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STANLEY CUP FINALS

Nice Tricks of the Trade

Exchanging Friesen for Sykora has worked out well for the Ducks and Devils

May 27, 2003|Chris Foster | Times Staff Writer

Petr Sykora was caught like a Duck in the spotlights.

The media swarm swooped in after the Mighty Ducks' practice on Saturday in Anaheim. The bright lights flashed, the microphones were shoved in his face.

Sykora, eyebrows raised, looked up and said, "What the [heck] is this?"

A television reporter meekly replied, "New Jersey."

The Duck right wing snorted a laugh and said, "So?"

Maybe the saying should be, you shouldn't go home again. Sykora, who played seven seasons with the Devils before being traded to the Ducks, has seemed a bit uncomfortable talking about going back to face his former team in the Stanley Cup finals.

Across the continent the previous night, Devil winger Jeff Friesen had no problem talking about the Ducks. He has needed little prodding to take shots at his former team all season, but after scoring the winning goal to beat Ottawa in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals, he watered down his stance considerably.

"[The Ducks] obviously made some changes," Friesen said. "They have a new coach and they believe in their system. It's a great thing, but we need to just get focused in on what we have to do."

Rarely in sports can a trade be so easily evaluated.

Last July, the Ducks shipped Friesen and defenseman Oleg Tverdovsky and the rights to Maxim Balmochnykh east and got Sykora, defenseman Mike Commodore, goalie J.F. Damphousse and prospect Igor Pohanka.

The Ducks parlayed Commodore and Damphousse into burly winger Rob Niedermayer, who was acquired from Calgary on March 11 and has been the Ducks' best forward in the playoffs.

Friesen and Tverdovsky were unhappy in Anaheim and made that clear.

Sykora, who had an injured foot during the playoffs last season, was the target of some low-level grumbling for not playing hurt when the Devils were bounced from the playoffs by Carolina.

Tverdovsky struggled with injuries this season and has played in only half the Devils' playoff games. Balmochnykh returned to Russia. Commodore and Damphousse spent the season in the minor leagues before the trade. Pohanka is a bright prospect still a few years away.

That leaves Sykora and Friesen.

Focus the microscope on the Continental Airlines Arena for Game 1 of the finals tonight. While others in the trade became small or non-factors, Sykora and Friesen are big reasons why their teams are playing in the finals.

"We knew what we needed," Duck General Manager Bryan Murray said. "We wanted a guy like Petr here. I went to the draft and started talking with [New Jersey General Manager] Lou Lamoriello. I told him the type of player I was looking for and Petr's name came up right away. He told me what he wanted and we went from there."

But who knew that it would come to this? One gets to skate with the Cup, one gets to watch.

Sykora had 34 goals during the regular season, becoming the first player not named Paul Kariya or Teemu Selanne to lead the Ducks in goals since their expansion season in 1993-94. He has only two goals in the playoffs, but both were in overtime.

Friesen was second on the Devils with 23 goals and has five goals in the playoffs, including three game-winners. That includes beating Senator goalie Patrick Lalime with 2 minutes 14 seconds to play Friday in Ottawa to send the Devils into the Cup finals.

"Obviously, it's the biggest goal I have ever scored," Friesen said. "I never had a chance to play for the Stanley Cup, and to have that goal go in and now I get a chance to go -- it is a goal I will remember and definitely a game I will remember."

Memories can be tricky things.

*

Sykora has a Duck logo on his hockey sweater, he drives on the Golden State Freeway instead of the Jersey Turnpike and he never watches "The Sopranos" or listens to Bruce Springsteen.

The point being ...

"I don't play in New Jersey anymore," Sykora said. "This is about me doing my job and the Ducks win."

That eyes-on-the-prize focus was part of the package that arrived last summer. Included in the 5-foot-11, 191-pound bundle was quickness and a blur-like slap shot, which Sykora is not bashful about showing off.

He won a Stanley Cup with the Devils in 2000 and reached the finals in 2001. Yet he, like all the Devils, was left with a foul taste after being eliminated by Carolina in the first round a year ago.

"We left that series feeling we could have won it," Sykora said. "We lost two games in overtime. I knew there were going to be some changes."

Sykora was one of those changes, with reports emerging that the Devils were unhappy that he sat out two games during the Carolina series because of the foot injury.

"I knew it was going to be a different kind of challenge," Sykora said.

"I was going from a team where we were expected to make it past the first round in the Eastern Conference every single year to a team that hadn't made the playoffs in three years.

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