On the day before the pivotal and deciding game of their series against the Detroit Red Wings, Anaheim Ducks' coach Bruce Boudreau spent the vast majority waxing poetically about his game plan and how much of it hinged on stopping the opposition's dynamic duo of Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk.
According to Boudreau, Zetterberg and Datsyuk had practically willed the Red Wings into the playoffs with spectacular performances down the stretch and had postseason histories that went back a long time. In short, they were used to the pressure of playing in a Game 7, where one team advances and the other goes home.
Boudreau's hope was that Sunday would be "the perfect time for our own guys to make their marks on playoff history."
A good theory, but it also required the Ducks to do a better job of shutting down Zetterberg and Datsyuk than they ultimately were able to do.
In the end, Zetterberg's playoff pedigree trumped all Sunday night at the Honda Centre. The 2008 Conn Smythe winner as the playoff's most valuable player scored the game's opening goal and Detroit never trailed, defeating Anaheim 3-2 to win the best-of-seven Western Conference quarter-final 4-3.
The game may also have marked the end of Teemu Selanne's distinguished NHL career. At 42, Selanne saw his ice time and his influence diminish in the second half of the season and many around the team believe that he may pack it in later this summer. If he does retire, Selanne will finish 15th on the all-time scoring list with 1,430 points and 11th all-time in goals with 675. He would become eligible for the Hockey Hall Of Fame in 2016.
Anaheim went into the playoffs as the No. 2 seed in the West and had the team with the third-best record overall in the regular season, but couldn't put the finishing touches on a series which they led 3-2 last Wednesday.
"Just pure disappointment," said Ducks' defenceman Cam Fowler, describing the loss. "It's so hard, especially when I know how good our group is and the potential we have. It's hard to sit here and talk about it, but I don't want to take anything away from them. They deserved to win. That's why they're moving on."
Had the Ducks won, they would have faced the Los Angeles Kings in the second round. In these parts, the first-ever Battle of Southern California had been much anticipated. Now it will have to wait until next year, when NHL realignment – and a return to a divisional playoff system – may make it more likely to happen.
Under that realignment plan, Detroit will move to the Eastern Conference next season, but not before getting in one more playoff series against Original Six rival the Chicago Blackhawks. The Blackhawks, the No. 1 seed in the West, will play No. 7 Detroit in one of the conference semi-finals, while the defending champion Kings, the No. 5 seeds, will meet the No. 6 San Jose Sharks in the other. When the second round begins, three of the four top seeds in the West will be on the sidelines.
Zetterberg was already looking forward to playing the Blackhawks, noting afterward how "they're a great team, stacked, so it's going to be a tough series for us, but it's going to be a fun one.
"It's been a different year for us, but the way we got the job done at the end of the year and played our way into the post-season, and kept going and won the first series, it's really fun to see."
The Ducks didn't lose a game in regulation in the series until the deciding game, but picked a bad time to come out with a bad case of the jitters. They fell behind early, regained the momentum at one point in the first period, only to fall behind again after a bad giveaway by defenceman Francois Beauchemin led to Justin Abdelkader's first-period, shorthanded breakaway goal.
That proved to be a back breaker for the Ducks, who never really got untracked in the game.
"It settled them down and it rattled us," said Boudreau.
A second-period goal by Val Filppula gave the Red Wings a two-goal cushion, which they would need down the stretch when Beauchemin scored a lucky power-play goal with 3:17 to go in regulation, when his centring pass from the corner to Jimmy Howard's left deflected in off the skate of defenceman Jonathan Ericsson. It brought life back into the sellout crowd at the Honda Centre, who'd seen the Ducks engineer more than their share of fabulous comebacks this season. But this time, it was not to be.
Boudreau, who'd also talked about needing a "magic wand" to diminish the effects of Zetterberg and Datsyuk, juggled his lines in an attempt to get more consistency from some of his slumping scorers, most notably Corey Perry, but nothing seemed to work.
"It's disappointing, but I'm sure he's just as disappointed as the rest of the team is," said Boudreau. "When you lose the series by one goal, you go home and a player of his stature is probably thinking, 'if I had scored one goal, we would have won the series.' But things like that happen. Great players can sometimes be nullified in a short series. It happens. It's not the first person who has gone scoreless in a seven-game series that was supposed to do better. But it is what it is and hopefully, he'll learn by it and next year, this situation won't happen."
"It's tough sledding out there," said Perry. "They're in your face every second of the game. That's how the whole series was. They're a close-checking team and the chances are limited out there. We fought hard, we had our chances, but it was just a matter of inches out there."
Zetterberg is in his first season as the Red Wings' captain after replacing the retired Nicklas Lidstrom and he noted a while back that the Red Wings have been in playoff mode for weeks now, after fighting right down to the wire for one of the two final spots in the dance with the Columbus Blue Jackets and the Dallas Stars.
Zetterberg finished the series with nine points, eight of them scored in the final four games. Coach Mike Babcock, who a decade ago led the Ducks to a first-round upset victory over the Wings, broke up Zetterberg and Datsyuk, who'd played together on a line with Abdelkader down the stretch for Detroit, in a bid to change the match-ups.
It was something he thought about doing in Game 5; ultimately didn't; and hadn't planned to stay with beyond the first 10 minutes of the game. But things were working out so well for them, he stuck with the plan until the bitter end.
Zetterberg said he had a nervous moment when he lifted the puck over the boards for a delay of game penalty that set the stage for Anaheim's second goal. But otherwise, he had a flawless performance.
"My penalty wasn't the smartest one," said Zetterberg, "because it made it tighter. It was definitely nice to hear the buzzer in the end."
Zetterberg's acquisition was a lucky happenstance, as general manager Ken Holland noted again Sunday. The Red Wings had been in Sweden scouting a prospect named Mathias Weinhandl and liked what they saw of the undersized Zetterberg, especially his hockey sense. It was that hockey sense on full display again last night, in the decisive, deciding game.
"Hank and Pav, it's unbelievable how good they are," said Red Wings' defenceman Niklas Kronwall. "They're not only good offensively, but they're so good defensively as well. In my opinion, they're the best two-way centres in the league. That's how good they are. It's not that they show up once in a while, they do that every night. They've been our best players all through the regular season and again in the playoffs, come up with huge goals for us and making big plays, and getting the job done."