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IT'S A ROUGH CROWD in the Anaheim locker room on the night of May 3. The Ducks have just closed out their Western Conference semifinal series against the Vancouver Canucks, winning Game 5 on Scott Niedermayer's bad-angle, what-the-hell wrist shot from 59 feet in the second overtime. An unofficial assist came from his younger brother, Rob, who had freed up the puck with an organ-jostling, ass-over-bandbox hit on Vancouver winger Jannik Hansen. Across the room from Rob, now recounting that collision to a scrum of reporters, is Brad May (he of the 2,000-plus career penalty minutes) discussing the mucking he did in those final seconds. In the middle of the room stands the formerly handsome Teemu Selanne, who came out of Game 4 with a shiner, a swollen jaw and stitches over both eyes. ("Thank God I'm already married," he had deadpanned to Ducks broadcaster Brian Hayward.) Selanne's youngest son, Leevi, comes bolting through. What's that snack food in his hand? Is it a Twizzler? A Fruit Roll-Up? Closer inspection reveals that the seven-year-old is eating ... beef jerky.
Taking in the scene from his corner stall is Andy McDonald, who centers Selanne and Chris Kunitz on Anaheim's top line. Pensive, soft-spoken and boyish in appearance despite his playoff beard and 29 years, McDonald is listed as 5'11", 185 pounds. He is every centimeter of that--if measured in his skates. On a roster replete with players ranging from good-sized (Selanne is 6 feet, 204 pounds) to hulking (6'4", 243-pound winger Dustin Penner is only an inch taller than linemates Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry) to behemoth ( defenseman Chris Pronger is 6'6", 220), Andy Mac is something of an anomaly. A Duckling, if you will.
Yet there is nothing small about his game. After Anaheim dealt Sergei Fedorov to the Columbus Blue Jackets in November 2005, McDonald, whom the club had signed in April 2000 as an undrafted free agent out of Colgate, stepped up to center the top line. A drop-off in scoring at that position seemed inevitable. Plagued by concussions early in his career, McDonald was coming off a nine-goal, 30-point season (compared with Fedorov's 31 goals and 34 assists). "There were some rumors about the team shopping around for another centerman," he recalls. "But we got on a bit of a roll, and I started having fun." He blew up, is what he did. Playing next to Selanne, he finished 2005--06 with 34 goals and 51 assists; this season he had 78 points. Selected to his first All-Star Game in January, McDonald also won the NHL's fastest-skater competition on the eve of that annual goal orgy. He has not missed a game in two seasons, during which time he was +40.
The cold truth, of course, is that those are regular-season stats. There are some around the league who find the idea of McDonald's centering the top line on a Cup-caliber team a bit of a stretch. As the conference finals begin, the question looms large: With Clydesdale-sized centers in vogue, how far can Anaheim get with Seabiscuit centering its top line? Scott Niedermayer isn't worried about McDonald. "Obviously, two months of playoff hockey is tough," he allows. "But more than your size, it's a commitment, a mind-set, that determines success this time of year. It's about whether you're willing to go certain places, to do certain things."
McDonald seems to be holding up to the rigors of the postseason. He had a hat trick in a 5--1 laugher over Vancouver in Game 1. True, he didn't score for the rest of the series, but that wasn't because the Canucks were pounding him into Duck confit. McDonald put 15 shots on net in those four games, but Vancouver goalie Roberto Luongo, the best player in the series, stopped them all. While McDonald's critics may have been emboldened by the drought, they are advised not to raise their doubts around Ducks G.M. Brian Burke, who may ask them to step outside. When a Toronto Star writer declared in print that the Ducks lacked a "bona fide Number 1 center," Burke wigged. "I'd like to meet the imbecile who said that in a dark alley," he snarled.
Indeed, there was McDonald deep in Vancouver's end in the second period of Game 5, jolting Canucks defenseman Kevin Bieksa from behind, trying to knock him off the puck. One shift later he took Vancouver blueliner Mattias Ohlund into the boards as hard as he could. (Whether either Canuck actually noticed that McDonald was accosting them is less important than the fact that he was willing to do so.) The ultimate form of aggression, of course, is to attack with the puck, which has long been McDonald's strong suit.
Howard Cosell once referred to Colgate as "the little giant of the Chenango Valley"--which doubles as an apt description of McDonald during his days as the scourge of Starr Rink, the 2,246-seat claustrophobic's nightmare that the Raiders call home. Game time was still 90 minutes away on that evening in early 2000 when Anaheim assistant general manager Dave McNab walked into that cramped arena. It was empty save for a single player, sitting in the uppermost bleacher, reading a textbook. It was McDonald, who majored in international relations and found that studying before games "relaxed" him.
Undrafted out of Junior B, McDonald went to Colgate "to get my degree and maybe have a chance to play in Europe." By the time McDonald was a senior, Europe was no longer in the mix. McNab knew all about him. "He was an easy guy to like," says the Ducks' superscout. "You knew right away what his flaw was--he was small. But he was such a great skater. He had so much talent. If you ask me, I thought he was the best player in the country in his senior year."
McDonald got contract offers from the Ducks and the Philadelphia Flyers and went with Anaheim on the strength of his friendship with McNab. By the 2002--03 season McDonald was taking a regular shift for the Ducks, and McNab believes he was the club's best forward for the first half of that year. But in a January game against the Colorado Avalanche, defenseman Adam Foote waylaid McDonald in the open ice, leaving McDonald with a severe concussion that eventually sidelined him for the rest of the season. (The Ducks lost to the Devils in the Cup finals that spring. McNab says, "Andy's injury might have cost us the Cup.")
By proving to be an upgrade over Fedorov last season, McDonald was merely fulfilling the promise he'd displayed three years earlier. But he followed that dazzling season with a quiet playoff performance (two goals and seven assists in 16 games). The key to stopping him, according to Buffalo Sabres defenseman Jaroslav Spacek, a former Edmonton Oiler who played against McDonald in last season's conference final, is to hit him "right away when the puck comes.... When he doesn't have the puck, he doesn't carry it and he doesn't open the wings. So try to be close to him and knock the puck off him right away."