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THE NHL / HELENE ELLIOTT : Kings Slam the Door on Themselves

March 29, 1994|HELENE ELLIOTT

To borrow a phrase or two from Laker announcer Chick Hearn, the Kings' season is in the refrigerator. The door's shut, the lights are out, the eggs are cooling, the butter's getting hard and the Jell-O's jiggling.

This one is over. Their playoff hopes evaporated Sunday, when they lost to Vancouver and fell 10 points behind San Jose for the last Western Conference playoff berth with nine games to play. The Sharks, showing character when it counted, were 3-0-1 on a tough trip last week. They have eight games left, including five at home.

As for the Mighty Ducks, their door is still open, but only a crack. They're eight points out with eight games to play.

"We're on the back burner," Duck Coach Ron Wilson said recently. "But we might have to get popped in the microwave."

Quick heating probably won't save the Ducks, but their season is still a success because so much less was expected of them in their debut than was expected from the Kings, who were Stanley Cup finalists last spring.

The Ducks are a young, enthusiastic, hard-working team with excellent prospects in Paul Kariya--the fourth pick in last year's draft--and whoever they choose as the second pick in this year's draft. Their coach, Ron Wilson, and general manager, Jack Ferreira, respect one another and work well together. They have stable ownership, a showcase arena and a cohesive organization.

The Kings are Wayne Gretzky and Kelly Hrudey and whoever else feels like playing that night. Their coach, Barry Melrose, and general manager Nick Beverley, snipe at one another. They allowed Darryl Sydor, a talented young defenseman, to regress this season and put too much pressure on Rob Blake, another youngster. Their defensive play is a joke.

Rarely did they show the urgency that fueled their playoff drive last spring. They always had excuses for losses and projected the attitude that it's a long season and there was plenty of time to start a winning streak.

Not anymore, there isn't.

From owner Bruce McNall on down, changes are likely next season. Beverley and President Roy Mlakar are primary candidates for dismissal and Melrose isn't safe either. He will probably get a grace period to prove which was the fluke, this season's dismal performance or last spring's run to the final, but unless he figures out how to motivate and lead this complacent, rudderless team, he won't last long.

PLAYOFF DERBY

In the Eastern Conference, the expansion Florida Panthers have regained a small lead over the Philadelphia Flyers for the final spot. The edge there goes to the Panthers, based on the season-long excellence of goaltenders John Vanbiesbrouck and Mark Fitzpatrick. The Flyers' offense is more explosive, but good goaltending will win playoff games--and games that determine playoff races.

The Washington Capitals are holding onto seventh place, mostly by default. The New York Islanders are too soft to challenge and the Quebec Nordiques started their surge too late.

The real jockeying is for the top seedings. The New Jersey Devils, probably the best-kept secret in the NHL this season, on Sunday tied the New York Rangers for the top point total at 99. They're 12-1-3 over the last month under first-year Coach Jacques Lemaire, who obviously learned something about winning during his years with the Canadiens.

WOE IS HE

Banks are clamoring for money they say he owes them, he's trying to sell a majority interest in his hockey team and he is quoted in a "Vanity Fair" article as saying that he smuggled some of the ancient coins that formed the basis of his financial empire. What's next for King owner McNall?

Losing his position as chairman of the NHL's Board of Governors.

McNall's term expires in June, so he will probably just decline to run for reelection. It's a perfect way for him to exit somewhat gracefully, given his financial entanglements and the concern among NHL officials that he couldn't be an effective chairman while owning as little as 35% of his own club.

Commissioner Gary Bettman intended to discuss McNall's intentions last week when the two flew to New York for a board meeting but McNall fell asleep and the conversation was postponed. Expect Bettman to reschedule it soon.

RAGING RANGERS

Coach Mike Keenan's imprint was unmistakably stamped on all five trades the Rangers made last week. General Manager Neil Smith said forwards Tony Amonte and Mike Gartner "had no nastiness to them," and the players he got, Craig MacTavish, Stephane Matteau and Brian Noonan "have nastiness."

Didn't he already have enough nastiness, with Keenan there?

"(Keenan) is running everything," traded forward Phil Bourque said. "It's his show."

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