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Helene Elliott / ON THE NHL

This Isn't the Way They Planned It

October 13, 2003|Helene Elliott

Jean-Sebastien Giguere pumped his fist in glee, his sweaty face wreathed in a triumphant smile.

Petr Sykora took a perfect feed and beat the hapless goalie, sparking a joyous celebration among his Mighty Duck teammates.

But when their faces faded from the video screen at the Arrowhead Pond and the highlight film of last season's improbable run to the Stanley Cup final had ended, reality reared its ugly head and the Ducks lost for the third time in three games.

The film, intended to inspire the Ducks and their fans at their home opener, would be better used for instructional purposes.

The NHL Western Conference championship banner, raised amid cheers and applause at 5 p.m., seemed to mock the Ducks two hours later, after their 2-0 loss to the fearless, spirited Phoenix Coyotes. Everything the Coyotes were Sunday -- passionate but not overwhelmed by their emotions, selfless but unafraid to step up when the occasion demanded -- the Ducks were last season but have not recaptured since the first puck of the new season was dropped last Wednesday.

Yes, it is early in this long and winding 82-game road, but if the Ducks are intent on proving their feats last spring weren't a fluke, they're failing miserably.

"We've got to stop living in the past," Coach Mike Babcock said. "It's nice to get the banner up and all that. Now we've got that out of the way. This year's about this year."

So far, this year has been about frustration. It has been about being unable to score -- two goals in three games, one power-play goal in 13 chances -- and about regaining the work ethic and cohesion that propelled them so far last spring.

It's about being strong on the boards, which they haven't been, and about not turning the puck over, which they have been doing. Defenseman Kurt Sauer said the recurrence of turnovers is the key difference he sees from last season, a pitfall that trapped them again Sunday in the form of a neutral-zone giveaway that led to the Coyotes' first goal, a power-play score at 9:27 of the first period.

"Last year, everything we did was the same, from the first line to the fourth line," Sauer said. "We took the walls away. We never turned the puck over at the blue line, on offense or defense. We have to get pucks out of our zone and keep pucks in their zone."

It's also about being mired in 15th place in a competitive and unforgiving conference and having five days to brood over it. The Ducks don't play again until Friday -- and when they do, they take on the Ottawa Senators, who had the NHL's best record last season. Is five days enough time to find that lost chord, the spark that animated them last season but has been glaringly absent?

This is, arguably, a better team than the group that upset the Red Wings, Stars and Wild and took the Devils to seven games in the Cup finals, and Babcock went out of his way to say General Manager Bryan Murray "did a real good job" over the summer in signing free agents Sergei Fedorov and Vaclav Prospal. "We'd better respond as a coaching staff and as players," Babcock said.

If they're better on paper but not on the ice, what's missing?

Paul Kariya, Adam Oates and Steve Thomas, most notably, gone as free agents. Also, winger Mike Leclerc (knee surgery) and defenseman Keith Carney (broken foot). However, Kariya and Oates, despite being statistical standouts, weren't leaders in the Mark Messier mold, the player who demands accountability from teammates and wins it out of respect and more than a little fear. Thomas was a good influence on linemates Samuel Pahlsson and Stanislav Chistov and he brought a sense of urgency when he arrived before the March trading deadline, but he was a supplementary player, not a main cog in their machine.

They miss Carney's muscle and poise and ferocity along the boards, but there's something else, something deeper, that's at the heart of their woes.

"I really don't think it's leadership," Sauer said. "It's guys coming together and sticking to a plan."

Giguere agreed, saying the leadership is "better" this season. "It's already been addressed," he said.

Said Steve Rucchin, Kariya's successor as the team's captain: "Just because we raised the banner tonight doesn't mean it's going to come easy for us."

No banner year ever does.

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