Ducks re-emerge as Cup contenders

ANAHEIM, Calif. – Looking tan and relaxed, Teemu Selanne took time to sign autographs for a group of youngsters visiting practice Wednesday morning. He took extra time to keep his Kodak smile affixed as a parent snapped a picture of the group.

Making a kid's day was part of the morning routine. At night, he made it for the rest of his team. Selanne scored a goal, put a team-high six shots on goal on a night when Anaheim produced only 16 others, but it was all enough to put another 'W' on the board.

The numbers don't lie. The Ducks have won seven of eight since Selanne rejoined the lineup after Wednesday night's 3-2 shootout win over the Colorado Avalanche.

Just 15-15-4 by mid-December, Anaheim is 19-8-3 since defenseman Scott Niedermayer has returned. Add it all up and the Stanley Cup champs have that swagger back, and while there are no guarantees, the Ducks certainly look poised to defend the big silver trophy.

"There's a lot of hard work, but we're on the right track," Selanne said.

It hasn't always been that way this season. The Ducks found out what other recent Cup finalists – Tampa Bay, Calgary, Edmonton and Carolina – experienced. There's no automatic entry into the following postseason. It's not easy coming down from one season and to gear up for another with less than three months of an offseason.

On top of that, the Ducks were committed to a season-opening pair of games in London, which meant pushing training camp and all other events designed to get ready for the current season up 10 days.

Selanne and Niedermayer, who combined for 2,094 games and 29 NHL seasons before this season, weren't ready mentally or physically for the grind. Niedermayer was suspended while he decided if he'd honor the final two years of his contract while Selanne pondered retirement as an unsigned free agent.

"It was such an unbelievable feeling for everyone, winning the Cup," said Selanne, who logged in 20:13 of ice time against the Avalanche. "I can't imagine how the guys felt because I was so empty. I felt for a long time I was done."

The fact Selanne was 37, and finally on top of the hockey world when it looked like he'd always finish a bridesmaid certainly had an effect. His wife was pregnant with the couple's fourth child, which she delivered in December.

But when Niedermayer made the decision to play again, that, too, had an affect on the Finnish Flash.

"It was really good to see Scotty come back, that really gave me a boost," said Selanne, who became the Anaheim franchise leader in points with 670 in his 563rd game as a Duck on Sunday.

Anaheim had slipped to .500 by mid-December with losses on four of seven and two of its last three before Niedermayer stepped back onto the ice on Dec. 16. The Ducks lost in a shootout that night, but ripped off four straight wins thereafter.

By the time Selanne made up his mind to return and the Ducks decided to sign him on Jan. 28, Anaheim was slipping a bit, especially in terms of goal-scoring. The Ducks were 0-5-1 before Selanne's first game, outscored 18-5 in the process with two shutout losses preceded by three straight games in which they scored one goal in each.

The timing couldn't have been better, too, considering Anaheim was three games into a franchise-high eight-game trip. Selanne's return sparked a sweep of the final five games.

"It's been good timing," Selanne said with a sly grin.

If Anaheim's Achilles Heel is goal-scoring, re-inserting Selanne to the mix is at least helping. The Ducks scored three or more goals in half of their eight games with Selanne where as scoring three or more goals just 22 of 56 (39 percent) times before he returned.

"I always say little things can make a huge difference," said Selanne, who will earn a $1.2 million bonus when he appears in two more games on the pro-rated $570,000 base salary he's earning. "This game is about confidence and feeling good about yourself. This team has it."

Anaheim has it now, which is why the Ducks are back in the conversation about winning another Cup.

"There was uncertainty whether (Selanne and Niedermayer) were coming back or not and when you have that in the back of your mind all the time, we were wondering what was going to happen, how our team was going to look, stuff like that," defenseman Joe DiPenta said.

As it turns out, DiPenta had the most to lose with Niedermayer's return. He appeared in 20 games before Dec. 16 and has suited up just twice in the 30 games since Niedermayer returned. While he's not thrilled about sitting, he understands and knows the team is better today than it was the first two months of the season.

"Good players make other players better," DiPenta said. "Putting them in the lineup gives everyone more room out there.

"They add a lot of chemistry, especially on our team. I don't know if they were on another team there would be the same kind of chemistry," he added. "Having them back again it's just calmed everyone down. We're a better group of guys together, that's for sure."