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Turn Off Oven, Ducks Are Done

April 26, 1999|HELENE ELLIOTT

The Detroit Red Wings said all the right things Sunday. That was only appropriate, because they have done all the right things in winning the first three games of their first-round playoff series against the Mighty Ducks.

Whether flavored with the accent of French Canada, Sweden or Russia, their cliches had the same ring after their 4-2 victory over the Ducks at the Arrowhead Pond. The clincher is the toughest game to win in any series. They must play their best Tuesday, when the series resumes at the Pond, and they anticipate the Ducks will do the same. They haven't won anything yet.

The closest any Red Wing came to gloating was Wendel Clark's assessment of where his team stands.

"I've probably been in their position before, and for us right now, the next game is the hardest because they're a team with their backs against the wall," said Clark, who should be washing General Manager Ken Holland's car every day in gratitude for rescuing him from Tampa Bay last month. "I'd much rather be where we are now, but you never underestimate your opponent."

Said right wing Martin Lapointe: "No doubt about it, we want to win in four, but we don't think they're ready to die just yet."

With all due respect to Lapointe and Clark, this series is over.

If the Ducks couldn't win Sunday with so many factors on their side, they cannot expect to win at all.

In the early going they had the crowd behind them, as their fans drowned out the bandwagon-jumpers and expatriate Detroiters who follow the Red Wings everywhere. They managed to rally after Sergei Fedorov scored a soft, early goal and held a 2-1 lead after 20 minutes, their first edge after a period in this series. They were competing with more verve than they showed in the first two games. They were holding Steve Yzerman relatively in check after he had collected four goals and an assist in the previous two games.

"The first period, we played really well, with a lot of energy, and that's what we really need," Duck right wing Teemu Selanne said. "In the second period, the momentum changed."

It changed because the Red Wings were lucky--Tomas Holmstrom appeared to have his stick above the height of the crossbar on his game-tying power-play goal--and because they were good. Seeing the smallest opening, they marched through en masse and were never truly in danger after Yzerman gave them a 3-2 lead at 4:24 of the second period, during a five-on-three advantage.

After Vyacheslav Kozlov padded their lead to 4-2 at 1:54 of the third period, their chief concern was guarding against the tendency to become sloppy.

"We talked about that after the first period [Friday] night, that we didn't want to play like it was 4-0," Brendan Shanahan said. "Now, we can't play like we're up, 3-0.

"Being up three games is the position we want to be in, but we've found the fourth game is the toughest to win."

That isn't totally a cliche in their case. In their 1997 Stanley Cup run, the Red Wings held a 3-1 series lead over Colorado in the Western Conference finals but were pushed to a sixth game before they could wrap it up; en route to their second successive Cup last season, they held a 3-1 lead over St. Louis in the second round but couldn't close it out until a sixth game, and they repeated that in the conference final against Dallas.

So their politically correct talk isn't merely idle chatter. "We respect those guys because they're working hard and playing well," center Igor Larionov said. "We want to play our best. We can't look at it like 3-0, it's over. We've got to go out and do it ourselves and take it from there."

Take it, they will. They're too deep, poised and disciplined not to. And the Ducks are not nearly strong enough to wrest it away from them.

It was up to Selanne to find something good in the muck of a dispiriting loss. "This was way better than how we played in Detroit, so that's a reason for optimism," said Selanne, whose inability to push off with any power gave credence to the theory he may have reinjured the thigh muscle that troubled him earlier this season. "We have to find a way to do more damage. It's hard to play against these guys. . . We can't give up. There is a big-time chance still. It's not over and we know it. We've got to come out Tuesday and play our best game.

"This has been a good learning process about what it takes to win a series."

If Sunday's game was their best, and it wasn't good enough, that can only mean their lesson will be over soon.

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