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HOCKEY PLUS

Ducks' Fate Will Be Settled With a Trip to the Final Five

March 28, 2000|ELLIOTT TEAFORD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Mighty Ducks have five games left against three opponents they have yet to lose to this season. The Phoenix Coyotes have the look of a lost cause after dropping seven consecutive games. The San Jose Sharks look strong. The Edmonton Oilers have the toughest schedule. The Vancouver Canucks have been almost unbeatable lately.

With less than two weeks left in the regular season, the only thing certain in the NHL's Western Conference playoff race is that nothing is certain.

Five teams are fighting for the final three playoff spots, that's a fact. But the race is wide open and handicapping at this point is nearly impossible. Almost anything could happen.

For example, the Ducks could win all five games and still fail to advance to the postseason. Winning five consecutive is a longshot, but consider this:

The Ducks are unbeaten this season against the Kings, Nashville Predators and Chicago Blackhawks. However, their 4-3 victory Sunday against the Phoenix Coyotes was the Ducks' last against the other contenders.

The Kings, the Ducks' opponents Saturday and April 9, are in the playoffs. The Predators, who play the Ducks April 4 and 7, and Blackhawks, who host Anaheim on April 5, are out of the playoffs.

Compounding the uncertainty is the Ducks' layoff until facing the Kings on Saturday in Los Angeles. Sunday's victory tied the Ducks with Vancouver and moved them within two points of Phoenix, San Jose and Edmonton.

But by the time the Ducks play again they're likely to be farther behind. Then again, maybe they won't be.

"Hopefully, they'll all beat up on each other a little bit," Duck center Matt Cullen said when asked who he will be rooting for this week.

Said Teemu Selanne: "I hope they all have hard games while we reload our batteries."

Added Coach Craig Hartsburg: "We've got a week to prepare for our next game. After the schedule we've had, it certainly gives us a chance to rest and work on some things."

The Ducks were 4-3-1 during an eight-games-in-13-nights stretch that ended Sunday.

Perhaps the biggest factor going for the Ducks now is their 2-0-2 record against the Kings, 2-0 mark against Nashville and 3-0-1 record against Chicago.

"Don't tell me that," Cullen said, laughing. "I don't want to know that. L.A. has a great team. It's going to be great playing them [Saturday and in the season's finale]. It's fun hockey at this time of year. I'm dying to get back to playing. This is what you play for."

The Ducks also have a couple of critical factors in their favor. They have more victories than either Edmonton or Vancouver, which is the first tiebreaker should the teams end up with the same number of points. The Ducks won the season series from San Jose, which is the second tiebreaker.

And then there are Selanne and Paul Kariya; the Ducks' duo is hot.

Selanne rebounded from three sluggish games to record two goals and two assists Sunday against Phoenix. Kariya, who had an assist Sunday, has 18 goals and 35 points in his last 24 games.

Kariya, Selanne and defensemen Fredrik Olausson and Oleg Tverdovsky have sparked the team's power-play unit recently. The Ducks are nine for 35 (25.7%) in their last seven games. They were almost 10 for 35, but Tverdovsky's overtime winner Sunday came three seconds after a power play expired.

As they did on the ice Sunday, the ninth-place Ducks seem to have the sixth-place Coyotes in their sights in the standings. Phoenix, which is 3-13-1 in its last 17 games, has seven games remaining.

"Unless we turn it around, we're done," goalie Sean Burke said Sunday. "I'm not a negative guy, but if we don't find a way to pick it up a couple of notches, we're done."

Asked if there was a common thread to the Coyotes' seven consecutive losses, Burke said, "There's a common thread. We're absolutely horrible. We're getting what we deserve."

The Oilers moved from eighth place to sixth Monday with a 2-1 victory over San Jose, which dropped from seventh to eighth. The Sharks have home games left against Dallas and Vancouver. They are on the road against the Kings, Calgary, Edmonton and seventh-place Phoenix.

Edmonton plays at Colorado, Vancouver and Calgary and has home games against Phoenix, San Jose and Colorado.

Vancouver, jelling under captain Mark Messier's leadership, starts a three-game trip Wednesday at Detroit. Nashville and Chicago also are on the trip. The Canucks then face the Kings and Edmonton at home before closing out the season at San Jose.

"I'm proud of this team and these players," Messier told a Vancouver newspaper after the Canucks defeated the Oilers, 3-2, Saturday in Edmonton.

The Canucks are 13-7-4 with two overtime losses since the All-Star break. They have won five of six, including an 8-1 romp over the Ducks last Friday in Vancouver.

"He's the leader and everyone else is just following," Vancouver's Harold Druken said of Messier.

The question now is, can Messier lead the Canucks into the playoffs? And, also to the point, who will join them?

This much is certain: It promises to be an entertaining final two weeks.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

PLAYOFF RACE

The race for final four of eight Western Conference playoff spots (G=Games left):

*--*

No. Team Pts. G 5. KINGS 86 6 6. Edmonton 82 6 7. Phoenix 80 7 8. San Jose 80 6 9. DUCKS 78 5 10. Vancouver 78 6 11. Calgary 74 6

*--*

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