The San Jose Sharks inspired pity after they were sent home by the Ducks and added another stinker to a string of playoff failures.
The Detroit Red Wings inspired admiration for overcoming sometimes-shaky goaltending to win the revived Central Division and earn the No. 2 seeding in the West.
The Sharks have the Presidents’ trophy to cry into.
The Red Wings have a Stanley Cup to defend, a task they began with a sweep of the playoff debutant Columbus Blue Jackets.
The Ducks and Red Wings, the last two Cup champions, will meet in a second-round series that will begin Friday and Sunday at Joe Louis Arena. Games 3 and 4 will be played at the Honda Center next Tuesday and Thursday.
The teams’ playoff history adds zest to this matchup. The Red Wings swept the Ducks in the first round in 1997 and 1999, but the Ducks turned the tables in 2003 and became the first team in 50 years to sweep a defending champion out of the first round. In 2007 the Ducks defeated the Red Wings in six games to win the Western Conference title and advance to the Stanley Cup finals, where the Ducks beat Ottawa.
“It’s always good games when we play each other,” Red Wings forward Henrik Zetterberg told the Detroit Free Press on Tuesday.
“They have a really solid team, a good defense, a good goalie. It’s going to be a fun and tough round.”
The Ducks respect the Red Wings but don’t fear them. The Ducks see the same skill and will on Detroit’s side as they found within themselves during their push to gain a playoff spot and their elimination of the hollow-hearted Sharks.
“Now I think we play what is the best team in the league, in Detroit,” defenseman Ryan Whitney said after the Ducks’ series-clinching, 4-1 victory on Monday. “San Jose had the better record but I think everyone knows that Detroit’s probably the best. They’re the reigning champs.”
They’re led by most of the same players who carried them past the Pittsburgh Penguins last June. Nicklas Lidstrom, who rarely puts a foot wrong or a pass anywhere but on the tape of the recipient’s stick, this week was named a finalist for the Norris Trophy as the NHL’s top defenseman. He has won it six of the last seven seasons; the exception occurred in 2004 when it was won by Scott Niedermayer, then with New Jersey and still magnificent now with the Ducks.
Center Pavel Datsyuk was named a finalist for the Selke (defensive forward) and Lady Byng (sportsmanship) Trophies, the awards he won last season. The Lady Byng is one piece of hardware his agitating but effective teammate, left wing Tomas Holmstrom, will never take home to Sweden.
The Red Wings have enough veterans to remember how to win and have brought into their lineup enough younger players, such as forwards Jiri Hudler and Valtteri Filppula and defenseman Jonathan Ericsson, to have the legs and hunger to get where they want to go.
The question that dogged them was their goaltending, but Chris Osgood silenced that for now by stopping 103 of 110 Columbus shots for a .936 save percentage and 1.75 goals-against average.
“They’re an elite hockey club and they play a puck possession game,” Ducks Coach Randy Carlyle said Tuesday.
“They like to move on and off the puck and then they send people to the net. If you look at the goals they scored against Columbus, 95% were from a short distance to the net. We’ve got to be prepared to defend that area.”
When their defense erred, goaltender Jonas Hiller was usually there to save the day and the puck, compiling a 1.64 goals-against average and .957 save percentage.
“I think he showed calmness and composure,” Carlyle said. “He’s not a guy who gets too excited. He’s relaxed. He’s not doing something he’s not comfortable with.
“He didn’t get rattled. In some situations we left him hanging high and dry and he stayed calm and collected.”
The Red Wings won the teams’ season series, 3-0-1, but those games were played before the Ducks revamped their roster to acquire Whitney and gritty defenseman James Wisniewski. Francois Beauchemin missed three of the four because of his knee injury.
Carlyle was justifiably proud of his team and its ability to find a strong emotional level against San Jose, citing the inspiration Ryan Getzlaf supplied in Game 6 by accepting Joe Thornton’s challenge to duke it out at center ice at the opening faceoff.
He also seemed to relish playing the role of underdog but said the Ducks won’t be intimidated in Detroit.
“We can go and be competitive in any building,” he said. “We just want to give ourselves a chance, that’s all we’re trying to do.”
They turned a chance into an upset against San Jose. It won’t be so easy this time.