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Anaheim has other teams ducking for cover

You know the blueprint. Start in the crease and work your way out. Find defensemen who can skate and get the puck to the net. Get a superstar winger, perhaps a Euro, who can dazzle. Balance off the lines with unselfish players. Bust your butt on special teams. Load up with burners.

The Buffalo Sabres proved the formula worked last season during their thrilling but heartbreaking run to the Eastern Conference finals. But you didn't think they could lock up their secrets to success for their eyes only, did you? Certainly, a challenger with similar ideas would join them in this NHL-style race to the moon.

Buffalo has become the chic pick to win the Stanley Cup, and that's fine. But while fans immerse themselves in all-Sabres, all the time, they might want to sneak a peek toward Anaheim. The Ducks were built much the same way. They have the same realistic goals and the firepower to carry them there.

For all the hysteria surrounding the team here, the Ducks entered the weekend with the best record in the NHL. We'll see how Anaheim fares in the coming weeks. The Ducks play 10 of 12 games on the road, including four straight against Eastern Conference teams. No matter, Anaheim is the team to watch in the Western Conference.

Goaltender Jean-Sebastien Giguere entered the weekend with a 17-2-5 record, a 2.11 goals-against average and .925 save percentage. He led the NHL in wins, was tied for the lead with four shutouts and was tied for fourth in save percentage. It doesn't hurt that he's playing behind two of the better defensemen in the league.

Chris Pronger and Scott Niedermayer give the Ducks the best 1-2 pairing that $13 million per season can buy. The two former Norris Trophy winners were the team's second- and third-leading scorers and the NHL's top two among defensemen.

They were behind Teemu Selanne, who had 15 goals and 37 points in his first 30 games while playing with unheralded winger Chris Kunitz (15 goals, 24 points) and underrated center Andy McDonald (nine goals, 25 points).

Anaheim was one of only two teams going into the weekend that had six players with 20 points or more. The other: Buffalo. Throw in their top 10 special teams and role players, such as veteran checking-line center Todd Marchant, and the Ducks are as good as any team in the league. And that includes the Sabres.

By the way, the Ducks are no less driven. They also lost in the conference finals.

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Punish for intent

Several people have asked whether there's some deep secret (see: conspiracy) against the Sabres after the NHL failed to suspend Alexander Ovechkin for his assault on Daniel Briere. It's nothing more than the NHL proving at times it remains a garage league.

No matter what the NHL says, for years it has doled out punishment based on injuries resulting from cheap shots rather than the cheap shots themselves. The $100 fine Ovechkin received was a joke, too, considering I've spent that much during Happy Hour.

Had Briere been sidelined with a serious injury, such as death or paralysis, the league would have come down harder on Ovechkin. The fact he came back for his next shift and showed no lingering effects from the hit should be irrelevant. The NHL's reluctance to punish its superstars leads to bigger problems.

Ovechkin is physical, but he's hardly a dirty player. The kid had a brain cramp, one that deserved the proper punishment rather than have him face the potential for vigilante justice.

Now, the Sabres just might feel compelled to take a star-for-a-star approach when the two teams meet in HSBC Arena the day after Christmas.

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Fixing Nash's compass

Ken Hitchcock knows he has much work ahead with the Blue Jackets, and he's wasting little time making gifted young winger Rick Nash one of his primary projects. Hitchcock already is making a point to take some pressure off the 22-year-old, who had a league-high 41 goals as a rookie.

Nash is blessed with great hands, but he couldn't find his own zone during his first two years if someone handed him a compass. It's certain to change under Hitchcock, who helped offensive-minded center Mike Modano become one of the NHL's best all-around players in Dallas and an eventual Selke Trophy winner.

"Rick's obligation to the organization is to become a complete player, not just a goal-scorer," Hitchcock said. "The league is littered with goal-scorers, but for us to win he needs to become a complete player, like Modano. He learned to impact the game in other areas. His point totals never changed, but his plus-minus rating changed dramatically."

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Praising Kane

South Buffalo rink rat Patrick Kane will represent Team USA in the World Junior Championships in Sweden. It was hardly a surprise. The 18-year-old led his U.S. national team in scoring the past two years as an underage player. He had a Team USA record 102 points last season.

Kane entered the weekend tied for the OHL scoring lead with 21 goals and 60 points in 29 games with the London Knights. Central Scouting last month had him listed third among OHL players in its preliminary rankings for the NHL draft next season. He's expected to be a high first-round pick.

It would have been interesting to see Kane alongside Bruins center Phil Kessel in the tournament, which runs from Dec. 26 to Jan. 5. The Yanks wanted Kessel, but the Bruins declined to release him.

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In a deep Friesen

Flames winger Jeff Friesen once had four straight 20-goal seasons, including a career-high 31 in 1997-98. He's been in steady decline for three years, but his lack of production is starting to get ridiculous.

Friesen had just one assist to show for his first 21 games this season, a fact that has caused him to lose sleep. Jarome Iginla tried gift-wrapping him an empty-net goal last week, but Friesen backed away because he didn't want any charity.

"Certainly, I want to score goals for this team, but I want my first one to be the game-winner against Minnesota," he said. "Obviously, it's not a lot of fun. It's not fun to go home. You don't put on the TV because something is probably going to be said about you in a not-so-good way."

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Quotable

Red Wings goalie Dominik Hasek on former teammate Brett Hull: "We knew he was a little bit lazy, and he was a little bit overweight, but we knew he could play. Nobody before him, and nobody after him, had the same type of shot."

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Around the boards

The campaign to get Rory Fitzpatrick into the NHL All-Star Game now includes a company selling "Vote for Rory" T-shirts at Canucks games. Looking to make a buck? Try selling "Look Down, Rory" or "It's In Your Skates" T-shirts at Sabres games. Certainly, you remember Rod Brind'Amour's winner in the conference finals.

New Jersey's payroll was thrown out of whack when Scott Gomez was awarded $5 million in arbitration, and his play is making matters worse. He was on pace for only 12 goals this season after netting 33 last season, a career-high by a mile. Unfortunately, the Devils can't take a mulligan and walk away from the ruling.

Detroit is hoping to solve Pavel Datsyuk's scoring problems after throwing him back on a line with Henrik Zetterberg. Datsyuk had just five goals in his first 27 games, but he and Zetterberg scored four minutes after being reunited last week against St. Louis.

The Lightning could be without goalie Marc Denis against Toronto and Montreal next week while he wrestles with visa problems. Denis is Canadian, so he wouldn't have any problem entering his home country. The problem is getting back into the United States, which claimed a permit issued in 1996 has expired.

Curtis Joseph entered the weekend with 435 career victories, two shy of legend Jacques Plante for fifth place on the all-time list. Terry Sawchuk is fourth with 447 wins.

e-mail: bgleason@buffnews.com

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