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Helene Elliott / ON THE NHL

Kariya Steps Up to the Plate

May 15, 2003|Helene Elliott

Paul Kariya always insisted that when he dreamed of winning the Stanley Cup, he pictured himself wearing a Mighty Duck uniform. Free agency might have seemed an attractive alternative at times, especially while the Ducks' roster and front office were mixed with an eggbeater, but his vision never faded or wavered.

"I believed that," he said, "and I wasn't concerned if people laughed or didn't take me seriously."

Skeptics will have to stop snickering and take him and the Ducks seriously now.

The Ducks are one victory from advancing to the Stanley Cup finals, and they were propelled to the brink of their greatest achievement by a two-goal performance from Kariya Wednesday in a 4-0 thumping of the Minnesota Wild.

They have built a 3-0 lead in the Western Conference finals on the sturdy back of goaltender Jean-Sebastien Giguere, the energy of their penalty killers and remarkably balanced scoring. If they lacked one element, it was a game-breaker -- the kind of player Kariya used to be until he sacrificed scoring for a more team-oriented defensive style.

But for one game, at least, he was that speedy, spectacular difference-maker again, and he did it without giving up anything defensively.

"I was so happy for him," winger Steve Thomas said. "Who better to get on a roll than Paul Kariya?"

Kariya gave the Ducks a 2-0 lead -- all but insurmountable with Giguere building a shutout streak of 213 minutes 17 seconds -- in the second period when he took a superb centering pass from Adam Oates and whipped it past Dwayne Roloson from the slot. He tied a personal playoff record and sent the 17,174 fans at the Arrowhead Pond into a frenzy when he padded the Ducks' lead to 4-0 at 13:51 of the second period, this time against Manny Fernandez. After Fernandez used his glove to bat away a shot by Petr Sykora, Kariya let the law of gravity take hold before he swatted the puck past the helpless goalie on his backhand.

"It's not the first time he's done that," Steve Rucchin said of the Ducks' new sultan of swat. "That's what makes him such a great player. That was a big goal for us."

And for Kariya. "I did my baseball impression," Kariya, an avid baseball fan, said with a smile. "I was waiting for it to come down. I didn't think it was as close as it looked on the replay."

Kariya now leads the Ducks with five goals, although Rucchin and Stanislav Chistov are close behind with four each. "Sometimes you need games like that to get on a roll," Rucchin said of Kariya's performance. "It's not easy to break through. It's different hockey in the playoffs, but it's nice to see Paul do that."

He could have had a hat trick but passed at least once and missed a perfect setup another time. He played merely 4 minutes 50 seconds in the third period when Wild players began to vent their frustrations by bashing and crashing into any Duck player in the vicinity. Or, as Duck Coach Mike Babcock put it, "When it got to be a clown show."

Before that, though, it was Kariya's show.

"You're a scorer, you're under big-time scrutiny in the playoffs. Guys are all over you," Babcock said. "Then when you get room, you try to bury them. I think tonight was a great example of that. He got a little bit of room and he made them count."

Kariya's goals counted for a lot beyond giving the Ducks the most breathing room they've had in a generally taut and tense playoff run. Those goals, that explosiveness, that finishing ability gave his teammates reason to hope he can provide that again and again and again, perhaps often enough to ease their way to the next level.

To the Stanley Cup finals. And to a competitive series whether they face the Ottawa Senators or the New Jersey Devils.

Thomas, a veteran of 19 seasons, has seen Kariya evolve from a kid who had the rare gift of pure scoring ability to a mature, selfless leader who values team success well above his own.

"He's more complete, without a doubt," Thomas said. "He's taking real pride in his defensive game. He's getting pucks off the half-boards in his zone, and that takes a lot for a little guy."

Little guy?

"I can eat peanuts off his head," Thomas said, though why he'd want to is baffling. "We don't try to see who's tallest. We're trying to figure which of us is the shortest."

Neither is short of character, part of the reason the Ducks are so far along this lengthy trail.

"The three teams we've played [Detroit, Dallas and Minnesota] are good defensively," Thomas said. "You don't want to make a mistake and take a chance, so it's been tough for everybody offensively.... This could put him over the top, the fact that he scored a couple times. His confidence level will be soaring."

Perhaps because Kariya is so close now to a place no one but he thought he'd reach, he's determined to remain calm. "It's nice for the team to have some success here and get some recognition for the job we've been doing," he said, "but we've got a long way to go, and again, we've got to get ready for the next game."

A game that will bring him closer to turning his dream into fact.

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