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Inside the NHL | Helene Elliott ON THE NHL

Ducks in a Holding-On Pattern

March 04, 2003|Helene Elliott

Both times the Mighty Ducks have made the playoffs, they were fueled by a second-half push that made them one of the NHL's hottest teams.

In 1996-97, they were 13-3-7 in their last 23 games, had a 7-0-5 unbeaten streak from Feb. 22 to March 19 and a season-ending 5-0-2 run that vaulted them to fourth overall. In 1998-99, their last venture into postseason play, they had a club-record seven-game winning streak from Feb. 20 to March 7 and were 18-12-4 over their last 34 games, good for the No. 6 playoff spot.

This season, however, they've been in a playoff spot since Feb. 4. That has put them in the unaccustomed position of fending off pursuers -- among them the Kings, whom they play tonight at Staples Center. It's a subtle but undeniable difference, one that could test their mental resolve while they plow through an unforgiving schedule that will surely tax their physical reserves.

"It's definitely going to be tougher," said center Steve Rucchin, who acknowledged that the Ducks have recently lacked their usual jump. "We've got some pretty desperate teams behind us, not that we're not desperate. But we're used to catching up, and those other teams are extremely desperate.

"We know we need to win some games, starting [tonight]. But I'd rather be in this situation than have to catch other teams from behind."

Tonight's game will be the Ducks' second in a stretch of 13 in 23 nights and the first in five remaining back-to-back sequences. Even Coach Mike Babcock agrees it's their biggest game this season.

"The bottom line is, we've got to go to L.A. and win the game," he said.

Then again, he'd said the Ducks' game against Atlanta last Sunday was their biggest of the season. And later tonight, he'll say Wednesday's game against Montreal at the Arrowhead Pond will be the team's biggest.

"We've worked hard to get our position. We like our position. We don't give it back," he said.

"We don't look back over our shoulders. To me, there's only one way to go about life and sport, and that's to look ahead. You can talk about all those other teams, but it comes down to one team: us."

Goaltender Jean-Sebastien Giguere agrees that the Ducks, who are in a 3-5-1 slide after having won seven of eight, can't pause to listen for footsteps.

"We have to worry about ourselves and how we play," he said. "We need to dictate the tone of the game, and if we do, we'll give ourselves a chance to win....

"I could feel [in Sunday's 4-1 loss to Atlanta], mentally, a few guys weren't sharp. Every team in the league goes through that. But if we listen to ourselves saying we're tired, we're going to be tired. We have to be positive. Positive energy is contagious. If one guy isn't positive, we're all going to be sick."

Springboard or Platform?

Once again, the NHL is changing its rules as it goes along. In the tradition of its past mid-season crackdowns on obstruction, it has now declared diving a blight that must be eliminated.

Starting last Saturday -- yes, three-quarters of the way through the season -- NHL Vice President Colin Campbell established the "embarrassment line." Names of those who cross that threshold, as determined by Campbell and other members of the NHL's hockey operations department, will be put on a weekly "divers' list" posted in each club's locker room. Players will be fined $1,000 each time they make the list.

The fines and lists are "totally independent from what is being called on the ice," Campbell said in a memo. "Diving is an embarrassing part of our game and incidents of diving must be reduced immediately. Some players in an effort to give their team a man advantage by drawing a penalty, have no shame in diving or embellishing a fall.... Not all dives will result in a fine, only the disgraceful ones that demean our game."

Red line, blue line, embarrassment line ... You couldn't make this up.

The players' union, apt to dispute anything just as practice for next year's labor talks, objected. And with reason. Why change now? And why should anyone believe this will be consistently applied when the much-heralded focus on obstruction has vanished?

The real solution is to find competent referees who establish authority and make it clear diving is unacceptable. Campbell shouldn't waste his time watching videotapes in his Toronto office and rapping players' knuckles.

"I really wonder what they are trying to do," Mighty Duck center Adam Oates said. "There are a lot of gray areas there, I'll tell you....

"Some guys take dives. There is no question about that. But sometimes guys just get bumped and lose their balance [and] it can look like a dive. So who is going to make that call?"

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