DETROIT - The best on the blue line this decade will be on display in the Detroit Red Wings-Anaheim Ducks series.
Detroit's Nicklas Lidstrom has won the past three Norris Trophies, awarded to the NHL's top defenceman. Anaheim's Scott Niedermayer broke up his Lidstrom's streak in 2004 and teammate Chris Pronger earned the honour in 2000.
"It's going to be a challenge for our forwards to make it hard on them," Detroit defenceman Brad Stuart said Wednesday. The defending champion Red Wings have plenty of talent to test Niedermayer and Pronger.
But the top-seeded San Jose Sharks did, too, and they've been relegated to golf in May.
Pronger and Niedermayer shut down the Sharks, holding them scoreless twice and to only a goal in the series finale in Game 6.
The second-seeded Red Wings will host eighth-seeded Anaheim on Friday night in Game 1 of the Western Conference second-round series.
"It's just another challenge," Ducks forward Ryan Getzlaf said after the team practiced in Allen Park. "We knew we were going to have to go through San Jose and Detroit to be where we want to be."
The play of the star defencemen might prove to be pivotal, and the three each shine in different ways.
Niedermayer won the Norris in 2004 while playing for the New Jersey Devils.
"He can play longer and has so much more energy because he's such a natural skater," Detroit defenceman Brian Rafalski said. "He can show up, after not skating all summer long, and be the best skater out there."
Niedermayer missed the first two months of the 2007-08 season while contemplating retirement after the team won the Stanley Cup and he was the playoffs MVP.
Pronger was with the St. Louis Blues when he earned the trophy nine years ago as he also claimed the Hart Trophy as NHL MVP.
Detroit's Tomas Holmstrom has made a career out of standing in front of the net to redirect shots into the net, or to shield goaltenders from seeing them, but it's tough for him to play his role when the six-foot-six, 213-pound Pronger is lurking.
"He's a big boy and he's got a long reach and he's pretty good with the muck," Holmstrom said. "I'm going to do my job and go to the net and he he's going to do what he does."
As great as Niedermayer and Pronger are, the Red Wings wouldn't trade Lidstrom for either one or any defenceman in the world.
"Nick's got more Norrises, so I'll go with him as No. 1," said Detroit coach Mike Babcock, who led Anaheim to the Stanley Cup finals in 2003 and was hired in Detroit four years ago.
"Pronger has won a Norris and a Hart. Niedermayer has won every trophy there is. And, I think Rafalski flies under the radar."
Lidstrom is a finalist for the Norris Trophy this year and if he wins it for a seventh time, he'll tie Doug Harvey's total and pull within one of Bobby Orr.
Despite turning 39 on Tuesday, the subtle Swede hasn't lost a step.
He ranked third among NHL defenceman with 59 points this season. Then, he was a major reason Columbus Blue Jackets star Rick Nash was pointless in Games 1 and 2 in the first round and finished with only a goal.
During the Stanley Cup finals last year, Lidstrom's positioning and savvy ways led to Pittsburgh Penguins star Evgeni Malkin being scoreless until Game 6.
The last time Detroit was eliminated in the playoffs, though, it was against Niedermayer, Pronger and the Ducks.
Anaheim eliminated the Red Wings two years ago in the Western Conference finals and went on to hoist the Stanley Cup for the first time since becoming an NHL franchise in 1993.
Lidstrom said revenge is not a topic in the dressing room.
"There hasn't been any talk of the that at all," he said. "They have a different look and we have a different look, too."
The Ducks made several moves, including acquiring Ryan Whitney from Pittsburgh and Jim Wisniewski from Chicago to make their defence even better.
"They can really move the puck and it just give us a lot of depth on the blue line," Niedermayer said.
Unlike the 2007 matchup, goalie Jean-Sebastien Giguere will be on the bench behind Jonas Hiller and newcomers such as 22-year-old forward Bobby Ryan will be counted on to create offence.
After losing to the Ducks two years ago, Detroit bolstered its 'D' by signing free agent Rafalski away from the New Jersey Devils.
The Red Wings have many of the same players they had against in the previous playoff matchup with Anaheim, but goalie Chris Osgood has replaced the retired Dominik Hasek, forward Johan Franzen has developed into a scoring threat and star Marian Hossa chose to play for them on a one-year deal in the hopes of completing his career with a championship.
If Hossa can help Detroit get past Niedermayer and Pronger, he will move a step closer toward his wish.