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Helene Elliott ON THE NHL

This Defining Moment Can Give New Meaning to Their Season

June 07, 2003|Helene Elliott

Their voices were calm, sometimes almost soft, but the Mighty Ducks say their resolve remains firm.

Facing their biggest challenge of the playoffs, the Ducks went about business as usual Friday, proclaiming they've already erased the sour memories of the 6-3 loss Thursday at New Jersey that put them one misstep from watching the Devils skate around the Arrowhead Pond with the Stanley Cup tonight.

Yes, this game -- like the 82 regular-season games and 19 playoff games that preceded it -- is their most important game of the season.

This game is their season.

"We've been a mentally strong team all through the playoffs," Duck winger Rob Niedermayer said. "We have to put [Thursday's] game behind us. One thing about the playoffs, you play almost every second night, so there's no time to dwell on what's done."

Perhaps an indication of their optimism is a small sign taped to the wall in the hallway between their shower room and their locker room. It reads, "Sticks For Road 1 Games," -- with the numeral 1 scrawled on white adhesive tape. Beneath that sign, players leave their sticks to be packed for trips.

The Ducks will pack those sticks and play Monday at New Jersey only if they win tonight. Only if they erase from their memories and their repertoire the worst aspects of their Game 5 loss and remember the promising beginning, in which they scored the game's first goal, got an assist out of Paul Kariya for his first point in the finals, and got a goal from Petr Sykora, the Czech winger's first in eight games.

They will play that last road game only if they look into one another's eyes tonight and see the same kind of passion the Devils summoned Thursday at Continental Airlines Arena, and more.

Duck defenseman Keith Carney said when he looks around the locker room, he sees in his teammates' faces a fire to win and determination to take the season to the limit, to the seventh game they've all dreamed of playing since they were kids in Montreal, Minnesota or Minsk. However, those weren't rose-colored glasses he wore Friday in place of his contact lenses. He recognized the Devils' assertive, scrappy performance in Game 5 as the signature of a team with as much grit as it has talent, and that's considerable.

The Devils threw the puck at the net from every angle and drove to the net for deflections, rebounds and redirections, rarely meeting resistance from the Ducks' overwhelmed forwards and overworked defense. Behind every so-called lucky bounce the Devils got was a choice by one of their players to take a hit or dish one out, to work as diligently as the player on the bench beside him and to test Duck goaltender Jean-Sebastien Giguere with a seemingly low-percentage shot and hope for the best.

The Devils got the absolute best they could have hoped for, moving within one victory of their third Cup championship in nine seasons.

Duck Coach Mike Babcock gave them his highest compliment by calling them "greasy," his term for a refusal to give up and a willingness to do the grunt work that is so often necessary to win playoff games. "It was just honest," he said.

Knowing the Devils were capable of playing that way was of little use to the Ducks in countering it.

"They've got a great team, a team with a lot of experience that works hard and is resilient," said Carney, the Ducks' ice-time leader with an average of 27 minutes 9 seconds a game. "We knew that going in. We're ready for it and excited to be in this situation....

"We have to have the greater will and desire. We'll play as hard as we can for as long as we have to. We feel confident and comfortable coming here, and we're ready to give it back to them and take it from there."

The Ducks are 8-1 at home in the playoffs and the Devils a dismal 4-6 on the road, including overtime losses in the third and fourth games of the finals.

"We know what we're capable of," winger Mike Leclerc said. "They kind of out-battled us the last game and created more bounces. But we can't dwell on that. Our season is on the line and we're just going to worry about the task ahead of us. We know why we lost, and we just have to fix it."

The solution doesn't involve changing their lineup or their system. Neither would make sense at this stage and would harm more than help.

"The coach said to do what we do, and that's it. It comes down to that," Giguere said. "All we can ask from ourselves and each other is to be your best and stick with the game plan. Whatever happens, happens, but let's go away with no regrets."

The Devils have been a Cup contender for nearly a decade and won it in 1995 and 2000. They're probably not as talented as those championship teams were, but their collective heart might be greater. It's a lot to expect the relatively inexperienced Ducks to understand that and match that and be able to steer through rough waters as well as the Devils have, especially because they hadn't trailed in their first three series.

The Ducks' performance tonight will define them. It is their chance -- their choice -- to do all they can to live out their dreams, or spend weeks and maybe years wondering about what might have been.

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