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HELENE ELLIOTT / ON THE NHL

Ducks, once strong, show their weak side

New players and youngsters are still finding their footing, but so far have been unable to handle the slightest adversity. They can't dither long to find their way because other teams have improved.

October 27, 2009|HELENE ELLIOTT

The Ducks never minded when opponents and critics called them dirty. Their physicality was a big part of their personality, and Chris Pronger's on-the-edge impulse control made other teams fear them.

General Manager Bob Murray said the other day that the current team, with a stream of new faces and youngsters still finding their footing, is still searching for its identity.

Actually, the Ducks might have a new identity.

They have become soft in their four-game losing streak, a malady that can't be cured in the weight room.

Softness isn't measured in hits or penalty minutes but in the weakness of their resolve and inability to handle the slightest adversity. On Monday, they became the first team this season to lose to the Toronto Maple Leafs, and they're slipping behind teams they figured to easily outdistance in the West such as Phoenix, Colorado and Dallas.

They dithered through most of last season before riding a 10-2-1 surge to the No. 8 playoff seeding, but they can't delude themselves into thinking they can do that again.

"It's a disturbing thing," Murray said. "We got ourselves in this position before but I think this group has to realize we can't wait as long because those teams have improved a lot."

The Ducks haven't improved. Murray knew the risk he took in trading Pronger for Joffrey Lupul, Luca Sbisa and two first-round draft picks, but he urgently needed secondary scoring, young legs on defense and assets for the future. With Teemu Selanne and Scott Niedermayer probably in their final seasons, this would be the team's last chance at the Stanley Cup for a while.

Lupul has been fine, but Sbisa has struggled and on Monday was reassigned to his junior team. Niedermayer, overextending himself, was minus-7 after his first 10 games.

"We'll give them some time to get together and grow as a team and then, if nothing's happening, it's my job to do something about it," Murray said.

Such as . . .

"Until they get to play to some consistent level it's tough to tell what you may or may not have to do, if anything," he said. "I wish they'd get to that level so I'd have a better idea."

Ryan Getzlaf, still short of peak form after off-season hernia surgery, said he doesn't sense his teammates are thinking they can sit back and make a late playoff run like last season.

"I hope not, because it's a long climb," he said. "That was a tough battle last year and we don't have that mentality this year, that's for sure."

It's time to prove what kind of mind-set they have -- and that there's no soft, mushy center to it.

"I've never been part of a team with a losing mentality," Getzlaf said, "and it's not going to start now."

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No masking their feelings

Goalies everywhere should say a prayer of thanks to Jacques Plante on Sunday, the 50th anniversary of the day he became the first modern-day netminder to wear a mask.

Plante, with the Canadiens, had experimented with a mask in practice but his coach, Toe Blake, wouldn't let him use it in a game. On Nov. 1, 1959, Plante took a shot in the face from the New York Rangers' Andy Bathgate and needed repairs. He refused to return without the mask, and Blake had to agree because he had no backup.

Goalies now decorate their masks with flags, drawings of brick walls and other symbols, but Gerry Cheevers' artwork is still the best. The former Bruin drew black lines to represent the stitches he would have had if not for the mask.

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Slap shots

Alexander Ovechkin was lucky to get only a fine for slew-footing Atlanta's Rich Peverley on Thursday. Disciplinarian Colin Campbell said Ovechkin isn't a repeat offender -- but that's true only because the NHL has overlooked many of his dirtier deeds. The double standard for stars is alive and well. . . .

Rest in peace, Bill "The Big Whistle" Chadwick, the former referee and broadcaster who died Saturday at 94. You made hockey come alive for a kid growing up in Brooklyn. Among his survivors is son William J. Chadwick of Malibu, a member of the California Science Center board and former president of the L.A. Coliseum Commission.

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helene.elliott@latimes.com

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