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Helene Elliott ON THE NHL

After Years of Struggle, Ducks' Defining Moment Was Written in the Stars

May 06, 2003|Helene Elliott

Coach Mike Babcock had called this his team's defining moment, and the Mighty Ducks rose to the challenge and collectively decided they would no longer be defined by their failures.

Given a second chance to advance to the Western Conference finals, the Ducks finished off the Dallas Stars in six games with a 4-3 victory Monday before a roaring, noise stick-banging sellout crowd at the Arrowhead Pond. Two days after they had been flattened physically and emotionally in a 4-1 loss at Dallas, the Ducks responded with the resilience and tenacity that have fueled their remarkable rise from playoff spectators last spring to giant-killers, with notches on their belt representing the second-seeded Red Wings and top-seeded Stars.

The Ducks, once a laughingstock for their movie-inspired name and later a joke for their front-office follies, are one of the last four teams playing this season.

Define that.

"This is my 19th year, and I've been to the semis four times," said winger Steve Thomas, who scored the Ducks' first goal and set up the next two, "and I've never felt like 'We can win' with any other team than this team. It's an unbelievable feeling."

In keeping with their habit of prolonging the suspense of every game, they survived the potential deflation of an apparent tying goal by the Stars with 7:58 to play, able to rejoice when on- and off-ice officials ruled the net had come off its moorings before Stu Barnes' shot beat Jean-Sebastien Giguere. And when Dallas scored a goal that withstood review after having caromed off the right skate of Brenden Morrow with 5:11 left, the Ducks had yet another answer.

"I don't know where it comes from," Thomas said of the team's resilience. "We find a way. When you feel every time before the game you're going to have a good chance to win the hockey game, you feel it in your heart, nine times out of 10 you'll have a positive outcome."

This was one of those times.

Sandis Ozolinsh put them ahead for the final time with 66 seconds left, a clever individual effort that rekindled hope among fans who were almost afraid to believe what they were seeing. As the final seconds ticked off, the Pond became a chamber of noise and glee, the only silence a pocket near the Stars' bench where the team that had the best record in the West was left to ponder what had happened.

What happened was a confluence of will and hope and strength, mental and psychological. In a sport renowned for an appreciation of teamwork, this was the ultimate team effort -- a feat recognized by the Stars, who showed class by clapping their conquerors on the back and making the painful trudge through the traditional post-series handshaking line, a moment of gentility that is one of the wonders of this most rugged sport.

"We're proving that we're legitimate contenders and in that elite category," Duck winger Mike Leclerc said. "I don't think it's a matter of us getting lucky. We worked hard and we deserve this."

Everyone contributed, in ways small or large. Steve Rucchin won faceoffs. Giguere was his usual unshakable self in goal. Keith Carney was steady and strong on defense. They could not -- would not -- let the Stars build any confidence or momentum from their victory at Dallas on Saturday.

And so arose a new order in the hockey universe. The Red Wings and Avalanche, perennial powers, were sent home in the first round. The Stars were sent home Monday.

The Ducks next will play the winner of the Vancouver-Minnesota series, which the Canucks lead, 3-2. But on Monday, the Ducks were entitled to postpone thoughts of matchups and strategy and revel in the joy of defining themselves as winners.

"You can talk about achievements in the regular season," Babcock said, "but you want to be known as someone who can get the job done in the playoffs."

They got it done without taking this series to the limit and tempting fate a third time. They had the additional satisfaction of winning at home, in front of several members of the World Series champion Angels, their brethren under the Disney yoke -- at least until the Angels' sale is completed.

Whether the Ducks' season will reach the same happy conclusion as the Angels' did last October is uncertain. But the Ducks have won by getting this far, with this coach, with this lineup, with a $45-million payroll that is dwarfed by those of many of their rivals.

By telling players they would be measured by their performance Monday, Babcock took a chance. A well-calculated chance, perhaps, but still a risk, because what could he have said if the Ducks' effort had come up short?

He didn't have to search his dictionary or thesaurus. The Ducks met their most stern challenge. Forget Hollywood endings and Disney movies. This was built not on pixie dust but sweat and strain and relentless effort. And all the sweeter for it.

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