Ducks a team that's better than the movie

Posted: Tuesday, May 27, 2003

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. Usually, the idea is to do something so great, so unrivaled, so stirring in sports that someone will do a movie about it. The Anaheim Mighty Ducks got it all wrong.

They were a movie and a two thumbs-down one, by all accounts before they were a real team. It even seemed a bit surreal when Disney chairman Michael Eisner wore a ''Coach Goofy'' cap at their introductory news conference.

Ten years later, that's a fitting analogy for a Ducks vs. Devils Stanley Cup final that is goofy, indeed. And a little daffy. It's no surprise New Jersey is here good grief, aren't the Devils in the finals every year? but who would have predicted the cartoonish-like team with the unthreatening name would reach Tuesday night's Game 1, too?

Jeff Friesen couldn't. Traded from Anaheim to New Jersey last summer, the prospect of facing his former team for hockey's holy grail was as laughable a notion as well, a movie about a klutzy hockey team called the Mighty Ducks that transforms itself into champions.

''Not the Ducks,'' he said.

Reshaped by general manager Bryan Murray, who brought in veterans such as Adam Oates and Steve Thomas to solidify an on-the-rise team, and revived by first-year coach Mike Babcock, the Ducks really are four victories away from lifting the Stanley Cup. It's no movie plot, no mirage, no miracle, no magic act.

OK, there is some sorcery goalie Jean-Sebastien Giguere, enjoying one of the greatest playoff runs ever, is making good scoring chances disappear at a pace even his idol, Patrick Roy, would envy. He allowed only one goal in the Ducks' blink-and-it-was-over Western Conference sweep of Minnesota, and his 1.22 goals-against average and .960 save percentage in the playoffs are Hall of Fame material.

Ask a teammate how the Ducks became a Stanley Cup finalist following three straight last-place finishes, and they all point to the player they call Jiggy.

''What he has done so far is amazing,'' Petr Sykora said Monday.

Still, it isn't all that much better than the Devils' Martin Brodeur is doing, and he's won nearly as many Stanley Cups (2) as Giguere has won playoff series (3). Brodeur's numbers (1.62 goal-against, .937 save percentage) certainly are comparable.

Which raises these questions: Will anybody score in this final? And, even if they do, will anyone watch?

Normally, the ratings-starved NHL would have sold its corporate soul for a final involving the two largest American TV markets. But this is a not-really New York vs. lost-in-Los Angeles final between two franchises largely ignored in their own markets.

New Jersey played before empty seats earlier in the playoffs, and is the No. 2 tenant in its own arena to the more-popular Nets. There were so many empty seats at Ducks games earlier, Babcock said, ''It looked like a purple-seat convention.''

With NHL playoffs ratings a mere fraction of those of the other three major pro team sports, this figures to be a hard-to-sell series of defense vs. defense, goaltender vs. goaltender, checking line vs. checking line.

American Idol drew big TV ratings. This final given the teams' dull styles, maybe it should be called American Idle probably won't.

''Low-scoring games can be exciting,'' argues Paul Kariya, the longtime star who, until this season, was the only Duck known to America outside of Daffy. ''If you've seen some of the saves J.S. has made in the playoffs, that makes for good television. A great save or a great goal is the same.''

Even if it doesn't make for great television. Anaheim allowed but 21 goals (and scored only 33) in needing just 14 games to eliminate Detroit, Dallas and Minnesota. New Jersey gave up 28 in 17 games to eliminate Boston, Tampa Bay and Ottawa and reach the Stanley Cup final for the third time in four years.

The hardest-to-figure intangible for Game 1 is the rust vs. rest factor. The Ducks haven't played since May 16, an 11-day layoff that is the longest ever for a Stanley Cup finalist. Babcock resorted to scrimmaging his players to simulate game-type conditions. New Jersey will have had only three days off since beating Ottawa in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference final.

''We might be a little bit rusty, but we need to push through that,'' Giguere said. ''Once we get through the first period, we should be up and running.''

Anaheim is trying to match the 1995 champion Devils' feat of winning four consecutive Game 1s on the road in the same playoff year. New Jersey's biggest advantage is experience; 15 Devils have lifted the Cup, compared to three Ducks (Sykora, Sandis Ozolinsh and the seldom-used Fredrik Olausson).

Here's something else to consider: no West Coast team since the 1925 Victoria Cougars has won the Cup.

But Anaheim has this year's version of Ray Bourque (2001) and Dominik Hasek (2002) in Adam Oates, a veteran star who yearns to win the Stanley Cup before he calls it quits.

''When I was with Washington (in the 1998 final), I don't think we felt we could beat Detroit,'' he said. ''With this team, there's a sense this can be done. I think we've got a lot of hockey left.''



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