The Western Conference standings probably will change on a daily basis until the end of the season, but the standings through Thursday's games dictated a potential first-round playoff matchup between the Ducks, who lead the Pacific division, and the Minnesota Wild, which holds the first wild-card spot. That added a bit of intrigue to their game Friday at Xcel Energy Center, a contest that comes at an interesting time for both teams.
The Ducks (42-20-7) have lost three straight games in regulation for the first time this season and have been very inconsistent. The Wild (37-23-7) has been one of the NHL's top teams since the All-Star break, with a record of 17-3-1.
"This is a team that we thought we'd have to go through eventually if you want to get to the finals, whether it's the first round, second or whatever," Ducks center Ryan Getzlaf said after the teams went through their respective morning skates.
"It's a good matchup for us tonight, a good test. They were playing well at the start of the year. They had a couple tough patches but they're playing as good as anybody in the league right now. We expect them to be there in the playoffs."
Zach Parise, who leads Minnesota with 26 goals and 52 points, said the Wild is approaching this as a measuring-stick kind of game, especially because it begins a stretch of five straight games against teams that are holding playoff positions.
"It will be good to see where we are at. We've played some teams that aren't in the playoffs, so it will be good to see where we're at compared to these guys," Parise said. "They've had a pretty good hold on their division lead. They've been a pretty good team all season, so it starts with these guys and it will be a good challenge."
The Ducks on Friday will regain 21-goal-scorer Matt Beleskey, who missed 12 games because of a shoulder injury, and his return is expected to lead to Patrick Maroon being scratched. Beleskey skated alongside Getzlaf and Corey Perry in the morning skate.
"'Skee' has obviously been pretty good throughout this whole season and found an ability to put the puck in the net when he's given the opportunity," Getzlaf said, using Beleskey's nickname. "We look forward to that. We don't expect him to come out and turn the team around, by any means. He's been off for a while. We just want him to get out there and play games again. Hopefully he can contribute a little bit."
The Ducks won the teams' first two games this season and have won the teams' last five games in St. Paul. Minnesota Coach Mike Yeo said that while results of regular-season games against a playoff opponent might not matter much, those games are useful in determining matchups and trends.
"Certainly you look at different aspects of your game, things that were successful, things that weren't and areas that you were strong and areas that you were weak against that particular team," he said. "There's things that you see through the course of the season…you can use those things in preparation but I also do think that once the playoffs start a lot of that stuff is out the window."
The Ducks, he said, have been "one of the powerhouses in the league for quite some time. From top to bottom, the skill they have in their lineup, it's obviously going to be a real good test tonight."
One last note: Ducks Coach Bruce Boudreau had an interesting reply when asked about the difficulty of pushing into a playoff spot late in the season and how happy he is that his team built up a lot of points early in the season.
"We're glad we got out to the lead. It's been the only thing that's saving us from the mediocrity that we've been going through for the last month," said Boudreau, whose team is 10-10-1 since Jan. 29. "I'm glad that we did it but I'd like to get back to the consistency of being 8-2 in a 10-game stretch and stuff that we were earlier, 7-3, those kinds of numbers."