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Helene Elliott ON THE NHL

His Game Went South but Returned With Move East

May 24, 2003

OTTAWA — Jeff Friesen's tenure with the Mighty Ducks was doomed from the start, and he knew it.

Traded from San Jose to the Ducks on March 5, 2001 for the popular and prolific Teemu Selanne, he never found a niche or anything resembling a scoring rhythm. Some of his problems might have been self-inflicted, but the end result was the same: a deal that backfired colossally.

"Everyone wanted me and Paul [Kariya] to play together," he said, "and that was the biggest disappointment. He was a left wing and I was a left wing. He moved to the other side, but we just never found the chemistry. Our games just didn't go with each other."

Being traded by the Ducks to New Jersey in a seven-player deal last July, he said, "resurrected my career." And the delicious absurdity of having to leave Anaheim to play there for the Stanley Cup wasn't lost on Friesen, whose goal with 2:14 to play Friday gave the Devils a 3-2 victory over Ottawa and the Eastern Conference title, as well as a date against the Ducks in the Cup finals starting Tuesday at New Jersey.

"I'm shocked it's the Ducks," said Friesen, who had nearly become the goat Friday at the Corel Centre when his giveaway at the Ottawa blue line helped the Senators pull even at 2-2 early in the third period.

"To get traded and meet that team in the finals -- I would have thought more likely it would be San Jose, because they were building something when they traded me away. You've got to give [Duck General Manager] Bryan Murray credit. He's done a great job there."

Although he liked Orange County enough to buy a home in Dana Point and let his dog romp along the Huntington Beach dog beach, Friesen knew he had to leave the Ducks to rebuild his career. "It's just a blessing that trade was made," he said.

Yet, he found more obstacles in New Jersey, potholes of self-doubt generated by his woes in Anaheim and the awkwardness of being thrust into another unfamiliar situation.

Again, he had been traded for a skillful and popular player, in this case Petr Sykora, who had played a key role in the Devils' 2000 Stanley Cup success. His apprehension was obvious during training camp and well afterward.

"At the beginning of the season, Jeff was a little nervous about his teammates and how they'd accept him," Devil center John Madden said. "I saw Jeff grow as a person. He's an unbelievable guy. I'd have him on my team any day."

Playing with savvy veterans Joe Nieuwendyk and Jamie Langenbrunner, Cup winners both, undoubtedly accelerated Friesen's adjustment to the Devils' grind-it-out-and-hope-for-a break offensive style. But the choice of whether to make a concerted effort to fit in was his, and he chose to take the chance and wring out of it all he could.

He had 23 goals this season, second on the team only to Patrik Elias' 29, and his goal Friday gave him the team playoff lead with five. It was also his third winner in this series, following decisive goals in Games 2 and 4.

"He fit right in and played a team game in New Jersey," Devil captain Scott Stevens said. "He sacrificed points and goals for the team and he fit in great."

He created the fit with the scrappiness that had marked him as a player on the rise early in his career with the Sharks, a feistiness he never seemed to have in Anaheim. Nor did he have in Anaheim the resilience he showed Friday.

After losing the puck to Ottawa defenseman Karel Rachunek, he watched in horror as Radek Bonk capped a three-on- two rush by scoring the goal that revived the Senators' hopes of producing what would have been the most monumental victory in franchise history. When he went back to the bench after Bonk's goal, 1:53 into the third period, "I think he was pondering suicide at that point in time," Coach Pat Burns said. "He was banging his stick. I said, 'Just relax. You owe me one.' He went and got the goal."

It wasn't quite that simple.

"I tried snapping my stick but it wouldn't break," Friesen said. "Then I just wanted to give myself a chance to redeem myself.... Pat grabbed me and Marshy [Grant Marshall] grabbed me and said, 'Hang in there.' Then Marshy made a great play and I'm glad I could get that goal. It was the biggest play of my career so far."

Madden made it all happen by winning the puck in a scrum along the boards and finding Marshall on the left side. Marshall, in turn, found Friesen for a shot that sucked the sound and fury out of what had been a vortex of roars and swirling rally towels.

"I felt this was a series where I needed to step up," Friesen said. "I felt I could do it. This was especially big after that turnover, to have a coach who doesn't quit on you."

And a player who doesn't quit on himself, although he had every opportunity to do so. "It's strange," he said of the prospect of returning to Anaheim. "This was a big series for us to win, but one it's one more series against Anaheim for all the marbles."

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