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Kariya Still Solid as a Rock

Not always spectacular anymore, forward becomes a better all-around player and seeks more team success than individual glory.

May 01, 2003|Elliott Teaford | Times Staff Writer

He remains a goaltender's worst nightmare, a 5-foot-10 blur capable of whistling pucks into the net with a blistering forehand or a crafty backhand. But the intriguing thing about left wing Paul Kariya these days is that he doesn't need to score in order for the Mighty Ducks to win.

The Ducks didn't march to the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs, now one victory away from advancing to the Western Conference finals for the first time in the franchise's 10-season history, because of him and him alone.

Kariya has two goals and five points in eight playoff games, trailing two others for the team lead in goals and with the same number of points as four others. He had 25 goals and 81 points during the regular season, second in goals and tops in points.

Kariya was on the bench late in Game 4 of a 1-0 victory Wednesday over the Dallas Stars at the Arrowhead Pond, cheering as the Ducks' second power-play unit gave them a commanding three-games-to-one lead over the Stars in the best-of-seven series. Game 5 is Saturday at Dallas.

He was more solid than spectacular Wednesday, with two shots on net in 18 minutes 53 seconds of ice time, including a nifty backhander that almost beat Dallas goalie Marty Turco in the second period.

Mike Leclerc scored the only goal, a power-play strike with 1:47 remaining. Defenseman Ruslan Salei slipped a pass to defenseman Sandis Ozolinsh, who fed a cross-ice pass to Leclerc, who scored on a one-timer from the right circle.

Over the seasons, as the Ducks failed to live up to their initial promise as marketable winners, there was speculation that Kariya desired a better hockey life elsewhere. He's now basking in what's become an electric season in Anaheim.

"I've always believed in this organization," said Kariya, 28, three years away from being eligible for unrestricted free agency. "When I've thought about winning the Stanley Cup, I've always thought about winning it here. When Bryan [Murray] took over [as general manager last summer] and I saw the moves he made, I could see things were headed in the right direction."

Even when his father, T.K., died earlier this season, while the Ducks were playing in the family's hometown of Vancouver, Canada, Kariya felt rooted in Southern California. He hasn't spoken publicly of his father's death, but speaks often to his mother, Sharon.

"Whenever my mother comes to our games, she's rooting for the other players to do well," Kariya said "Even now, she says, 'Isn't Jiggy [goalie Jean-Sebastian Giguere] playing great? And it's nice to see Jason Krog scoring big goals.' She always emphasizes the team. She's there for support."

Murray's moves to upgrade the Ducks have helped too.

Instead of playing on a line with youngsters Samuel Pahlsson and Timo Parssinen, as he did to start last season, Kariya has been skating with Adam Oates and Petr Sykora -- two seasoned and respected veterans. Rumors are starting to fly that Kariya will be re-united with Teemu Selanne, a former Duck who will be a free agent July 1.

"When Paul first came into the league, there was a lot of pressure on him," said center Steve Rucchin, another frequent linemate. "There were skeptics because of his size and the team didn't have a lot of depth. He had to focus on providing offense and he had to prove himself. He became one of the elite players in the league."

That's certainly still true, although Kariya finished 13th in scoring this season. In many ways, he has begun to follow a well-traveled path to playing a better all-around game, one that's taken players such as Detroit's Steve Yzerman and Brett Hull and Dallas' Mike Modano from individual stardom to team success.

"He knows it's better for the team for him to play at both ends of the ice," Rucchin said. "It's not as easy to score goals as when we were first playing together."

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