The Mighty Ducks earned a split decision Friday in their home opener at the Pond. They rallied to tie the Ottawa Senators, 1-1, on rookie Espen Knutsen’s first NHL goal--on a power play at the 8:32 mark of the third period.
But the Ducks failed to gain a point in the arena of public opinion, proving to be incapable of winning over a cranky sellout crowd angry at management’s inability to sign free agent Paul Kariya.
The crowd of 17,174 had been waiting since May to cheer some good Duck news, but apparently found nothing to like about the 1997 off-season. They saw Friday’s game as an opportunity to vent their anger toward management.
They drowned out a pregame highlight video on the scoreboard Jumbotron, which seemed to feature every Duck but Kariya, with a rousing, “We want Paul” chant.
They cheered the players, particularly Teemu Selanne, Tomas Sandstrom and Guy Hebert, but roundly booed Coach Pierre Page during pregame introductions.
It was a sure sign Page will have to work hard to convert the legions of fans still upset over Ron Wilson’s dismissal without an explanation May 20.
The fans even booed themselves when the sellout was announced later in the game.
“I don’t think the fans should be mad at the Ducks,” Page said. “Unless somebody is lying to me, I know we’ve made two offers to Paul and there have been no counteroffers. The Ducks and Paul had four months to sign a deal [in the off-season] and couldn’t do it. That’s wrong. But right now, Kariya and [agent Don] Baizley don’t want to come to the table.”
To be sure, the first 20 minutes didn’t do much to lift the mood of the 20th consecutive sellout crowd. There’s a word to describe the hockey in the first period: bad.
“I don’t think I’d give us an A-plus,” Page said. “It was important we didn’t fall apart and get too frustrated. It was a game like when [Chuck] Finley’s pitching and he doesn’t have his best stuff the first three innings, but he works through it.”
Neither the Ducks nor Senators accomplished much--unless you’re into disjointed play. You knew it might be a rough night when Sandstrom was whistled for hooking all of seven seconds into the game.
The shabby first period certainly didn’t do much to pacify disgusted season-ticket holders, many of whom were subjected to a small increase during the off-season but expected to get a season’s worth of Kariya for their extra money.
And when the Senators took a 1-0 lead on Radek Bonk’s goal 6:58 into the second period, the fans’ disgust reached a full boil.
An early lead was just what Ottawa needed to spring its neutral-zone trap and throw the Ducks off their more aggressive forechecking game. It made for dull hockey, but the Senators thrived on it.
After all, the Senators are in a similar situation as the Ducks. Daniel Alfredsson, their second-leading scorer last season with 24 goals and 71 points, is an unsigned free agent like Kariya.
In most respects the Ducks looked better more than 5,000 miles from home for last week’s games against the Vancouver Canucks in Tokyo than in Friday’s game in Anaheim.
Whether it was the negative vibes from the fans or, more likely, a case of jet lag, the Ducks seemed to be moving in slow motion for most of the game’s first two periods.
Scoring chances were few and far between as Senator goaltender Ron Tugnutt, a member of the Ducks’ inaugural 1993-94 team, had little to worry about in the first 40 minutes.
Sean Hill, another former Duck, assisted on Bonk’s goal. It wasn’t a particularly pretty play until Bonk jumped on a loose puck to the left of the net, swept around to the right post and slipped a shot through Hebert’s legs.
The Ducks seemed frozen on the play, unable to lend Hebert any aid. The goal was reviewed by the replay official, but after only a moment’s look, it stood.
The third period featured more sluggish play until Knutsen scored the game-tying goal with Senator defenseman Chris Phillips in the penalty box for hooking Selanne.
Selanne set up the goal with a pass from the top of the left circle to the high slot where Knutsen was stationed alone. Knutsen’s rising wrist shot then cleared Tugnutt’s left shoulder on the way to the back of the net.
By game’s end, Knutsen’s goal proved to be only a small moment of happiness for the fans, who had a simple message for General Manager Jack Ferreira, team president Tony Tavares and perhaps Baizley too.
“We want Paul,” the fans chanted again and again.
They weren’t alone.
Ferreira, Tavarez and the Duck players desperately want him signed and in uniform too. When they’re likely to see him is anyone’s guess.
“I don’t know,” Tavares said. “I honestly don’t know.”