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Monkey Shines for the Ducks

Run to finals has defied conventional wisdom and surprised most analysts, but not Maggie, Canadian TV's simian prognosticator.

May 19, 2003|Chris Foster | Times Staff Writer

On display at selected spots around Southern California will be the Stanley Cup, which will glisten in a different shopping mall every day this week.

Get a good look at hockey's holy grail now, because it soon will be heading east to take up a more permanent residence. That is as sure as the sun -- and the Mighty Ducks -- setting in the west.

Yup, there is no way the Ducks can win the Stanley Cup this season. That is being made clear by many talking heads out there in Television Land with the exception of those who roll up daily on the bandwagon at the Arrowhead Pond.

TSN's Maggie the Monkey has yet to spin her wheel of destiny, but the Eastern Conference is in the process of determining who gets the Cup, with New Jersey leading Ottawa, 3-1, in the best-of-seven series.

The Ducks? It's not possible for them to win the Cup.

Just like it was not possible for them to make the playoffs ... or beat Detroit ... or beat Dallas ... or make the Cup finals.

Duck defenseman Ruslan Salei smirked at this, and snorted a laugh.

"We've been the underdog every time," Salei said. "There are no plans to change that. We're comfortable with that. It doesn't even affect us."

The ones affected are players from Detroit, Dallas and Minnesota, who are now sharpening their golf games instead of boning up for the Stanley Cup finals.

The Ducks were written off as tomato cans for playoff heavyweights like the Red Wings and Stars in the first two rounds. Even after the Ducks won the first two games on the road in both those series, skeptics remained.

That was a tailor-made suit that the Ducks have worn well.

"Maybe that helped us focus a little more," center Steve Rucchin said. "We're being asked how we can possibly win instead of being told that we're going to win. Maybe we focus more on what we need to do. But I don't think it matters that much."

Or as team captain Paul Kariya said, "I don't care about underdogs or whatever label we're given. That doesn't concern us."

Others have those duties, and the Ducks have made monkeys out of them ... literally.

TSN, a Canadian sports channel, solicited predictions from some of that country's leading TV commentators. Then Maggie, a live monkey in the studio, would spin a wheel to predict the winner of each series. Guess who slipped on those banana peels?

Detroit.

Commentators: Red Wings. Monkey: Ducks.

Dallas.

Commentators: Stars. Monkey: Ducks.

"Before we played Detroit, I was talking to my wife on the phone and she told me the only one to pick us was a monkey," right wing Steve Thomas said. "That put a lot of things in perspective. It was kind of neat. What do the people over there know?"

After the Ducks won both series, Maggie was in big demand. In fact, before the Ducks played Minnesota, TSN had to do a remote from the Bowmanville Zoo in Ontario, where Maggie spun her wheel again and, again, picked the Ducks.

"I'm not even going to get into that," Rucchin said.

No need. The point seems clear. No one in the media -- print or electronic -- was going ape about the Ducks' chances.

That, to the Ducks, is how it has been all season.

The working theory early in the season was that if the Ducks stayed in the playoff race the entire season and finished 10th in the conference, that would be reason enough to have a parade.

"If you would have told me six months ago that we would be here right now, I would have said that was probably not possible," Coach Mike Babcock said.

The parade level keeps getting raised.

The Ducks finished seventh and made the playoffs. They upset the defending champion Red Wings. They upset the top-seeded Stars. They beat the Wild in the conference finals.

Now, they can start thinking about a really big parade, provided New Jersey or Ottawa doesn't rain on it.

"There is no question we'll be the underdog in the final," General Manager Bryan Murray said. "Maybe it is fair to pick the East team. [New Jersey and Ottawa] are the top two teams in the East. We were the seventh-place team in the West. But we have won what was considered the tougher conference the last few years. I do think we have raised the respect level for our team. We certainly respect the two teams in the East."

Tradition is a hard thing to ignore ... even now.

The Ducks tied an NHL record by being the fifth team to reach the final in 14 games since 1987, when the league expanded the playoffs.

Yet the track records are more impressive in the East. New Jersey has won two Stanley Cups in the last eight seasons -- the only two for the Eastern Conference in that time. Ottawa has made the playoffs seven consecutive seasons and this season won the President's Trophy, given to the team with the best regular-season record.

The Ducks, meanwhile, have spent a season convincing everyone of their worth, including themselves.

"The bar keeps getting raised," Murray said. "Certainly the level of expectations has been raised. Our players' expectations are higher than they were early on. It took us only 14 games to reach the Stanley Cup final. That's a remarkable achievement.

"The people in the know recognize we have a good team."

And the others? Well, that may take another four victories.

"The only thing that concerns us is going out there and playing the game," Kariya said.

And the rest is just monkey business to the Ducks.

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