Wild, Ducks put one over on rest of West

VANCOUVER -- No matter how many times you look at the matchup, it still seems like someone is playing a joke on the NHL's playoff pairings.

Minnesota facing Anaheim in the Western Conference finals with the Wild enjoying home-ice advantage because it earned the sixth seed, while Anaheim finished No. 7? Surely, someone is pulling our leg, right?


Instead, the joke is on the Detroit Red Wings, the Dallas Stars, the Colorado Avalanche and the Vancouver Canucks. The Wild and Mighty Ducks, meanwhile, have laughed all the way to within one round of the Stanley Cup final.

Anaheim took out Detroit and Dallas -- the top two teams in the West -- while the Wild eliminated the third-seeded Avalanche and the fourth-seeded Canucks.

The initial conclusion from these results is that the conference just isn't very good. But don't tell that to Wild winger Andrew Brunette.

"I think it's the best conference in hockey," he said. "Even the teams that got knocked out could have done a lot of damage. It's so hard to make the playoffs and if you go through little slumps at one point or another you are not going to make it."

But the Wild and Ducks did make it and now have gone further than anyone could have expected. Anaheim, a team that the Disney Company is trying to sell, shocked the Red Wings with a four-game sweep in the opening round and beat Dallas in six.

Anaheim ended that series on Monday and then waited to find out whether it would play Vancouver or Minnesota in the series-opener Saturday.

The same night the Ducks ousted the Stars, the Wild routed the Canucks, 7-2, but still trailed 3-2 in the series. The Wild tied it with a 5-1 victory on Wednesday and then overcame a 2-0 deficit in Game 7 to rally for a 4-2 victory.

Coupled with its Game 7 overtime victory over Colorado in the first round, the Wild became the first team in NHL history to rally from a pair of three games to one deficits to win a series.

"It is hard to imagine what these guys just accomplished," Wild coach Jacques Lemaire said. "It's pretty amazing."

Wild center Wes Walz, whose seventh goal of the postseason tied the Game 7 score at 2 apiece, said there was not a lot of talk about rebounding from being down 3-1 again.

"I don't think anybody wanted to jinx ourselves," Walz said. "But we were confident in how we were playing coming into (Game 7)."

The Wild players preferred to celebrate Thursday's victory before turning their attention to Anaheim, but there is little doubt that it will be another long series. One reason that is likely to happen is because of goaltending.

In the opening round the Wild faced an aging Patrick Roy, who is no longer at his best. The Wild then went against Canucks goalie Dan Cloutier, not exactly a prime-time performer in the postseason.

But the challenge will get much more difficult when the Wild tries to get the puck past Jean-Sebastien Giguere, who has been compared to Roy in his prime. Giguere enters the series with an 8-2 record in the playoffs and has a 1.60 goals-against average and .949 save percentage.

The Wild, meanwhile, have continued to use both its goalies -- Dwayne Roloson and Manny Fernandez -- during the postseason. While the two rotated during the regular season, Roloson and Fernandez have both been getting action in extended stretches of late.

Fernandez won Game 7 against Colorado, but Lemaire went with Roloson in the final three games against Vancouver and got the desired results. He made 24 saves in the finale against the Canucks.

Roloson likely will start Game 1 at Xcel Energy Center, but Fernandez probably will get on the ice at some point.

Offensively, the Wild leads the NHL with 42 postseason goals, and right winger/budding superstar Marian Gaborik is No. 1 in points and goals with 17 and nine, respectively.

However, anyone who watches the Wild on a regular basis knows it is far from an offensive juggernaut. Lemaire prefers a defensive style that frustrates teams and allows the Wild to make the most of its few opportunities.

The Wild's goal scoring numbers are somewhat inflated because of a two-game stretch against the Canucks where it scored 12 goals, including 11 against Cloutier.

Not only will Giguere be tougher to crack, but Anaheim also enjoys frustrating opponents. The Ducks have 24 goals in 10 playoff games, but have given up 20 to the Wild's 34 against.

The Ducks' Paul Kariya is tied for the team-lead in scoring with all of six points (three goals, three assists). Steve Thomas (2-4) and Mike LeClerc (2-4) also have six points.

The Wild and Mighty Ducks met four times during the season and split the series.

There will be no split this time around.

Judd Zulgad covers the Minnesota Wild for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune.