randy Carlyle said late Thursday afternoon. "What we try to do is hold ourselves accountable to one another. We have a certain standard we have to play to have success. Our players understand that. They're at the forefront of it.

"All the things we do are based upon what is best for our team. Our players have been excellent at providing us with the desired effort, the desired commitment and the leadership that they've displayed."

Still, we can't help but believe there's a little bit of a trap being laid here. The Wings, considered old when they lose and savvy veterans when they win, are not really supposed to be here. And yet, they are slyly confident.

"I just think that expectations from within in Detroit are as high as they've ever been [regardless of what the outside perspective might be]," offered former Pittsburgh Penguins coach Ed Olczyk, now a national broadcast analyst.

"There's no doubt in my mind, for most of this season, these are the two best teams [in the conference]," Olczyk said.

... in the end. As it should be.

Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com