PLAYOFF SERIES: Western Conference finals; Game 1.
In the most improbable conference finals matchup in league history, Anaheim and Minnesota will meet for the right to play for the Stanley Cup starting Saturday in Game 1 at the Xcel Energy Center.
In a conference that featured powerhouse teams Detroit, Dallas, Colorado and Vancouver, a third-round meeting between sixth-seeded Minnesota and seventh-seeded Anaheim seemed next to impossible.
Proving again that regular-season records mean little in the playoffs, Anaheim disposed of Dallas and Detroit—the first and second seeds—while Minnesota took care of Colorado and Vancouver—the third and fourth seeds—to assure that at least one major underdog will take part in the Stanley Cup finals.
Both teams took different routes to reach this point.
Anaheim needed just 10 games to defeat the defending champion Red Wings and the top-seeded Stars while Minnesota went to Game 7 in each of its first two series. The Wild, in just their third season, are the first team in NHL history to rally from a 3-1 series deficit twice in the same postseason.
“When we started the playoffs we were thinking about doing a lot of stuff, but thinking and doing are two different things,” Wild center Sergei Zholtok said. “We’re doing them right now.”
There is no clear favorite in this series because both teams finished the regular season with 95 points. Minnesota captured the home-ice advantage with two more wins than Anaheim, 42-40.
Playing at home, however, hasn’t been much of an advantage for the Wild, who have lost four of six playoff games at the Xcel Energy Center while winning six of eight on the road, including both Game 7s.
The normally defensive-minded Wild outscored the Canucks 16-5 as they rallied for three straight wins.
“I really believe we have a better team than people give us credit for,” center Wes Walz said.
Though he was held without a point in the 4-2 Game 7 victory at Vancouver on Thursday, Minnesota’s Marian Gaborik has been the best forward in the playoffs. He leads the league with nine goals and 17 points.
Walz and Zholtok also have been producing for the Wild. Walz, a finalist for the Selke Trophy as the league’s best defensive forward, has seven goals and 13 points. Zholtok, who had 26 assists in 78 regular season games, already has 11 in 14 playoff contests.
Playing a disciplined style helped the Mighty Ducks get this far, and they would be wise to continue that against the Wild. Fifteen of Minnesota’s 42 postseason goals have come on the power play.
Maybe the most important area where Anaheim has an advantage is in net.
Goalie Jean-Sebastien Giguere has been the story of the playoffs thus far after holding Detroit’s potent lineup to just six goals in four games. Although he wasn’t as sharp against Dallas, yielding 14 goals in six games, including six overtime periods, Giguere’s .949 save percentage is the best of the starting playoff goalies.
Very rarely does a two-goalie system yield success in the playoffs, but Minnesota coach Jacques Lemaire has made it work for his team.
Dwayne Roloson figures to get the start for Game 1 after limiting Vancouver to five goals in the final three games of the semifinals. Lemaire would have no problem switching to Manny Fernandez should Roloson struggle. Of the two goalies, Fernandez has the better numbers with a 3-2 record, 2.22 goals-against average and .923 save percentage.
Most figured for the Ducks to advance far in the playoffs, star right wing Paul Kariya would have to lead the way. Kariya, however, hasn’t been much of a force offensively with three goals in 10 games, but he doesn’t mind.
“It’s all that we play for and all that I dream about is winning a Stanley Cup,” Kariya said. “You have to give yourself a chance at playoff hockey and succeed at that level. So if we keep playing the way we are, we are going to give ourselves a chance.”
A balanced attack has been instrumental in Anaheim’s surprising success. The Ducks have had 12 different players account for their 24 postseason goals.
Game 2 is Monday at the Xcel Energy Center.
HOW THEY GOT HERE: Mighty Ducks - 7th seed; beat Detroit Red Wings 4-0, quarterfinals; beat Dallas Stars 4-2, semifinals. Wild - 6th seed; beat Colorado Avalanche 4-3, quarterfinals; beat Vancouver Canucks 4-3, semifinals.
PLAYOFF TEAM LEADERS: Mighty Ducks - four with 3 goals; four with 4 assists; Steve Thomas, Kariya and Mike Leclerc, 6 points; Rob Niedermayer and Ruslan Salei, 12 PIM. Wild - Gaborik, 9 goals and 17 points; Zholtok, 11 assists; Filip Kuba, 22 PIM.
PLAYOFF SPECIAL TEAMS: Mighty Ducks - Power play: 9.8 percent (4 for 41). Penalty killing: 84.8 percent (28 for 33). Wild - Power play: 26.3 percent (15 for 57). Penalty killing: 80.8 percent (42 for 52).
GOALTENDERS: Mighty Ducks - Giguere (8-2, 1 SO, 1.60 GAA); Martin Gerber (0-0, 3.00). Wild - Roloson (5-4, 2.46); Fernandez (3-2, 2.22)
REGULAR SEASON SERIES: Mighty Ducks, 2-1-0-1. Giguere and Roloson were both excellent as the teams combined for just 10 goals in four meetings. Giguere was 2-2 with a 1.48 goals-against average while Roloson was 2-1 with an 0.98 GAA.