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Ducks’ Failure to Pick Up the Pace Led to a Stumble

TIMES STAFF WRITER

All that was good and bad about the Mighty Ducks was on display Sunday afternoon at the Arrowhead Pond. They could have saved themselves and their fans six months of agony by playing out their seventh NHL season in one 61-minute 6-second matinee.

Only Michael Eisner, Walt Disney Co. chairman, sounded particularly upbeat about the future after the game. He alone seemed capable of a smile after the Ducks’ season ended with a 4-3 overtime loss to the Kings.

“I think we’re getting there and once we get there, we’re going to be there for a while,” Eisner said. “I think you’ll see next season that we’ll be back, the fans will be back and the team will be strong.”

Pierre Gauthier, team president and general manager, refused to review the season with reporters. He said he would do so today.

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Coach Craig Hartsburg looked as if he were about to cry--or perhaps had just finished. The hurt of a season gone wrong was clearly written across his face.

Paul Kariya, the Duck captain and leading scorer with 42 goals and 86 points, blamed himself for an up-and-down season that ended with the team headed for the golf course instead of the Stanley Cup playoffs.

When the Ducks adopted the training camp slogan, “Take the next step,” they hoped it would mean marching among the league’s elite.

Instead, it meant a stumble from sixth place in the Western Conference last season to ninth. The Ducks’ 34-36-12-3 record for 83 points wasn’t significantly different from last season’s 35-34-13 mark for 83 points.

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The Ducks simply failed to keep pace with other teams in the hyper-competitive West.

How did it happen?

The Duck penalty-killing unit finished last in the NHL with a meager 79.1% success rate. They gave up two more goals Sunday. Their power-play struggled before a second-half surge moved them into the middle of the pack with a 16.6% success rate. A power-play goal Sunday was their 55th, far short of their league-leading 83 last season.

And there was more.

Goalie Guy Hebert, coming off a career-best season, had trouble with routine saves after a Dec. 22 neck injury. Glen Murray’s winning goal Sunday, on a changeup that slipped between Hebert’s legs, was one final example.

Right wing Teemu Selanne had 33 goals, his fewest since scoring 22 in the lockout-shortened 1994-95 season. Selanne led the league with 47 goals last season.

And a 3-11-2 skid between Dec. 22 and Jan. 26 didn’t help.

“It’s disappointing, but I think we’ve got a terrific group of guys,” Eisner said. “I’ve talked to Pierre and I’ve talked to Tony [Tavares, Duck chairman] and I think things are set up well for next season.”

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Hartsburg will meet with the players today, sharing his thoughts on how they must improve before training camp begins in September. Many, including young defensemen Oleg Tverdovsky, Vitali Vishnevski and Niclas Havelid, met or exceeded expectations. Others did not.

“My role is to make sure everybody leaves here understanding that missing the playoffs is unacceptable,” Hartsburg said.

Hartsburg and assistants Newell Brown and George Burnett appear secure in their jobs. Kariya gave them hearty endorsements Sunday.

“The coaching staff did an excellent job this year,” he said. “It’s the players who didn’t get the job done. The least of our worries right now is the coaching staff.”

Asked if he expected Hartsburg to return for a third season, Kariya said, “Oh yeah.” Kariya then added, “Obviously, this season was hard on him. He can’t go out and lace his skates on and do it for us.”

If he could have, Hartsburg might have shoved Hebert from the net and played there himself.

“It was a wicked see-saw type of season, myself included,” Hebert said. “It’s unfortunate because a couple more good games and we would be talking about going into the first round [of the playoffs]. . . . I feel we still have the coaching. We have the players here. We have young players being developed. For me, that’s still a big positive.

“Obviously, we were hoping we would be better. I’m going to go home this summer and I’ll have to look at tape of myself. I have a few ideas [on what went wrong]. It’s going to be a long summer.”

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Kariya also has a few ideas on how to improve during what promises to be a particularly agonizing off-season for him.

“It’s one thing if you don’t have the skills to compete,” Kariya said, referring to the team. “It’s another if it’s work-ethic [that’s lacking]. Part of it is a leadership thing with myself. There were a lot of instances when things should have been said and didn’t get said by me. Maybe I have to be more vocal and get on guys.

“When Craig has yelled and screamed at us, that’s when we’ve had the most success. That’s not something I want to do. As the leader of the team that’s something I have to do.

“I don’t care about personal goals. Winning is all that matters to me, so to not have a chance to compete [in the playoffs] is disgusting.”

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Fowl Finish

Comparing the Mighty Ducks of this season to last season:

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‘98-99 Category ’99-00 35 Wins 34 83 Points 83 215 Goals 217 204 Goals given up 227 2.48 Goals-against avg. 2.77 47 (Selanne) Leading goal scorer 42 (Kariya) 107 (Selanne) Leading scorer 86 (Kariya)

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