It wasn't that long ago that the Anaheim Ducks making the playoffs was about as likely as Kevin Lowe giving Brian Burke a deep tissue massage. Yet they enter tomorrow night's game at the Nashville Predators with a chance to hurdle into a playoff spot; and of the teams vying for the last two seeds in the West (one assumes the Columbus Blue Jackets will break their playoff maiden), the Ducks could be one of the best bets to make the cut.
Hell, let's just call it: The Anaheim Ducks are going to make the playoffs for the fourth consecutive season. Here's why:
1. They're Peaking at the Right Time. This is a critical stretch for Anaheim, and they enter it with a three-game winning streak: At Nashville, at the Colorado Avalanche, at home against the Edmonton Oilers and Avalanche, and then back on the road at Edmonton. They'll have five games remaining after this, including a closing weekend against the Dallas Stars (who will likely know their playoff fate by then) and the Phoenix Coyotes (who will be calculating their latest lottery odds).
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Know this about Anaheim: It's been played good hockey since the end of February, to the tune of eight consecutive one-goal games until last night's 6-2 blowout of the Coyotes. That's an indication that they'll at least be in a position to steal a point on the road in some of these tough ones.
2. The Power Play Is Sick. You don't want to rely on special teams as a harbinger of anything, because they're about as predictable as a Super Happy Fun Ball. But the Ducks are killing it right now, going 7-for-12 over the past three games. They're getting power-play goals from all over the lineup -- Scott Niedermayer, Ryan Getzlaf, Bobby Ryan, Andrew Ebbett, Teemu Selanne. No one expects them to continue at this clip ... but they just need to squeeze another week out of it.
3. The Line of Corey Perry, Ryan Getzlaf and Bobby Ryan. Getzlaf is 2-3-5 in his last three. Perry is 2-0-2, while Ryan is 1-2-3. The line is heating up as Getzlaf does, and could be a unit that carries the team. (Do they have a nickname yet, by the way? Because the "Red Dawn" fans in us can't believe it's not the R.P.G. line. For Rocket Propelled Grenade. Not "Role Playing Game.") Of course, when talking about the offense ...
4. Andrew Ebbett. ... having a rookie like Ebbett playing well on the second line doesn't hurt. Anaheim's struggled for secondary scoring all season, and the Ducks are hoping that he and Selanne can provide it down the stretch. Rookie enthusiasm is never a bad thing to have when the season's on the line. Think of this factor not just for Ebbett, but as representative of all the Ducks' role players that are flourishing lately -- like the George Parros/Erik Christensen/Mike Brown line.
5. Fifty-Four Minutes a Night of Pronger and Niedermayer. The Ducks captain averages 27:13 a night in time on ice. Captain Elbows averages 27:05. Neither of them are being chatted up as a Norris winner this season, but that shouldn't matter: You'd be hard-pressed to find a team with two battle-tested defenseman who'll eat up minutes to help solidify some inconsistent goaltending.
Besides, don't you want to see Anaheim in the playoffs so another artist is inspired to create a beautiful Pronger visage, or to see what kind of psychotic mountain man Niedermayer will look like by the third round?
6. The Swagger Is Returning. Ducks fans seem to believe in this team right now, though Earl Sleek projects them for somewhere between 10-13 points over their final games. It goes without saying that the next five games are the season for Anaheim. But they're entering these games with unprecedented confidence in a challenging season:
"Emotionally things weren't going our way," right wing Bobby Ryan said. "There's a tendency to get down. It's not uncommon by any means ... To get contributions from everybody night in and night out like we have the past couple of games, you can see it building in the room. Guys are happy to come to the rink.
"It's nice to be on the other side looking back at it."
Based on their recent play, they won't be on the outside looking in, either.