It's Duck season

Ross McKeon

ANAHEIM, Calif. – The season-opening road trip to London is in the rearview mirror. Championship rings have been awarded. The Stanley Cup banner was raised to the roof with all the appropriate pomp and circumstance afforded a first-time California champ.

Still uncertain are the status of two of the team's biggest stars – defenseman Scott Niedermayer and dynamic right wing Teemu Selanne. Both reside within a slapshot of the Honda Center, yet continue to ponder the temptation to retire on top. Those decisions could linger.

Rehabilitation from injuries and new bumps and bruises are an everyday problem, but general manager Brian Burke won't allow those to be excuses.

And no one is going to feel sorry for the Anaheim Ducks. They've got the big shiny trophy that everyone wants, and now they're a marked team.

"We've been patted on the back for 2½ to three months," coach Randy Carlyle said. "We had to get back to doing some of the things and recognizing that the process was much more difficult than the result."

Anaheim got some result in its last two games with grind-'em-out wins on home ice against Detroit and Nashville, two of the faster and more successful teams in the West. The Ducks are back to .500, and maybe, just maybe, with all the hoopla behind them, they can finally begin the quest to defend Lord Stanley's treasured hardware.

"There are no easy wins in the NHL," Carlyle said. "You've got to work extremely hard and you've got to get a few breaks along the way. But if you stick with the structure that's created, and out-work people, your chances of success go up greatly."

The Ducks aren't sure how much work it will take to repeat. It's an inexact science in this the post-lockout, salary-capped NHL. Past finalists have not set a very good example. The 2006 champ, Carolina, and runner-up, Edmonton, couldn't cope with the short offseason, and each missed the playoffs last spring.

Burke looked further back trying to find a common thread on how to successfully negotiate a balance between enjoying the fruits of labor and manufacturing the necessary passion to make another run at it. He concluded there is no formula, no magical path to follow that will ensure success.

"It's tough," right wing Rob Niedermayer said. "There are so many good teams and you know they're going to be coming after us so we've got to be ready and I think we're starting to understand that."

Anaheim blended size and speed to win the Cup last season. The emergence of young forwards Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry and the departed Dustin Penner took scoring pressure off Andy McDonald, Chris Kunitz and Selanne.

Jean-Sebastien Giguere returned to the form he displayed while winning the Conn Smythe Trophy even when Anaheim lost a Game 7 in the 2003 finals to New Jersey. Role players such as defensive-minded center Samuel Pahlsson, two-way forward Rob Niedermayer and the versatile Todd Marchant excelled. No one questioned the grit with Brad May, George Parros, Travis Moen and Sean O'Donnell.

Burke pulled off the trade that really shifted the balance in the West, if not the entire league, when he acquired Chris Pronger before the start of last season. Adding the disgruntled Oiler defenseman to the mix that already included Scott Niedermayer and underrated Francois Beauchemin gave his team a blueline for other general managers to crave.

Now, a number of those pieces are missing. Two big-name offseason acquisitions intended to at least temporarily replace Scott Niedermayer and Selanne – skilled defenseman Mathieu Schneider and rugged forward Todd Bertuzzi – are out with injuries. Giguere appeared Wednesday for only the second time after late offseason hernia surgery and Marchant has missed the last two games with a bruised ankle.

During Wednesday night's 3-1 win over Nashville, rookies Petteri Wirtanen and Drew Miller scored their first career goals. As adversity comes calling, new heroes emerge.

"We made a few changes in the summer. We have a few guys who are new to the lineup," Rob Niedermayer said. "You want to get to where everyone knows their role around here and we're starting to feel confident with what we're doing."

Yes, it's starting to feel like a regular hockey season again for the Ducks.

"It took a little while because of all of the stuff we had going," Giguere said. "Usually when you win the Cup the first game is when you raise the banner. It was a little bit distracting, but I think we made the best of it and at the same time we also enjoyed it because it doesn't happen every year."

Carlyle, who as a player was one of the last in the NHL to perform without wearing a helmet, still has his head in the right place. He won't let the Ducks get ahead of themselves.

"They've been taxed in certain situations as far as early-season scheduling, traveling … so I'm apt to cut them a few breaks," he said. "We're only nine games into the season and no coach is going to say he's happy with his hockey club. I'm happy with some aspects of it, and we've shown some improvement. But we can still ramp it up and we have the ability to play to a higher level than we've played."