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MIGHTY DUCKS at DALLAS Season Opener 5 p.m., ESPN

Ducks Now a Moving Target

Playoff success elevates their status, but Anaheim and Giguere still have to shake the fluke label.

October 08, 2003|Chris Foster | Times Staff Writer

DALLAS — Mighty Duck goaltender Jean-Sebastien Giguere smiled at the question, having heard it many times already:

"Can you duplicate last season's playoff run?"

It is a polite way of asking, "Were you a fluke?"

To those who have seen little of the Ducks' last two seasons, this has been a working theme, as the Ducks get ready to open their season tonight at Dallas. Giguere put up top-flight numbers but didn't soar until the hockey media (i.e. Canada) took notice during the Stanley Cup playoffs.

When he and the Ducks rolled through Detroit in the first round last spring, people perked up. Giguere took the Ducks to the Stanley Cup finals and won the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoffs' most valuable player.

With the Ducks opening defense of their Western Conference championship, eyes are focused on Giguere, his hefty new contract and the size of his goalie pads -- the source of finger pointing from playoff opponents last season, among them the Stars.

"Those are things I cannot control," Giguere said. "All I can do is what is expected of me. I have to be the best I can be every night. That's what I expect. That's what Coach expects. That's what my teammates expect.

"Last year is last year. I'm sure [some teams] want some revenge because we beat them. I think I'll be ready."

He had better be, from the start.

The Stars are one of those teams that wants a pound of flesh from the Ducks, and from Giguere in particular. That the Ducks, who came within one victory of winning the Stanley Cup, figure to challenge Dallas for the Pacific Division title just adds another log to that fire.

"We have to be prepared to send a message to the rest of the league that we're for real," Duck defenseman Ruslan Salei said. "This is our first game with Dallas. This is a big season for them. It is a big season for us."

There are certainly issues here.

On the surface, Dallas players are saying the right things, including Coach Dave Tippett, who stuck to the benign comment, "We have to play them sometime."

Still, the Ducks eliminated the Stars, the top-seeded team in the conference, in the second round last season. Giguere made brilliant saves in making that happen. And the Stars were first to make an issue about Giguere's pads.

When the NHL established regulations on goalie's leg pads, everyone hopped on board, so much so that the new regulation might as well have been called "the Giguere rule." Lost in all that was that the Stars, and Minnesota Wild players later, were complaining about his upper body pads, unaffected by the new rule.

Giguere said that his pads checked in smaller than allowed. He, like other goalies, had to remove a piece of the pads designed to protect his knee -- the players' association has since filed a grievance. Giguere said that NHL officials told him to find a way to keep his shoulder pads from rising up when he drops down to block shots.

"The equipment issue was ridiculous," Duck General Manager Bryan Murray said. "I think the league could have helped at the time the criticism was going on and supported the fact that this guy's equipment was more than legal.

"It was an excuse for a lot players who didn't score goals. They had to point out something to try to undermine him. He doesn't cheat in that area at all. It's important that the issue gets put aside."

Waiting in the wings is a new issue.

Giguere had a playoff run that equaled any in NHL history. He had a 1.62 goals-against average and .945 save-percentage. He had a shutout streak of 217 minutes 54 seconds, the fifth-longest in league history.

That eye-opening playoff performance resounded in a loud cha-ching. Giguere was due a new contract and, after a summer of wrangling, he signed a five-year, $19.5-million deal, putting him among the highest paid goalies in the NHL.

More than one player has collapsed under the weight of such a contract, which brings more pressure and more scrutiny.

"I don't think there'll be a problem handling the expectations," Murray said. "Maybe if a player lacked mental toughness or maybe if there was cockiness there. But J.S. is not like that. He is low key and hard working. Sure, he has the big contract now, but he knows how he got there."

Giguere struggled at the start of last season, after he'd been handed the No. 1 job before training camp for the first time. A rough October had many, including Coach Mike Babcock walking on eggshells.

By December, Giguere had adjusted and was back to being one of the NHL's best, accented by a shutout streak of 237:07, the third-longest in NHL history.

"We know Jiggy will be Jiggy," Babcock said. "He's ready to go."

He may need to be at the start. Sergei Fedorov and Vaclav Prospal are still adjusting to new surroundings. Defenseman Keith Carney (broken foot) and forward Mike Leclerc (knee surgery), key players in the playoff drive, start the season on the injured reserve.

"Obviously, we have a lot of confidence" in Giguere, Salei said.

"He has played this way for two years now."

Now people are waiting to see whether Giguere can duplicate that.

"There are a lot of expectations," Giguere said. "Other teams are going to be ready to play against us. That's fine. I welcome that challenge. I believe, as a team, we will rise up to the occasion."

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