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Fairy-Tale Ducks Get a Devil of an Ending

June 10, 2003|Elliott Teaford and Kimi Yoshino | Times Staff Writers

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- A surprise run at hockey's Stanley Cup by the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim fell short Monday night with a 3-0 loss to the New Jersey Devils in the final game of the best-of-seven championship series.

Helped by the spectacular saves of goalie Jean-Sebastien Giguere, the Ducks had trampled some of the toughest teams in hockey to get to the finals. But in the last game, the one that mattered most, Giguere was beaten three times, twice by former Duck Jeff Friesen, who was traded to New Jersey during the off-season.

As the Devils celebrated the championship in the Continental Airlines Arena, Giguere stood near his own goal, silent and teary-eyed.

Teammates skated up and patted him on the shoulder. His performance overall won him the Conn Smythe Trophy, only the fifth time a member of the losing team in the finals has been named the most valuable player.

"I would give up that one to get the other one," Giguere said, referring to the Stanley Cup. "It would have been much better to get the other one."

It was only the 12th time the finals had gone to a deciding Game 7 since the best-of-seven format was adopted in 1939. It was New Jersey's third Stanley Cup in nine years.

"It's tough to lose like that," Giguere said. "We gave so much effort to get where we are, and you never know when the next chance is going to come at you."

The Ducks' defeat ended a storybook season that began with empty seats at Arrowhead Pond in Anaheim, but -- as the Ducks kept winning through the playoffs -- made the once-hapless team the darlings of Southern California, drawing in legions of fresh fans and for a time turning arid Anaheim into an ice palace.

"I'm proud of our guys," said Coach Mike Babcock. "We came a million miles this season. People didn't know we were alive at the start of the year. We're alive now. We have to have a much better team to be back here again."

The team is only 10 years old, born the year Southern California's other major league hockey team last appeared in the finals. In 1993, the Los Angeles Kings lost in five games to the Montreal Canadiens.

At a time of year when Southern Californians are usually glued to basketball coverage, television ratings for the Stanley Cup spiked to near record highs in the Los Angeles market, and fans in Orange County replaced the yellow and purple Laker flags on their cars with green and purple Duck flags.

Anaheim even earned a spot on the celebrity circuit, with actors such as Mike Myers and Cuba Gooding Jr. attending games for the first time in years. Emilio Estevez, who portrayed the coach in the team's namesake Disney film "The Mighty Ducks," became a regular visitor during the playoffs.

And as in the movie, the heroes of Monday's game were unlikely, and from the wrong team, as far as Ducks fans were concerned.

Michael Rupp, a rookie playing in only his 30th National Hockey League game, scored the first goal for New Jersey 2 minutes 22 seconds into the second period. Friesen scored the second goal almost 10 minutes later and added a third late in the game. Rupp set up both of Friesen's goals.

New Jersey goaltender Martin Brodeur recorded a record seventh shutout, including his third in the finals against the Ducks.

Despite his own bravura performance, Brodeur commended Giguere's play and his selection as the finals MVP.

"He's the big reason why the Mighty Ducks made it so far, and he deserves it," Brodeur said.

Dismissed initially by some as a contest between not-quite-Los Angeles and not-quite-New York, the suburban-based Ducks and Devils fought their way through a classic final showdown that rivaled some of the best in the 110 years since Lord Stanley's $48.67 silver mug was first awarded to the Montreal Amateur Athletic Assn.

The Ducks hoped to repeat the success of the baseball world champions Anaheim Angels, who until a few weeks ago were also owned by Disney. The Angels mounted their own miracle season last year to win the World Series. They, like the Ducks, were dismissed by handicappers as longshot contenders to win the championship.

The miracle didn't last long enough, though, to carry the Ducks as well.

"This is hard, but they gave us a good run," said Heidi Stein, 34, of Orange, who joined a crowd of 7,500 watching the game on big screens at the Pond. "I'm really proud of them."

Two minutes before the horn blew to signal the end of the game fans at the Pond took to their feet to applaud the Ducks, marveling at the long climb and ignoring, for the moment, what might have been.

"The Ducks are awesome and they're all class," said fan Pete Vasquez. "We're still champions. We're still the best, a lot of heart and soul."

Midway through the third period, with the Ducks down by two goals and the championship slipping away, Richard Halpern tried to focus on the path taken, not the end of the journey.

"To get this far is a major accomplishment," said Halpern, 39, of Los Angeles. "This is like Rocky going the distance. We got to the seventh game. That's the pinnacle."

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