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Helene Elliott ON THE NHL

Whether They Are Written Off Is Up to Ducks

May 31, 2003|Helene Elliott

While most of the Eastern Conference slept, the Mighty Ducks upset the defending Stanley Cup champion Detroit Red Wings, the top-seeded Dallas Stars and the plucky Minnesota Wild.

Finally promoted to prime time in the Stanley Cup finals, the Ducks haven't put on much of a show.

As much as the New Jersey Devils' speed, tenacity and relentless pressure are responsible for the Ducks' dismal performances in a pair of 3-0 losses at East Rutherford, N.J., the Ducks must answer some questions when the series resumes tonight at the Arrowhead Pond.

Did they come this far to be swept?

To be this year's Carolina Hurricanes, who made it to the finals last June after a so-so regular season and were dismissed in five games by the Red Wings -- and missed the playoffs this season?

Or worse, will they be a reincarnation of the 1998 Washington Capitals, who were swept in the finals and missed the playoffs the next spring?

Or of the 1996 Florida Panthers, who were swept in the finals by Colorado and have won merely one game in two playoff series since then?

In some quarters, the Ducks have already been dismissed as losers.

"How do you not declare them the dead Ducks?" columnist Terry Jones wrote in the Edmonton Sun's Friday editions. "Stick a Devils fork in 'em. They're roasted....

"They're Duck Soup. The Mighty Ducks were a good story getting here, but they're a sorry story now as this Stanley Cup final heads to Anaheim."

Duck captain Paul Kariya said he would let history judge the team, that he wasn't worried that the Ducks will be branded overachievers whose faults are finally being exposed by the Devils.

"That's looking way too far ahead," he said Friday at the Pond. "I'm concerned with the way we play [today].... "

Goaltender Jean-Sebastien Giguere, sitting beside Kariya before an audience of reporters, grabbed the microphone to volunteer his take.

"We're not a fluke," Giguere said, his voice throbbing with passion. "We were the most improved team in the NHL this season and since Christmas we were one of the best teams in the league. We beat Detroit, Dallas and Minnesota by doing what we do, not by luck.

"We're a team that deserves to be here. This is our series right now. This is about us and them, not [only] the Devils. It's about the Mighty Ducks against the Devils and we deserve to be here. We need to come to the rink with some emotion."

They need fire and intensity. They need to draw on reserves they didn't have to tap until now because Giguere stopped nearly everything he saw, the defense played with remarkable poise, and the forwards capitalized on the few breaks they got and the breaks they made.

The Ducks must decide if they're willing to settle for merely making it to the Cup finals or if they want to offer consistent and concerted resistance.

If they want to be a perennial playoff team. Or if they will become another Carolina, a one-hit wonder.

"Obviously, until we prove differently there's no reason for people to think otherwise," center Steve Rucchin said. "What people have seen in these first two games isn't the team we've been up to this point in the playoffs.

"We're disappointed in our effort. But by no means has this team gotten this far in the playoffs in the Western Conference by luck."

The Devils played two impeccable defensive games at home, but they've been less imposing on the road, where they're 4-4 and have yielded 19 goals. The Ducks, with the last line change at home, must work for favorable matchups and keep the crowd on their side by -- here's a thought -- scoring a goal. Falling behind 3-0 in the series, a deficit erased in the finals by only the 1942 Toronto Maple Leafs, would be signing their own exit visa.

"This is a great opportunity," defenseman Keith Carney said. "You look at a guy like Steve Thomas -- this is his first time in the finals and he's been in the league 19 years.

"We need to really take advantage of this or we're going to regret it."

And they must start tonight.

"We're not trying to focus on being on stage and the disappointment and what we did," forward Dan Bylsma said. "We're trying to focus on the things we did that made us successful enough to get here.... We can't worry about hype and talk."

Ten years ago Sunday, the Kings opened the Stanley Cup finals against the Canadiens with a 4-1 victory at Montreal. They lost the second game at the Montreal Forum before returning to the Inglewood Forum, where they lost a pair of overtime games. They watched the Canadiens claim the Cup in Game 5 at Montreal and have not come close to a return trip.

Ten years, and finally another taste of the Cup finals in Southern California. If that doesn't tell the Ducks to seize the moment, to refuse to be smothered by the Devils' disciplined defense and to make that second, third or fourth effort to fight through checks, nothing will.

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