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MIKE PENNER

Mighty Ducks Keep Kings From Hanging Themselves

March 22, 1995|MIKE PENNER

Sixty-seven seconds to play. Ducks up by a goal with the lugs from L.A. back on their heels, having blown a 2-1 third-period lead and perhaps the Los Angeles coaching career of Barry Melrose.

Sixty-seven seconds to burn and the Ducks would have their third victory of March and their eighth victory of the season and their fourth victory in a row against Wayne Gretzky and the Kings. A very special moment in the history of Mighty Duck hockey was about to go down.

Grab it and hold on, the Ducks told themselves, although in retrospect, maybe a more elaborate explanation was required.

Grab and hold onto the lead, Bob Corkum--not your own goal post.

Ducks Coach Ron Wilson looked positively aghast as soon as he saw it: Corkum the reliable veteran, trusted assistant captain and thoughtful players' rep--a thinking man's Duck--takes off skating behind his net to lend defensive support to goaltender Mikhail Shtalenkov and nudges the left goal post off its mooring, a brain cramp of major proportions.

Such a maneuver in the final two minutes of a game means an automatic penalty shot. With 1:07 left on the game clock, that meant one King--in this case, Dan Quinn--rushing in with the puck against one Duck, Shtalenkov, fending solo.

Quinn is not Gretzky, or Rick Tocchet, or Tony Granato--not the first King who comes to mind when the assignment of taking a penalty shot is passed around. But at the moment, Bernie Nicholls is scoring hat tricks in Chicago and Luc Robitaille is racking up multiple-point nights in Pittsburgh. Melrose's scoring options are limited, so Quinn it was.

The mighty Quinn, as he was known in the Kings' dressing room late Tuesday night.

With a left-handed flip over the right shoulder of Shtalenkov, Quinn tied the score at 3-3, where it would remain, and stole a victory from the Ducks and, possibly, delayed the dawning of the Mike Milbury era in Inglewood for a few more hours.

The Ducks needed this one for such trivialities as self-confidence and position in the standings.

The Kings needed this one to save the job of their coach.

Melrose may not be the popular "player's coach" he was during the charmed Stanley Cup run of 1993; too many Kings have done time inside Chateau Bow Wow the past season-and-a-half. But he is a known commodity, and within the closed, suspicious circle that is a hockey team, the known always beats the unknown, hands down.

"Mike Milbury" has become the most effective two-word pep talk on the books. Good thing for Melrose, too, since his own personal motivational guru, toothy Tony Robbins, is now chewing on bigger challenges--like turning around the Clinton White House before the 1996 election.

The rumors keep stumbling over each other.

Milbury is in town, breaking bread with Kings owner Joe Cohen.

Milbury is in town, looking at real estate.

This much is fact: Milbury is a hard-nosed disciplinarian, a coaching conservative who now bides his time as an analyst for ESPN and was a serious management apologist during the NHL lockout. On a team loaded with union activists--Gretzky, Marty McSorley, Rob Blake--the thought of Milbury replacing Melrose is anathema.

So, they are playing for Barry. If that's not quite the same as winning one for the Gipper, the Kings at least have put together three points in their last two games and Gretzky, appearing reinvigorated, has produced seven points in his last three games--including two assists Tuesday.

"Everyone is wide-eyed, watching the way he's playing the last couple games," Quinn said of Gretzky. "It would have been a devastating loss. Now, everything is starting to come together."

Goaltender Kelly Hrudey called it "a very, very big game. I don't agree with some people saying it would have been the season if we had lost."

He shook his head.

"It seems like every time we play (the Ducks), they play like the Stanley Cup champions."

Except for one ill-timed example of clutch and grab in the final 67 seconds.

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