IT'S A ROUGH CROWDin the Anaheim locker room on the night of May 3. The Ducks have just closedout their Western Conference semifinal series against the Vancouver Canucks,winning Game 5 on Scott Niedermayer's bad-angle, what-the-hell wrist shot from59 feet in the second overtime. An unofficial assist came from his youngerbrother, Rob, who had freed up the puck with an organ-jostling,ass-over-bandbox hit on Vancouver winger Jannik Hansen. Across the room fromRob, now recounting that collision to a scrum of reporters, is Brad May (he ofthe 2,000-plus career penalty minutes) discussing the mucking he did in thosefinal seconds. In the middle of the room stands the formerly handsome TeemuSelanne, who came out of Game 4 with a shiner, a swollen jaw and stitches overboth eyes. ("Thank God I'm already married," he had deadpanned to Ducksbroadcaster Brian Hayward.) Selanne's youngest son, Leevi, comes boltingthrough. 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 thescene from his corner stall is Andy McDonald, who centers Selanne and ChrisKunitz on Anaheim's top line. Pensive, soft-spoken and boyish in appearancedespite his playoff beard and 29 years, McDonald is listed as 5'11", 185pounds. He is every centimeter of that--if measured in his skates. On a rosterreplete with players ranging from good-sized (Selanne is 6 feet, 204 pounds) tohulking (6'4", 243-pound winger Dustin Penner is only an inch taller thanlinemates Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry) to behemoth (defenseman Chris Prongeris 6'6", 220), Andy Mac is something of an anomaly. A Duckling, if youwill.
Yet there isnothing small about his game. After Anaheim dealt Sergei Fedorov to theColumbus Blue Jackets in November 2005, McDonald, whom the club had signed inApril 2000 as an undrafted free agent out of Colgate, stepped up to center thetop line. A drop-off in scoring at that position seemed inevitable. Plagued byconcussions early in his career, McDonald was coming off a nine-goal, 30-pointseason (compared with Fedorov's 31 goals and 34 assists). "There were somerumors 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 and51 assists; this season he had 78 points. Selected to his first All-Star Gamein January, McDonald also won the NHL's fastest-skater competition on the eveof that annual goal orgy. He has not missed a game in two seasons, during whichtime he was +40.
The cold truth, ofcourse, is that those are regular-season stats. There are some around theleague who find the idea of McDonald's centering the top line on a Cup-caliberteam a bit of a stretch. As the conference finals begin, the question loomslarge: With Clydesdale-sized centers in vogue, how far can Anaheim get withSeabiscuit centering its top line? Scott Niedermayer isn't worried aboutMcDonald. "Obviously, two months of playoff hockey is tough," heallows. "But more than your size, it's a commitment, a mind-set, thatdetermines success this time of year. It's about whether you're willing to gocertain places, to do certain things."
McDonald seems tobe holding up to the rigors of the postseason. He had a hat trick in a 5--1laugher over Vancouver in Game 1. True, he didn't score for the rest of theseries, 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 RobertoLuongo, the best player in the series, stopped them all. While McDonald'scritics may have been emboldened by the drought, they are advised not to raisetheir 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 "bonafide Number 1 center," Burke wigged. "I'd like to meet the imbecile whosaid that in a dark alley," he snarled.
Indeed, there wasMcDonald deep in Vancouver's end in the second period of Game 5, joltingCanucks defenseman Kevin Bieksa from behind, trying to knock him off the puck.One shift later he took Vancouver blueliner Mattias Ohlund into the boards ashard as he could. (Whether either Canuck actually noticed that McDonald wasaccosting 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, whichhas long been McDonald's strong suit.
Howard Cosell oncereferred to Colgate as "the little giant of the Chenango Valley"--whichdoubles as an apt description of McDonald during his days as the scourge ofStarr Rink, the 2,246-seat claustrophobic's nightmare that the Raiders callhome. Game time was still 90 minutes away on that evening in early 2000 whenAnaheim assistant general manager Dave McNab walked into that cramped arena. Itwas empty save for a single player, sitting in the uppermost bleacher, readinga textbook. It was McDonald, who majored in international relations and foundthat studying before games "relaxed" him.
Undrafted out ofJunior B, McDonald went to Colgate "to get my degree and maybe have achance to play in Europe." By the time McDonald was a senior, Europe was nolonger in the mix. McNab knew all about him. "He was an easy guy tolike," says the Ducks' superscout. "You knew right away what his flawwas--he was small. But he was such a great skater. He had so much talent. Ifyou ask me, I thought he was the best player in the country in his senioryear."
McDonald gotcontract offers from the Ducks and the Philadelphia Flyers and went withAnaheim on the strength of his friendship with McNab. By the 2002--03 seasonMcDonald was taking a regular shift for the Ducks, and McNab believes he wasthe club's best forward for the first half of that year. But in a January gameagainst the Colorado Avalanche, defenseman Adam Foote waylaid McDonald in theopen ice, leaving McDonald with a severe concussion that eventually sidelinedhim for the rest of the season. (The Ducks lost to the Devils in the Cup finalsthat spring. McNab says, "Andy's injury might have cost us theCup.")
By proving to bean upgrade over Fedorov last season, McDonald was merely fulfilling the promisehe'd displayed three years earlier. But he followed that dazzling season with aquiet playoff performance (two goals and seven assists in 16 games). The key tostopping him, according to Buffalo Sabres defenseman Jaroslav Spacek, a formerEdmonton 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 thepuck, he doesn't carry it and he doesn't open the wings. So try to be close tohim and knock the puck off him right away."
New York Rangersforward Sean Avery played with McDonald for the Ducks' minor league affiliatein Cincinnati, then against him while with the Los Angeles Kings. While heexpresses affection for his former teammate, "I don't really like playingagainst him," Avery says. "He plays hard, for one thing. I think he'sarrogant, which is probably a good attribute for him, because, as a little guy,you have to be." Informed that some people wonder if McDonald is up to thejob of centering the top line for a Cup contender, Avery sniffs, "Obviouslythey're not very smart hockey people. Because he can play."
McDonaldwelcomes--indeed, he feeds on--the skepticism and the focus on his stature."I keep it to myself and use it as motivation," he explains. "Itdrives me." He has known doubters most of his life and made short work ofthem.
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"I don't like playing against him," saysRangers forward Sean Avery. "He plays hard and I think he's arrogant, whichis a good attribute."
MIGHTY MITE McDonald came out firing in Game 1 against Vancouver, getting a hat trick to set the tone in a five-game series win.