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Juggling Lines Is a Playoff Primer

Times Staff Writer

Playoff speculation, not vacation preparation, was the topic of conversation around Disney Ice on Tuesday. The Mighty Ducks secured their first playoff berth since 1999 and have begun casting an eye to the first round.

Coach Mike Babcock will do some minor tinkering with line combinations in the last four regular-season games.

He will juggle the players on his top two lines, Paul Kariya-Steve Rucchin-Mike Leclerc and Rob Niedermayer-Adam Oates-Petr Sykora. He has been moving Kariya and Niedermayer between the two lines but will now mix and match all of them.

“When you play a team time and time again in the playoffs, one matchup can overtake another matchup,” Babcock said. “This allows you to go back and forth, whatever the game dictates.”

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Linking Kariya, Oates and Sykora has already helped, as the offense those three provided carried the Ducks through January and February. The Niedermayer-Rucchin-Leclerc grouping gives the Ducks a big line capable of shutting down an opponent’s scoring line.

“The playoffs is the time when you find out whether you are mentally tough enough and physically up to the challenge,” Babcock said. “You don’t go in and find out after two [playoff games] that ‘Geez, this is a higher level than I expected.’ ”

The Ducks can benefit from experience in that area, as Sykora, Sandis Ozolinsh and Fredrick Olausson all have been on teams that won the Stanley Cup. Oates and Niedermayer have played on teams that reached the final.

“We added quite a few guys that way,” Babcock said. “We should be able to prepare in discussion a little better. And yet, there is nothing like living it.”

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The Ducks are 23-12-3-2 since Jan. 1, ranking them among the NHL’s best teams during that time. Through Monday’s games, only New Jersey and Philadelphia had earned more points, each with 52. The Ducks, Ottawa and Colorado each had 51.

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Duck defenseman Ruslan Salei, who has sat out 10 games because of a bulging disk, skated on his own after practice Tuesday.

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The Ducks have today and Thursday off, but Salei will work out and may practice with the team Friday. General Manager Bryan Murray said there was hope Salei could play Sunday against Vancouver.

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Al Coates has agreed to become vice president of business operations for the Ducks. Coates will join the franchise as soon as his obligations with the New York Rangers are completed. He is vice president for Hartford, the Rangers’ minor league franchise.

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Against the Field

*--* If the NHL playoffs were to start today, the Mighty Ducks would be seeded sixth and paired in the opening round against Vancouver, a team the Ducks lost to, 7-3, and tied twice. They play again Sunday at the Pond. A look at how the Western Conference is currently seeded, with team records and the Ducks’ record against each playoff-bound team: 1. Detroit 45-19- 9-3 1-2-0-1 2. Dallas 42-17-15-3 1-2-1-0 3. Vancouver 43-21-12-1 0-1-2-0 4. Colorado 37-18-13-8 3-0-0-0 5. St. Louis 39-21- 9-6 3-0-0-1 7. Minnesota 39-26-10-1 2-1-0-1 8. Edmonton 34-25- 8-9 0-4-0-0

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