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Ducks Go Over the Top

Ozolinsh's goal with 1:06 left sends Anaheim into its first Western Conference finals with 4-3 victory over Stars. Next is Vancouver or Minnesota.

May 06, 2003|Chris Foster | Times Staff Writer

This was a once-vacant arena ... except on nights Cher popped by to sing.

This was a once-pathetic franchise ... expected to remain that way.

This, for once, was a moment the Mighty Ducks could savor.

With time running out and another overtime looming in Game 6, Mike Leclerc fired a puck on net and Sandis Ozolinsh was there to bat in the rebound for a 4-3 victory over the Dallas Stars on Monday night. It sent the sellout crowd of 17,174 at the Arrowhead Pond into a frenzy and sent the Ducks into the Western Conference finals for the first time in franchise history.

"Maybe this will get us a little respect, finally ... well-earned respect," Leclerc said. "Maybe we didn't deserve it the last few years with how we played. But the second half of this season we have played as well as anyone. That put us in that group of elite teams."

Leclerc helped put the Ducks in that rarefied air, as he rushed into the Star zone with the puck and got a shot on net. Dallas goalie Marty Turco made the save, but Ozolinsh swooped in and put the puck in the net with 1:06 left in the game.

"I knew Mike was going to put the puck on goal," Ozolinsh said. "That's how he has been the whole series. I went right to the net and got lucky. This is great, but it is just one step toward our goal, which is to win the Stanley Cup."

Duck players can say such things with a straight face now. A lot has changed.

The Ducks were the last-place team in the Western Conference two seasons ago. They were tied for 13th last season. The Ducks, however, are no longer a sad-sap punch line.

"I think the moment speaks for itself," said center Steve Rucchin, who has been with the Ducks since the 1994-95 season. "We're one of four teams left. We're in the Western Conference finals."

The Ducks got there by shaking off the offensive cobwebs after scoring three goals in the last three games. Steve Thomas had a goal and two assists. Ozolinsh had a goal and an assist. The Ducks even managed a power-play goal.

That meant goalie Jean-Sebastien Giguere needed only a good game, instead of a perfect one.

"That game just sums up our team," Rucchin said. "We found a way. We have been finding a way all season."

Dallas didn't go easy. Ruslan Salei gave the Ducks the lead 3:22 into the third period, taking a Thomas pass and whipping a shot past Turco.

Stu Barnes' goal was disallowed with 7:58 left when replay officials determined the net was off the moorings. Brenden Morrow, though, had a puck deflect off his skate with 5:11 left to get the Stars even.

It didn't last, as the Ducks won their eighth one-goal game of the playoffs. The Stars, the top-seeded team in the Western Conference, were sent packing

"You think Dallas Stars, you think champions," Leclerc said. "What you always want to do is compete on that level. You got to think like champions to beat the champions."

This will be the first time since 1994 that Dallas, Detroit or Colorado won't win the Western Conference.

The changing of the guard was due mostly to the Ducks, who swept second-seeded Detroit in the first round, then waded through Dallas.

"I think I have to pinch myself right now," Thomas said. "Is this real?"

All the Ducks need to dream on is a new opponent, as they await the winner of the Vancouver-Minnesota series. Vancouver leads, 3-2, after the Wild avoided elimination Monday.

The Stars also came determined to extend this series and sending it deep in the heart of Texas one more time for a Game 7 in Dallas.

Kirk Muller chipped in a goal 5:10 into the first period for a 1-0 lead. The Stars continued to bump and grind, as they did in a 4-1 victory Saturday. The Ducks, though, gave as good as they got.

Niclas Havelid made it clear early that there were to be no more shenanigans with Giguere. Less than a minute into the game, Giguere made a save and Morrow swooped in to chip at him. Before he could raise his stick, Havelid cross-checked him to the ice.

"That was nice to see," said Giguere, who stopped 26 of 29 shots. "Their game plan was to try to get in my kitchen again."

The Ducks, though, were the ones feasting in the second period, taking a 2-1 lead. Thomas, off a slick Ozolinsh pass, scored a power-play goal, only the Ducks' fourth in the playoffs. Stanislav Chistov then buried a shot after a tip-pass from Thomas.

That 2-1 lead lasted until Rob DiMaio fired a shot that hit Niko Kapanen in the stomach and went into the net.

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