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Favorites upset in NHL playoffs

ANAHEIM, Calif. ” In the wacky Western Conference, where all the favorites were sent home in the first round of the playoffs, the Colorado Avalanche and Anaheim Mighty Ducks find themselves matched in a series with no clear favorite.

“You look at it, when the top-seeded teams got beat in the first round, it creates excitement and opportunity,” Anaheim coach Randy Carlyle said Thursday.

“Everybody is, ‘Wow, Detroit lost,’ and ‘Wow, Dallas lost.’ Now there are opportunities for other teams to go forward and all the teams that are left are trying to seize that.”

With Detroit, Dallas, Nashville and Calgary eliminated, Anaheim faces Colorado in the best-of-seven conference semifinals beginning Friday night in Anaheim. Even though they’re seeded sixth, the Ducks get the home-ice advantage since the Avalanche is No. 7.

The other West semifinal pits No. 5 San Jose against No. 8 Edmonton in a series that begins Sunday in San Jose.

Anaheim defeated Calgary 3-0 in Game 7 of their series Wednesday night. The Avalanche advanced by beating Dallas in five games, ending it Sunday with a 3-2 overtime victory ” their third of the series.

Colorado coach Joel Quenneville called the upside-down playoffs in the West “pretty amazing” in light of how the lower-seeded teams had to battle down the stretch.

“The bottom four or five teams were playing a 40-game playoff drive just to get in, and the teams that had the luxury of knowing they were in were able to rest and do some things,” Quenneville said. “I’d rather be in that spot than the spot we’re in.

“I think the competition in the West is so tough. Our division particularly is really challenging. I think it hardens you knowing that every single shift is meaningful.”

The Colorado-Anaheim matchup should be a close one. The Ducks finished the regular season with 98 points, the Avalanche with 95. All four of their meetings were decided by one goal, with the Avalanche winning three of them.

“They have a lot of weapons,” Quenneville said. “They have four lines that can score. Their young kids have some size and some speed. Of all the games we played this year, probably the fastest-paced game we had was a game in Anaheim.

“We had an early lead and they came back and beat us in overtime.”

Fine goaltending keyed both teams in the opening round.

Jose Theodore, a trade deadline addition by the Avalanche, was solid against Dallas and clinched the series by stopping 50 shots in the finale.

With Jean-Sebastien Giguere apparently still slowed by an injury, the Ducks turned to rookie Ilya Bryzgalov, and the 25-year-old Russian had 22 saves in shutting out Calgary in Game 7.

Bryzgalov started the first game, a 2-1 Anaheim loss, when Giguere was sidelined. After Giguere returned to the nets and struggled, Carlyle went back to Bryzgalov for the crucial sixth game, and Anaheim won 2-1.

“You get a goaltender who gets hot and makes big saves and the whole series can change. That Anaheim goalie is making a difference,” Colorado’s Pierre Turgeron said.

The Avalanche should get a boost from the return of forward Steve Konowalchuk, sidelined since Nov. 21 by a broken right wrist. Konowalchuk was given clearance to play earlier this week.

The series also will pit Anaheim’s Teemu Selanne against his former Colorado teammates. Selanne, rejuvenated in his return to the Ducks, led the team in scoring this season and had three goals in the playoffs against Calgary.

“Watching him progress through the first round, I felt he got better and better,” Quenneville said. “He’s a threat and that line is a big threat.

“We have to make an overall awareness when he’s on the ice and try to deny him the puck as best we can.”


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