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SPORTS WEEKEND | DIANE PUCIN

Duck Loss No Capital Offense

October 11, 1998|DIANE PUCIN

WASHINGTON — There were fireworks and sparklers and flames shooting high in the air at the MCI Center Saturday night. Pyrotechnics galore and a video film tribute and a banner raised to the roof too, all in honor of the Washington Capitals, your 1997-98 Eastern Conference champions.

And what were the Mighty Ducks doing here? They were supposed to act as any self-respecting homecoming football opponent would. They were supposed to allow themselves to be beaten soundly.

After all, the Ducks are the popular choice to finish last in their division. Their defense is supposed to be able to help prevent goals about as well as a paper umbrella would keep you dry in a hurricane. They were starting a goalie, Dominic Roussel, who hasn't played in the NHL in over a year. The opposing coach, Ron Wilson, had been quoted as saying he only wished the Capitals were raising a Stanley Cup banner while the Ducks watched so, yes, it does seem Wilson has not forgiven the Ducks for firing him two years ago.

And so it is possible to look at the 1-0 loss in the season-opener for the Ducks as something of an accomplishment. It is possible to think that the Mighty Ducks played mighty fine. It is possible to think that maybe the defense was playing possum during the exhibition season. It is possible to assume that Paul Kariya and Teemu Selanne will not be blanked on too many nights.

It is possible that this would all be wishful thinking too, but who knows?

For if it is possible to think that Roussel might turn into some miracle cure for the defensive blues what with all his sprawling, crawling, and sometimes blind-lucky saves against the Capitals, it is also possible to think that it will not be easy to cure the power-play blues. The Ducks were 0 for six on power plays against the Capitals and most times the Capitals had better scoring chances when they were short-handed than the Ducks did.

And if it is possible to believe, as Duck General Manager Pierre Gauthier said before the game, that good defense is not a product of superstars but of determined players acting as a team, it is also possible to suspect that the Capitals might have been just a teeny bit flat and a tad overconfident.

Most of all it is easy to think that the Ducks missed a great opportunity to start out this new season with a massive upset and a big boost to a young team uncertain of whether it is on its way up from last year's disastrous season or whether it is well on its way to becoming a perpetually bad team.

Selanne stood in the middle of the locker room afterward, hands on his hips, feet spread apart, sweat dripping from his nose and he insisted that on most nights, playing the exact same hockey game, the Ducks will win.

"If you had told me they would have only scored one goal, I would have said it was a win for us," Selanne said. "Definitely, most times playing this hockey, we're gonna win. The effort was great, we were smarter defensively and we knew that once the season started, we could not afford not to have the effort."

But then Selanne said something more telling, something about what maybe this team thinks of itself, deep down inside.

"We were hoping," Selanne said, "that they don't respect us and maybe we could steal something."

This is not a rousing, pregame win-one-for- the-Gipper speech you'd want to give before any athletic contest--"Let's hope they don't respect us."

On the other hand, go with whatever works. And it almost did.

This would have been such a perfect chance to assume lack of respect and ruin a celebration.

Craig Hartsburg, the Mighty Ducks' new coach whose facial expressions change as often as the leaves on palm trees change colors, stubbornly said that it was an advantage to his team that it only had to watch the pregame ceremonies instead of participate in them, and indeed the Caps seemed curiously flat once the smoke and flames had gone away.

There wasn't much passion from the Capitals. The skating seemed in slow motion. Even the fighting came without much oomph, as if there were a script somewhere that said: "Take off gloves here, punch an opponent now."

Hartsburg said that, no, his team hadn't hoped to sneak away with a stolen victory hidden away in the equipment bag, something to be spirited out of the building before security caught on. Hartsburg said that his team expected to walk away with its head up and with having made a statement.

No statement was made. No conclusion can be drawn.

Sunday night the Ducks will play another team which very well might not respect it. The Philadelphia Flyers only have their entire city primed to call anything less than a Stanley Cup season a failure. The Flyers' certified super star, Eric Lindros, is being called a failure by a majority of his own team's fans, at least according to a newspaper poll.

There is no reason to think that the Flyers will be primed for a Western Conference team that finished 12th in its conference, that has no presence in this part of the country. Hoping for no respect again, that might just be a heckuva game plan. Go with it.

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