YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Helene Elliott ON THE NHL

Rucchin Finally Can Find Some Reason to Smile

June 08, 2003|Helene Elliott

There is hockey and there is life, and no victory on the ice, even one as significant as the triumph Saturday that forced a seventh game in the Stanley Cup finals, will ease the ache in Steve Rucchin's heart over the death of his brother nearly a year ago.

Nor can anyone return to him the time lost to a bizarre and painful succession of injuries the last two seasons, time the Mighty Ducks missed him beyond measure.

But if any player has learned to live for and in the moment, it's Rucchin. The past has its place, to be appreciated and remembered. But the present is too sweet and too improbably wonderful for Rucchin to dwell on the misfortune he has endured.

Especially Saturday, after he scored the two goals that launched the Ducks to a series-tying 5-2 victory before a crowd intent on raising the roof at the Arrowhead Pond. He has hit stride offensively the same time the Ducks have, a good omen as the finals move to a dramatic conclusion Monday at the Continental Airlines Arena.

"The last couple of years have been tough, definitely," said Rucchin, who earlier this week learned he is one of three finalists for the Masterton Trophy, which recognizes perseverance and dedication.

"This more than makes up for it. You can't dream of anything more -- a chance to win the Stanley Cup in Game 7.

"It doesn't get much better than that."

Perhaps it does, as Rucchin acknowledged, because longtime linemate Paul Kariya was beside him, smiling and none the worse for wear after absorbing a thunderous hit from New Jersey defenseman Scott Stevens that briefly knocked Kariya on his back early in the second period.

Kariya, Rucchin, winger Mike Leclerc and defenseman Ruslan Salei are the only players remaining from the Ducks' last playoff team, which was swept by Detroit in the first round in 1999. All four have experienced more disappointment than joy on the ice in the intervening years, and Kariya and Rucchin came to regard the ice as a place to take refuge from personal sorrows.

That they are here together, that their dreams have converged and they have propelled the Ducks to the place every hockey player imagines himself reaching from the day he laces up his first pair of skates, was a kind of miracle on ice.

"I'm happy to be able to share this opportunity with some guys that have been here awhile. One of them is Paul," Rucchin said. "It means a lot for some of the downs we have had as an organization, to get this chance and to get some respect in the league. That's the biggest thing, I think, to be able to share this with some teammates that I've played with."

Rucchin's first goal, at 4:26 of the first period, was set up on a pass from Kariya. Rucchin's shot deflected off Stevens and past the glove of Devil goaltender Martin Brodeur, but lucky breaks at this stage are as valuable and count as much as end-to-end rushes.

Complete player that he is, Rucchin stepped up defensively a few minutes later to clear the goal line of a shot by Turner Stevenson that had hit the crossbar behind Duck goalie Jean-Sebastien Giguere. And at 13:42, he scored his second goal, on the Ducks' eighth shot, beating Brodeur from close range.

"Their first goal was probably the one that really hurt us," Devil Coach Pat Burns said. "Then it seems to be that the one or two seems to get the ball rolling."

In a game in which, for once, Giguere wasn't a key figure, Rucchin led a scoring spree that gave Giguere a bit of a mental rest and boosted the Ducks' confidence.

"Those were huge goals," Salei said. "Rooch really stepped up and played a great game. He's a huge part of our team and he's a great leader. This season, it was like we got a new player because he wasn't hurt."

To Niclas Havelid, it's no coincidence that as Rucchin goes, so go the Ducks.

"He's been out almost two years with injuries but he's been great the whole year," Havelid said. "He's a big leader and he's great in the locker room."

And on the ice.

"He's a big guy and he's tough to take the puck from," Havelid said. "He also has that long reach. He's good at both ends of the rink, so he can score and at the same time, he's good in his own end. He's got all the tools, plus he's a great faceoff guy."

Rucchin won 12 of 16 faceoffs Saturday and has won 110 of 179 over the last eight games, a 61.5% success rate. "He's a great player," Havelid said.

The word "great" is sometimes cheapened by overuse. But if it means grace, leadership and the best performances under the worst of pressure, it applies to Rucchin. To the Ducks, too, with the end of the season looming.

Instead, they extended their season to Monday, to the game they've wanted to play since they were kids. In Rucchin's dreams, he said, he scored the overtime winner. Suddenly, the impossible is possible.

"You just hope for this opportunity, and we've been given this opportunity," he said. "We did a great job tonight to give ourselves a chance in Game 7. That's all you can ask for. Here we are.

"We're feeling good about ourselves and the way we're playing right now. We need to continue. Of course it's going to be an exciting game, but we're looking forward to it and we're ready."

Los Angeles Times Articles