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On Road to a Victory, Ducks Lose Their Way

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It was a gift, plain and simple. All that was missing was expensive wrapping paper and a pretty bow.

The Mighty Ducks bungled what should have been a confidence-boosting victory against the New York Rangers, failing to get a routine save when they needed one late in the third period then collapsing defensively in overtime.

In the end, the Ducks’ 4-3 overtime loss Wednesday to the Rangers before 13,565 at the Arrowhead Pond seemed fitting.

Jan Hlavac’s goal with 1:20 left in the third period forced overtime. Brian Leetch then won it for New York with a dash through the Duck defense 29 seconds into the five-minute overtime.

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The Ducks gained a point by getting to overtime, but they let another critical point slip away because goalie Guy Hebert couldn’t stop a beach ball when it counted.

Remarkably, the 10th-place Ducks remained only four points behind the eighth-place San Jose Sharks in the battle for the final Western Conference playoff spot.

“We should have won this game, no question about it,” defenseman Oleg Tverdovsky said. “The guys played hard and we put everything we had into this. I don’t think anybody in this [dressing] room was cheating or didn’t give everything he had. But sometimes the best team doesn’t win the game.”

If nothing else, the Ducks are perhaps the NHL’s most-accomodating team. They build a lead, then lose it. They dominate almost from start to finish, but find a way to blow it.

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Sooner or later, these random acts of kindness are going to bury the Ducks. Expect it to happen sooner rather than later.

“It’s a heartbreaking loss,” Coach Craig Hartsburg said.

Even Paul Kariya couldn’t save the Ducks.

Kariya, back in the lineup after be sidelined seven games because of a bruised right foot, contributed a pretty assist on a second-period power-play goal.

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But he couldn’t play in goal for the Ducks, who got another subpar performance from Hebert.

It would have been one thing if Hlavac’s goal had come on a spectacular play. But Hlavac simply fired the puck at Hebert from the left faceoff circle and it slipped between the goalie and the left goal post.

Hlavac beat Hebert again in the final seconds of regulation time, but his quick shot from the slot struck the crossbar and bounced harmlessly away.

In overtime, Leetch darted between defenders and whipped a quick shot past Hebert. To be fair, it would have been a difficult save for Hebert. But the flat-footed Ducks didn’t help him, rolling out a red carpet and ushering Leetch toward the net.

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“It was a weak goal,” Kariya said of Hlavac’s game-tying goal. “We weren’t desperate enough defensively and Guy made a bad [play]. We can’t be a stick’s length away from the guy [Hlavac] and expect to shut him down.”

Until the final frantic moments, the Ducks dominated the Rangers for long stretches. Only standout goaltending by New York’s Mike Richter prevented the game from turning into a rout.

The Ducks outshot the Rangers, 39-22. They held a wide territorial advantage, buzzing Richter’s net for terrific scoring chances. They also won 56% of their faceoffs.

After falling behind 2-1, the Ducks took the lead on second-period goals by Steve Rucchin (power play) and Teemu Selanne.

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Kariya set up Rucchin’s goal, whipping a behind-the-back pass from the high slot to defenseman Fredrik Olausson at the right point. Rucchin, skating in front of Richter, got a stick to Olausson’s slap shot, deflecting it between the goalie’s legs.

A thunderous check along the boards by defenseman Pavel Trnka set up Selanne’s goal. Trnka hammered New York’s Radek Dvorak, knocking him off his skates and off the puck. Rucchin alertly covered the left point and fired a low shot that Richter failed to cleanly handle.

Selanne outmuscled Leetch to the rebound and deposited the puck behind an out-of-position Richter.


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