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GAME: Anaheim Mighty Ducks (29-35-10-8) at Chicago Blackhawks (20-43-11-8).
TIME: Wednesday, 8:30 p.m. EDT.
Helped by the NHL's new financial structure and a more aggressive approach, the Chicago Blackhawks appear to be relevant again.
Armed with a handful of new players, the revamped Blackhawks face the Anaheim Mighty Ducks in a matchup of teams with rookie coaches.
One of he NHL's original franchises, the Blackhawks have been one of the league's worst teams lately, missing the playoffs six of the last seven seasons after qualifying in 28 straight years. Their last Stanley Cup came in 1961, making their 44-year drought the longest in the NHL.
The biggest problem preventing Chicago from being competitive has been an ownership that didn't seem to care about the state of the team. However, since the NHL implemented a new financial system, the Blackhawks have been one of the league's most aggressive clubs, signing goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin, defenseman Adrian Aucoin and forward Martin Lapointe to free-agent deals.
"We are changing, you have to, with the times," first-year general manager Dale Tallon said. "It's a different era than it was. This is the direction we want to go in now and how we handle things."
Goaltending was a mess for the Blackhawks in 2003-04, especially after Jocelyn Thibault was injured. Five different goalies were used in place of Thibault, but none played well enough to earn the starting job.
Luring Khabibulin, a four-time All-Star, away from Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay was arguably the biggest prize of the offseason. Signed to a four-year, $27 million contract, the richest in franchise history, Khabibulin instantly makes the Blackhawks a playoff contender again.
"In hockey, good goaltending is like good pitching in baseball," Chicago coach Trent Yawney said. "It keeps you in games and is a confidence booster for the other players. From an organization standpoint, he is important to us and our fans. Blackhawk fans always related to the Glenn Halls and Tony Espositos."
Aucoin, signed to a four-year, $16 million deal, has developed into one of the game's best two-way defenseman. He had 13 goals, a career-high 44 points and was plus-29 with the New York Islanders in 2003-04.
"The Hawks made everything quite clear right away, while other teams sat around waiting to see what everyone else was going to do," Aucoin said. "The Blackhawks didn't hide anything. They put everything on the table right away and were honest and straight forward."
Although Lapointe won't add very much offense, his character and grit should serve the Blackhawks well while adding veteran leadership to a team that had four players - Tyler Arnason, Mark Bell, Kyle Calder and Tuomo Ruutu - score 20 goals or more in 2003-04.
Anaheim also enters this season with several new faces, both on the ice and in the front office.
Brian Burke takes over as the team's new general manager and Randy Carlyle replaces Mike Babcock as coach.
Both are committed to turning the Ducks from a boring, predictable team into a more aggressive, offensive-minded club.
"The most challenging thing for us has been trying to change the culture of our team, and that's one of the hardest things to do in pro sports, not just the NHL," Burke said. "To change your team from a pure 'trap' team to an offensive team is not easy, but the learning curve has been good and the players have bought in.
"I think they like this system better. They've worked their tails off, and I think we're going to be better than people expect."
After coming within one victory of a Stanley Cup title in 2002-03, Anaheim never reached the .500 mark in 2003-04 - finishing 16 points out of the playoffs.
The biggest offseason acquisition for Anaheim was defenseman Scott Niedermayer, the 2004 Norris Trophy winner and one of the NHL's great skaters. He was a member of three Stanley Cup championship teams with New Jersey, and along with Khabibulin and Peter Forsberg, was one of the best free-agent signings.
Anaheim's other important free-agent import is right wing Teemu Selanne, who played 394 games over parts of six seasons for the Ducks and led the league in goals for two straight years before he was traded to San Jose in March 2001.
Selanne struggled with Colorado in 2003-04, scoring 16 goals in 78 games, but should combine with Sergei Fedorov, Vaclav Prospal and Petr Sykora to improve an already strong offense.
"I look around here, it's a good feeling," Selanne said. "We have a lot of good players, a lot of speed, a lot of talent. You can feel it in here, the new owners, the new GM, the new coaches. I think they've really taken the next step forward."
2003-04 STANDINGS: Mighty Ducks - 76 points, 4th place, 28 PB, Pacific Division. Blackhawks - 59 points, 5th place, 50 PB, Central Division.
2003-2004 TEAM LEADERS: Mighty Ducks - Fedorov, 31 goals and 65 points; Prospal, 35 assists; Garrett Burnett, 184 PIM. Blackhawks - Ruutu, 23 goals; Bryan Berard, 34 assists; Arnason, 55 points; Scott Nichol, 145 PIM.
2003-04 SPECIAL TEAMS: Mighty Ducks - Power play: 18.0 percent (56 for 310), 8th in NHL. Penalty killing: 84.7 percent (299 for 353), 12th. Blackhawks - Power play: 15.7 percent (55 for 349), 20th. Penalty killing: 83.4 percent (318 for 381), 20th.
2003-04 GOALTENDERS: Mighty Ducks - Jean-Sebastien Giguere (17-31-6, 3 SO, 2.62 GAA); Martin Gerber (11-12-4, 2, 2.26). Blackhawks - Thibault (5-7-2, 1, 2.85); Michael Leighton (6-18-8, 2, 2.99).
2003-04 SEASON SERIES: Mighty Ducks, 2-1-1.
LAST MEETING: March 5, 2004; Mighty Ducks, 5-2. At Chicago, Steve Rucchin, now with the New York Rangers, had two goals and an assist to lead Anaheim.
2003-04 ROAD/HOME RECORDS: Mighty Ducks - 10-24-3-4 on the road; Blackhawks - 13-17-6-5 at home.
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