In 1996-97, they were 13-3-7 in their last 23 games, had a 7-0-5 unbeaten streak from Feb. 22 to March 19 and a season-ending 5-0-2 run that vaulted them to fourth overall. In 1998-99, their last venture into postseason play, they had a club-record seven-game winning streak from Feb. 20 to March 7 and were 18-12-4 over their last 34 games, good for the No. 6 playoff spot.
This season, however, they've been in a playoff spot since Feb. 4. That has put them in the unaccustomed position of fending off pursuers -- among them the Kings, whom they play tonight at Staples Center. It's a subtle but undeniable difference, one that could test their mental resolve while they plow through an unforgiving schedule that will surely tax their physical reserves.
"It's definitely going to be tougher," said center Steve Rucchin, who acknowledged that the Ducks have recently lacked their usual jump. "We've got some pretty desperate teams behind us, not that we're not desperate. But we're used to catching up, and those other teams are extremely desperate.
"We know we need to win some games, starting [tonight]. But I'd rather be in this situation than have to catch other teams from behind."
Tonight's game will be the Ducks' second in a stretch of 13 in 23 nights and the first in five remaining back-to-back sequences. Even Coach Mike Babcock agrees it's their biggest game this season.
"The bottom line is, we've got to go to L.A. and win the game," he said.
Then again, he'd said the Ducks' game against Atlanta last Sunday was their biggest of the season. And later tonight, he'll say Wednesday's game against Montreal at the Arrowhead Pond will be the team's biggest.
"We've worked hard to get our position. We like our position. We don't give it back," he said.
"We don't look back over our shoulders. To me, there's only one way to go about life and sport, and that's to look ahead. You can talk about all those other teams, but it comes down to one team: us."
Goaltender Jean-Sebastien Giguere agrees that the Ducks, who are in a 3-5-1 slide after having won seven of eight, can't pause to listen for footsteps.
"We have to worry about ourselves and how we play," he said. "We need to dictate the tone of the game, and if we do, we'll give ourselves a chance to win....
"I could feel [in Sunday's 4-1 loss to Atlanta], mentally, a few guys weren't sharp. Every team in the league goes through that. But if we listen to ourselves saying we're tired, we're going to be tired. We have to be positive. Positive energy is contagious. If one guy isn't positive, we're all going to be sick."
Springboard or Platform?
Once again, the NHL is changing its rules as it goes along. In the tradition of its past mid-season crackdowns on obstruction, it has now declared diving a blight that must be eliminated.
Starting last Saturday -- yes, three-quarters of the way through the season -- NHL Vice President Colin Campbell established the "embarrassment line." Names of those who cross that threshold, as determined by Campbell and other members of the NHL's hockey operations department, will be put on a weekly "divers' list" posted in each club's locker room. Players will be fined $1,000 each time they make the list.
The fines and lists are "totally independent from what is being called on the ice," Campbell said in a memo. "Diving is an embarrassing part of our game and incidents of diving must be reduced immediately. Some players in an effort to give their team a man advantage by drawing a penalty, have no shame in diving or embellishing a fall.... Not all dives will result in a fine, only the disgraceful ones that demean our game."
Red line, blue line, embarrassment line ... You couldn't make this up.
The players' union, apt to dispute anything just as practice for next year's labor talks, objected. And with reason. Why change now? And why should anyone believe this will be consistently applied when the much-heralded focus on obstruction has vanished?
The real solution is to find competent referees who establish authority and make it clear diving is unacceptable. Campbell shouldn't waste his time watching videotapes in his Toronto office and rapping players' knuckles.
"I really wonder what they are trying to do," Mighty Duck center Adam Oates said. "There are a lot of gray areas there, I'll tell you....
"Some guys take dives. There is no question about that. But sometimes guys just get bumped and lose their balance [and] it can look like a dive. So who is going to make that call?"
Said Duck teammate Paul Kariya, "Get rid of the obstruction and players won't dive. That's the problem. I know as an offensive player, I'm going through the neutral zone and I've got a guy tugging me through the whole way. If I don't go down, I'm not going to get a call because they're not going to make the call. You don't want to see diving, but at the same time you have to call the obstruction or you're going to see it."
Take a Dive, Part II
Red Wing defenseman Chris Chelios, no paragon of virtue himself, told the Detroit Free Press that Kariya was "the biggest one in the league" when it comes to divers.
"It was a shame in the Olympics," Chelios said. "He did the same thing and drew a penalty for that and it ended up being a goal.
"With that kind of hockey you have to play with a little honor. Guys like him ruin it for everybody else. It's just embarrassing. Or maybe he's not embarrassed because he probably believes he's not doing it. That's how liars are."
Did Chelios just cross the embarrassment line? Someone call Campbell, quick.
"Chris is right all the time," Kariya said, smiling. "I don't care what he says."
If Chelios weren't so slow and reduced to obstructing opponents, and if referees called obstruction, everyone would be better off. Kariya and others have little to gain by diving because it takes them out of the play. Again, the answer is unwavering enforcement of obstruction penalties.
Peter the Great
Colorado's Peter Forsberg and Vancouver's Markus Naslund were born 10 days apart in the same Swedish town, Ornskoldsvik, and they played against each other often as kids. Now, they're competing for the NHL scoring title, which Forsberg finds amazing.
"I grew up in a town that had an elite division team in Sweden, so that was kind of my dream to come up and play for that team," said Forsberg, who had four goals and 23 points in 13 games in February to move four points behind scoring leaders Mario Lemieux and Naslund, who have 85 points. "The NHL was kind of out of my reach, I think.
"Nowadays, for all the kids in Europe and everywhere, I think winning the [Stanley] Cup is the thing. I don't think people really dream about winning the scoring title. It's not for me. I mean I'd rather win the Stanley Cup than the scoring, [but] it wouldn't hurt to win one.... [Naslund] had a tough couple of years, but now he's playing real well and I am happy for him."
Congratulations to Nashville's Barry Trotz, who on Saturday coached his 392nd game and became the longest-tenured coach of an expansion team from its inception. He almost didn't make it this far. The Predators' one-win performance in October and 2-10-4-4 start put him on shaky ground, but they've earned 53 points in their last 44 games -- including eight victories in their last nine games -- to move within three points of the last West playoff berth. They'll miss leading scorer David Legwand (broken collarbone), but probably will buy rather than sell before the trading deadline next Tuesday.... Desperate for offensive punch, the Canadiens recalled Donald Audette from the minors and put him on a line with Saku Koivu and Jan Bulis. They could also be showcasing Audette for trade purposes, though he probably has little value.... The Calgary Flames probably will have to ask investors to kick in more money. They're anticipating a loss of more than $7 million, which won't be cut by any playoff revenues. That raises more questions about whether they'll be able to afford the $7.5 million they'll owe Jarome Iginla next season, or the $3.5 million due Chris Drury.... San Jose's Owen Nolan, the focus of frequent trade rumors, injured his back Saturday when he was cross-checked by Calgary's Robyn Regehr. It's being called a bruised muscle, which could mean anything from a scratch to being in traction.
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Playoffs of the Past
The Mighty Ducks, currently seventh in the Western Conference standings, have appeared in the postseason twice in franchise history. A look at their playoff appearances:
Regular-season finish: 35-34-14; 83 points; sixth in Western Conference.
First round: Eliminated by the Detroit Red Wings, 4-0.
Duck leaders: Teemu Selanne (2 goals, 2 assists); Paul Kariya (1 goal, 3 assists)
Regular-season finish: 36-33-13; 85 points; fourth in Western Conference.
First round: Defeated the Phoenix Coyotes, 4-3.
Second round: Eliminated by the Detroit Red Wings, 4-0.
Duck leaders: Paul Kariya (7 goals, 6 assists); Dmitri Mironov (1 goal, 10 assists); Teemu Selanne (7 goals, 3 assists).