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Elliott / ON THE NHL

Goalie Problem Isn't the Obvious One

April 22, 2006|Helene Elliott

CALGARY, Canada — The Mighty Ducks had a goaltending problem Friday.

It wasn't that Jean-Sebastien Giguere, who carried them to the seventh game of the Stanley Cup finals in 2003, was held out of their playoff opener against the Calgary Flames because of a "lower-body injury," which could be anything from a broken toenail to a knee replacement but appears to be a leg injury.

Backup goalie Ilya Bryzgalov, told before the game-day skate that he would be called upon to battle the Flames and brave the roars of a red-clad horde at the Pengrowth Saddledome, played well. Very well.

The problem was at the other end of the ice, where Calgary's Miikka Kiprusoff calmly repelled nearly everything the Ducks launched at him.

Kiprusoff stopped 33 shots -- and got help from the crossbar on a shot by Joffrey Lupul in overtime -- as the Calgary Flames scratched out a 2-1 victory on Darren McCarty's goal 9 minutes 45 seconds into overtime. The goal ended the Ducks' overtime winning streak at seven, all during their Cup run three years ago.

The Flames had also played seven overtime games on the way to a seven-game loss in the 2004 Cup finals, so it was no surprise that 60 minutes were not enough Friday to determine the winner. Losing an overtime playoff game was something different for the Ducks, but they said they weren't demoralized by the unpleasant, new sensation.

"It's not a tragedy," said Bryzgalov, who said he never saw McCarty take a slick pass from Kristian Huselius until McCarty rifled it above his shoulder.

"If you want to go to another round, you need four wins. You lose the first game, you don't lose the series. It's very important to believe and to work hard, and I think that if you're doing that, victory is coming to you."

However, it didn't come to them Friday.

"Miikka, he played very good tonight," Bryzgalov said. "But we have proved that we have character. I feel confident. I know is in front of me a good team."

Good, but not quite good enough Friday. They played as physical a game as the Flames did, matching thump for thump and flinging themselves head-first into the battles along the boards that defined the game.

Although the Ducks are known more for their speed and skill than their grit or muscle, they didn't lose many battles to a team that's known more for grit and muscle than finesse.

"They're a good hockey club," McCarty said. "They play us tough, and we've got to get better."

Mental toughness is as much a part of playoff hockey as raw strength. The Ducks learned that in 2003, when they entered each of their four playoff series as the lower-seeded team and had to traverse time zones as they crisscrossed the continent.

The Flames were in a similar position in 2004, also the underdog and enduring the kind of travel that Eastern teams can't possibly imagine.

McCarty wasn't with the Flames in 2004: He signed with them last summer, after playing on three Cup championship teams in Detroit. But he knows very well about the joys and exhaustion that only playoff hockey can bring, when you have to push yourself through a second or third overtime when you think you can't even make it to the bench.

This was his 151st playoff game, but it was like his first. "How can you not be a little bit nervous? I had butterflies, and I've played a lot of playoff games," he said.

"Playoffs are attrition, and it's going out every night and playing hard."

It was only one game into what might be a long march for the Flames, but McCarty was already wounded and was wearing an ice bag taped to his left leg. That's one lower-body injury that wasn't going to keep him out of the lineup.

"I live for this time of the season," he said. "I've been fortunate to be part of a lot of good teams. I was brought here for this time of year."

Overtime was the Ducks' time in 2003. Six players scored their seven overtime goals -- Paul Kariya had two -- and Giguere was a magician.

He couldn't pull a rabbit out of his hat Friday, and he said he was hopeful he would play Sunday, when the series continues at the Saddledome.

That game will go a long way toward determining whether the Ducks are destined to travel the same long but exhilarating road they did three years ago, or if this will be a cameo playoff appearance. They didn't do many things badly Friday. Kiprusoff was just better.

Ducks' Coach Randy Carlyle, when asked whether his team would have to play a perfect game to prevail over the Finnish goaltender, shook his head negatively.

"No. I don't think there's such a thing as a perfect game," he said.

Bryzgalov, who said playing in the hostile arena was "cool," said the Ducks simply need to be better. Not perfect, just better. Maybe that's enough to solve the goaltending problem that undid them Friday.

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