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Ducks give one away to Rangers

December 17, 2008|HELENE ELLIOTT

One year ago Tuesday, Scott Niedermayer ended his post-Stanley Cup championship sabbatical and returned to the Ducks' lineup.

"A year?" he said, clearly surprised. "It seems a little longer than one year."

Maybe because so much has happened to the Ducks since then -- and so little of it has been good.

None of it was good Tuesday in a 3-1 loss to the New York Rangers at the Honda Center, played before an announced crowd of 16,921 with leather lungs and split loyalties.

The Ducks' defense, their greatest asset in their Cup triumph, was again a weak link as their five-game home winning streak was ended by the second-best team in the East.

Niedermayer, once a model of calm and steadiness on defense, gave the puck away with a poor pass to set up the Rangers' first goal, by Chris Drury, at 2:26 of the second period.

The Ducks pulled even late in the period when Chris Kunitz converted a rebound, but defenseman Kent Huskins fanned on an intended pass in his own zone late in the third period and Nigel Dawes walked in alone on Jonas Hiller to score the go-ahead goal with 3:16 to play.

"They play the trap," Huskins said, "and you can't put it in the middle against a trapping team. It was just a bad play on my part."

Chris Pronger didn't help matters by resembling a statue as Dawes danced around him, and if Niedermayer and Pronger can be so fallible, what can be expected of their less talented teammates?

Nikolai Zherdev scored into an empty net with a second to play and two Ducks in the penalty box, another familiar scene.

"I think it's kind of sad the way we lost," Hiller said. "We lost the puck too often in our own zone. . . .

"I think I could have stopped both of them. The way we played tonight I don't think we deserved to have that win."

Only Jean-Sebastien Giguere escaped blame. Barely 36 hours past the death of his father, Claude, he was designated the backup Tuesday. He will return home to Montreal for his father's funeral and is expected to miss the first game of the Ducks' upcoming trip, at Edmonton on Friday.

Hiller had had no chance on the bang-bang plays that produced the Rangers' first two goals.

"They skated well," Niedermayer said, "and those are a couple of bad decisions, obviously, with the puck. When a team's trapping like that, the safe play is up the boards and we chose not to do it and paid the price."

Niedermayer was trying to pass to Ryan Getzlaf when Drury stepped up and had the time and space he needed to score his ninth goal of the season. Niedermayer ended the game minus-1 and has had one plus performance in his last 13 games. Overall, he's minus-4 this season, the worst among the Ducks' healthy defensemen.

Plus-minus is not an absolute measure of effectiveness, and Coach Randy Carlyle said he's inclined to give a free pass to someone who plays as much as Niedermayer, who had 27:33 of ice time Tuesday.

But it's stunning when someone of his caliber makes such an admittedly flawed decision. He has made a few similarly costly mistakes this season: He stepped on the puck and gave Mark Parrish a clear path to the net for an insurance goal for Dallas in a 5-2 loss to the Stars on Nov. 7, and he made an errant pass that was intercepted by Nashville's Jason Arnott on Nov. 14 and turned into an overtime win for the Predators.

"I think you go around the room and every guy in this room would feel we can be better than we have been," he said.

They had believed that with Niedermayer in the final year of his contract and Pronger and Giguere still at the top of their games this team had one last window of opportunity to win the Cup again.

With Francois Beauchemin lost to a knee injury, former general manager Brian Burke gone to Toronto -- not before leaving the payroll perilously close to the salary cap -- that window seems firmly shut.

It's unlikely to reopen if they play as they did Tuesday, committing thoughtless errors in their own zone.

"They were fairly obvious," Niedermayer said.

So are the Ducks' shortcomings. The solutions are anything but obvious.

--

helene.elliott@latimes.com

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