This might be the most difficult matchup of the eight first-round series, and not just because it features the defending Stanley Cup champion Ducks. Most observers believe Anaheim will cruise through to at least the Western Conference finals as it has the past two springs. And why not? The Ducks are on a 20-5-1 roll since Teemu Selanne returned to the lineup. Only Detroit recorded more home wins than the Ducks' 27.
But not so fast, folks. Despite a miserable 4-8-2 run up to the playoffs, the Dallas Stars are a different team than the one that has failed to survive the first round in the past three postseasons. Really, they are. The Stars are offensively more explosive, ranking 10th in goals per game and second in the Western Conference behind Detroit.
Goalie Marty Turco has put questions about his ability to play in the postseason behind him after a memorable performance in a losing cause last season against Vancouver and has the potential to saw off former playoff MVP Jean-Sebastien Giguere, the Ducks' top netminder.
The Stars possess terrific depth down the middle, thanks to the acquisition of former playoff MVP Brad Richards at the trade deadline. The defense (even without Sergei Zubov, who just returned from Germany, where he had surgery to correct an ongoing sports hernia issue, is solid. The Stars have also fared well against Anaheim this season, winning five of the first six meetings before dropping the final two. While the return of Scott Niedermayer and Selanne have boosted the Ducks, they continue to struggle offensively, especially with top offensive threat Corey Perry, who is sidelined at least until midway through the first round with a leg laceration.
1. Chris Pronger, Public Menace or Playoff MVP? The big defenseman returned to the Anaheim lineup for the regular-season finale after an eight-game suspension for stomping on the leg of Vancouver's Ryan Kesler. Rust shouldn't be a factor for a veteran like Pronger and, given the ice time he logs and the physical nature of his game, the break might have come at a good time. But what about the big man's mind-set? Pronger was especially contrite after being handed his eighth career suspension -- he knows he got off lucky and could have well been gone for the first round or longer. Given that he was suspended twice during last season's playoffs, along with the Kesler incident, will Pronger be more mellow-minded this postseason? If he eases off his at-the-edge style, does it diminish his effectiveness? Two seasons ago, he was the best position player in the playoffs with Edmonton. What does he bring to the table now when the Ducks will lean on him more than in the past?
2. The Penner factor. It's not so much the Ducks miss Dustin Penner, who signed a controversial offer sheet by Edmonton last summer, but rather his absence illustrates what figures to be the biggest obstacle to the Ducks repeating as champions -- their offense. Anaheim GM Brian Burke opted not to match the Oilers' offer and took the package of draft picks instead. Fair enough. But Burke had to later deal center Andy McDonald to St. Louis to make cap room for Scott Niedermayer's return. Given that veteran Doug Weight has had virtually no impact since coming over in the McDonald deal (14 points in 38 games and a recent healthy scratch), the Ducks will head into the playoffs without Penner (eight postseason points last spring), McDonald (14) and Perry (15) and no real prospects to make up for that loss. Selanne has 22 points in 25 games since returning to action, but the Ducks are ranked 28th in goals per game and 20th on the power play.
3. The Big Blue Line. If the Ducks won't be as imposing up front as they were last season, they will be counting on a vaunted blue line to make up for whatever shortcomings they might have. It is not overstating the case to suggest this series will be won and lost at the Ducks' blue line. If Mathieu Schneider can replicate his fine postseason of a year ago in Detroit (16 points in 11 games before being lost to injury) and defending Conn Smythe Trophy winner Scott Niedermayer gets in a groove and the aforementioned Pronger is his usual productive self, the Ducks will be very difficult to beat. The trio, along with Francois Beauchemin, will eat up an incredible amount of ice time and force the Stars' forwards to be at their best. The Ducks are second in goals allowed behind Detroit.
4. Deep down the middle. Last season, the Dallas Stars couldn't score to save their souls. In seven games against Vancouver, they scored 12 times, four in the first game. This postseason, Mike Ribeiro has emerged as a front-line point producer with a career-best 83 points in 76 games, helping take the pressure off veteran center Mike Modano. Throw Richards into the mix, and all of a sudden Modano is now playing to his strengths as a third-line checker and power-play specialist as opposed to being overextended as a first-line center. Even though the Ducks boast the finest blue line in the NHL, the Stars' depth down the middle means Anaheim cannot simply focus on one line as they did in last season's Cup finals against Ottawa.
5. The crumble factor. We can talk all we want about how this Stars team is different and built for the long haul with an 11th-ranked power-play unit and top-ranked penalty-killing unit. But is this team mentally different, especially given that it isn't coming into the playoffs on a high note? Over the past three postseasons, the Stars have shown an uncanny ability to pack it in when the going gets rough. If not for Turco's play last spring, the Stars get nowhere near a seventh game. In 2005-06, the heavily favored Stars collapsed against a less-talented Colorado team. What happens when they hit the first bump against Anaheim? Everyone knows big changes will come if the Stars fold again. The clock is officially ticking.
• Stars forwards vs. Ducks defense: There is some talk that the Pronger/Niedermayer/Schneider/Beauchemin blue-line quartet may rank as one of the greatest of all time. If the Ducks have another long playoff run, it will only add credence to that thinking. If the Stars are going to get going offensively, they'll have to gain possession of the puck deep in Ducks territory and force penalties. That will be a tall order for the Stars since the Ducks' defense is so good at retrieving and moving the puck. This matchup may indeed determine the outcome of the series.
• Ducks: The Ducks are 13-2-0 in their last 15 playoff overtime appearances since 2003. That total is almost twice of their nearest competitor (Ottawa has seven overtime wins since 2003). Weight had one goal in the Ducks' last 14 contests and was a healthy scratch once.
• Stars: The Dallas Stars tied for the most victories (19) after giving up the first goal of a game. Zubov hasn't played since Jan. 17 and no one knows when he may return to action.
• This one promises to be a titanic struggle and it may take seven games to decide it, but Anaheim's Cup defense ends early. Stars in seven.
Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.