SAN JOSE, Calif. – With the puck headed to the front of his net and a menacing Shark ready to pounce for a tying goal, Scott Niedermayer extended his stick to full reach.
Not only poking the puck out of harm's way, Niedermayer sprung teammate Todd Marchant on a rush that ended with Bobby Ryan scoring late in the second period, a goal that was insurance in Anaheim's 2-0 win over Pacific Division rival San Jose Tuesday night.
So subtle was Niedermayer's play that he wasn't awarded his first point of the season until official scorers reviewed the goal at the second intermission.
Welcome back, Scott Niedermayer, oh how the Ducks missed you.
The thought of retirement popped into Niedermayer's mind at midseason last year when he envisioned Anaheim having a legitimate shot at winning the Stanley Cup and, if realized, he determined it would be a good time to skate off into the sunset at the ripe young age of 33.
"I'm sure everyone feels they have a chance, everybody knows how hard it is, and everybody knows how slim that chance might be," said Niedermayer, who blocked five shots during his 21:57 of ice time Tuesday. "I thought if we were able to do that it just feels right."
Niedermayer was an integral cog in Anaheim's charge to the franchise's first championship. The Conn Smythe Trophy winner as playoff MVP, Niedermayer not only scored three goals and 11 points in the 21 playoff games, but was able to share the celebration – his fourth time capturing hockey's ultimate prize – with younger brother, Rob Niedermayer. It was the first time the two had played together since their teen years.
The siblings, each with a hand hoisting the Cup, are displayed on the cover of this year's league guide and record book. A picture-perfect ending to a dream career.
Or so it seemed.
"When you're out you start to miss the little things," said Niedermayer, a Norris Trophy runner-up the last two years after winning in 2004. "Gradually, with a little more time, as I watched more games on TV, it changed.
"As well, the organization kept the door open even though it probably caused too many questions to be asked of the guys on the team. It wasn't exactly the perfect situation. I appreciate now that it's come to this. Without that it wouldn't have happened."
Anaheim general manager Brian Burke, who was willing to let Niedermayer work through his decision, still had a big hole to fill on the roster. He just didn't know if it was a short- or long-term fix he needed to find.
One thing to know about Burke, a savvy executive with degrees from Providence College and Harvard University: He doesn’t go halfway. His college hockey coach was Lou Lamoriello. He worked under commissioner Gary Bettman while in charge of league discipline between front-office jobs in Hartford and Vancouver. He's been around the game a long time and seen it from many angles.
So when he saw an opportunity to grab one of the few elite defensemen from the unrestricted free-agent lot in early summer, Burke pounced on Mathieu Schneider, luring the American-born rearguard from Detroit, the team the Ducks beat to win the West.
Schneider didn't come cheap. The 38-year-old veteran of more than 1,100 career games commanded an $11.25-million deal for two seasons. On one hand, Burke did the best he could to replace one of the game's best defensemen. Yet, on the other, he boxed himself into a corner in terms of the salary cap, with no room to grow the payroll if the 6-foot, 200-pound native of Edmonton decided to return.
That's what happened when earlier this month Niedermayer announced his intentions to come back. He skated while Burke worked the phones. Not only did the GM trade away enough money – forward Andy McDonald and his $10-million, three-year deal – but he got veteran center Doug Weight in return from St. Louis, and room under the cap's ceiling to slip Niedermayer back into the lineup.
Now the Ducks feature what amounts to an All-Star quartet on defense with captain Chris Pronger, underrated Francois Beauchemin, Schneider and Niedermayer in their top-four. That doesn't mention much-improved Kent Huskins along with veteran depth support in Sean O'Donnell, Joe DiPenta and Shane Hnidy.
"That's an incredible defense. It's easily the best defense in the league," San Jose Sharks coach Ron Wilson said.
"I think excited would be an understatement," Anaheim's Randy Carlyle said when asked if he was excited to be coaching that kind of talent on the blueline.
Niedermayer is certainly used to playing with talented blueliners. While winning three Cups during his 12 full seasons in New Jersey – including in 2003 over Anaheim, coincidentally – Niedermayer played with the likes of Scott Stevens, Ken Daneyko, Vladimir Malakhov, Brian Rafalski, Tommy Albelin, Colin White and Bruce Driver on defense.
"I've been lucky to play in a lot of good situations," said Niedermayer, drafted third overall by the Devils in 1991. "I don't get too into comparing them, but I've always been fortunate to be in good situations with good teammates.”
Both Wilson and Carlyle are former NHL defensemen. They know the value of the last line of defense and how it can make up for other areas. Wilson shrugged his shoulders and said teams will just have to work harder against Anaheim because a good defense just got better.
"You know when you step on the ice you're never going to catch a third pair, you'll catch an All-Star with somebody," Wilson said of playing the Ducks. "It doesn't matter who they put out there, you just have to try harder. You can't go into a game thinking their defense is unbeatable."
"We do have a good group back there and hopefully we can translate it into some good hockey and some winning hockey," Niedermayer said.
Carlyle agrees, but remains cautious. He's seen it: return a missing piece to the lineup and everyone breathes a sigh of relief. Carlyle has warned the group, too, not to expect Niedermayer to carry the load, that everyone is still required to give all they've got every game.
"It's pro sports, we have to prove it. We have to live it, we can't just throw it out there and say it's going to happen," Carlyle said. "It has to be work, it has to be a commitment, we're going to have to display the hardest work we've shown all season."
Niedermayer says he doesn't have any expectations for himself other than working hard and trying to help his teammates win.
"Stepping in like this is a challenge, but it can't be an excuse," he said. "I brought that on myself and I have to deal with it."
Niedermayer, who chose Anaheim over San Jose or re-signing with the Devils after the lockout, has next year remaining on his four-year deal. Now 34, he's not making any promises beyond this season.
"Obviously, I was a little off the mark a few months ago so for me to predict what will happen now is difficult," Niedermayer said. "I'm not going to think too much about what might happen in the future."