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Five for the Drive

A handful of key regular-season games propelled Ducks to playoffs

May 20, 2003|Chris Foster | Times Staff Writer

Mighty Duck Coach Mike Babcock is talking about foundations ... again.

You've got to have one, he says ... again.

You're lost without one, he says ... again.

The Ducks wouldn't be in the Stanley Cup finals without one, he says ... again.

He's right ... again.

"Before you can do anything, you have to have a foundation," Babcock said Monday. "You have to have that to fall back on when times get tough."

Foundations, though, need solid footings. The Ducks have them. Every game was the most important of the season -- Babcock has said again and again -- but looking back, five stand out.

"There are always steppingstones," veteran center Adam Oates said. "We had games that were huge. Games that went into the memory back. They were games that we could build on."

These are the five most important of the Ducks' 82 most important games of the regular season:

Oct. 10, 2002: Ducks 4, St. Louis 3

The setup: Opening night. General Manager Bryan Murray had spent the summer renovating a franchise in disrepair. Oates, Petr Sykora and Fredrik Olausson were the veteran help brought in. Babcock had spent training camp changing the attitude. German Titov, Jason York and Denny Lambert were the veterans sent packing.

Babcock walked into the dressing room before the game and said, "Fellas, this is the most important game of the season." The players' response, according to goalie Jean-Sebastien Giguere, was, "What?"

The game: The Ducks fell behind, 1-0, in the last minute of the first period. But no collapse followed. Oates and Sykora were the marquee acquisitions during the summer, but rookies Stanislav Chistov and Alexei Smirnov got the Ducks stepping to center stage. Chistov had a goal and three assists, the most points by a player in his NHL debut since 1977. Smirnov had a goal and an assist.

The aftermath: St. Louis was a perennial playoff team. The Ducks beat St. Louis. Drawing a straight line between those facts helped the Ducks make an 82-game beeline to the playoffs.

"For me, that was my first NHL victory," Babcock said. "For the team, it gave us a chance to get off to a good start. We just tried to take a step a day all season."

Some of those subsequent steps were pratfalls. But the seed had been planted.

Oct. 29, 2002: Ducks 2, Montreal 2

The setup: The Ducks had been embarrassed the previous night in Toronto, for the second consecutive year. The 5-2 loss left them with a 2-5-2 record.

"It's embarrassing to come to Toronto, the hockey capital of the world, and play like that," team captain Paul Kariya said.

It had been Duck tradition to be red-faced in Toronto. A year earlier -- almost to the day -- after a 6-1 loss in Toronto, Kariya had said, "That was embarrassing, especially in Toronto. To play like that anywhere is bad, but when you come to Toronto once a year and play like that, embarrassing is the only way to describe it."

The game: The Ducks played with zip and passion, but were denied by a flop-show put on by Canadien goalie Jeff Hackett. Still, they were trailing, 2-1, when Steve Rucchin centered to Keith Carney, who whipped a shot between Hackett's legs with 4 minutes 52 seconds left.

"Well, I mean, is that the same group we had last night?" Babcock said after the game.

The aftermath: The Ducks surged into the playoff mix. They won in Boston two nights later and posted a 6-1-3 record over the next 10 games. This was a taste of the effect Rucchin and Carney -- both injured much of the previous season -- could have on the team. Fast-forward to Game 4 in the first round of the playoffs. Carney centered to Rucchin, who scored the overtime goal to eliminate Detroit.

"We bounced back," Leclerc said. "Montreal is always a tough place to play and we actually deserved better in that game. We outplayed them."

Jan. 9, 2003: Ducks 5, Colorado 3

The setup: As the Ducks sink slowly in the Pacific (Division).... They came out of the Christmas break seemingly with a New Year's resolution to revert to their woeful ways. They were riding a seven-game winless streak, 0-6-1. They were closer to last-pace Nashville, five points, than they were to eighth-place Colorado, six points.

"If you're making sandwiches for the kids, you don't just go, 'There's some baloney,' even though they like cheese and lettuce and tomatoes on it," Babcock said at the time. "That's not good enough. The good-enough meter isn't good enough."

The game: The Ducks, playing their second game in as many nights, fell behind by two goals twice but rallied both times. Sykora gave the Ducks the lead late in the second period, then added the clincher with less than two minutes left in the game and the Ducks got back to .500 with a 16-16-7-3 record.

"Anytime you beat one of the top teams in the NHL, it's a momentum builder," Rucchin said.

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