Birds of a Feather

Times Staff Writer

ST. PAUL, Minn. -- Here in what is billed as the “State of Hockey,” there is now a state of NHL confusion.

The NHL Western Conference finals have come here featuring the Mighty Ducks and the Minnesota Wild, who begin a best-of-seven series at noon today at the Xcel Center.

Winner advances to play for the Stanley Cup.

There are surely plenty of perplexed looks from those just tuning in to the playoffs -- and some worried expressions from television executives concerned by the prospect of people tuning out.


Quick, round up the usual suspects. The Detroit Red Wings? Ducks beat them. The Dallas Stars? More Duck handiwork. The Colorado Avalanche? A Wild finish -- an overtime goal in Game 7 -- sent them packing.

Detroit, Colorado and Dallas, which combined to win every conference title since 1994, and six Stanley Cup championships in that span, have all been excused for the summer.

“Maybe the hockey gods are on our side,” center Wes Walz said after the Wild eliminated Vancouver on Thursday. “I never used to believe in them, but I believe in them a lot now.”

The gods at ABC and ESPN may not be as wild about that instant karma. This series is just ducky to those along the Iron Range in northern Minnesota and at Muscle Beach in Southern California. The rest of the country, and Canada, may be more interested in other sorts of survivors on television.

The story lines are compelling, even without the standard TV hype.

The Ducks, bottom feeders the past two seasons, are the reason Dallas, the conference’s top-seeded team, and Detroit, the second-seeded team, are home explaining things to perplexed season-ticket holders. The Ducks took the Red Wings out in four and then Dallas in six.

Not to be outdone, the Wild, a third-year expansion team, became the first team to win two series after trailing, 3-1, during the same playoff year -- first against Colorado and then Vancouver.

The matchup might be a nightmare for ratings, but for the players this is the stuff from which dreams are made.


“This is what you pretend when you’re playing pond hockey as a kid,” Duck winger Rob Niedermayer said. “You choose up sides and play for the Stanley Cup.”

The teams are tantalizingly close, but still one large step away. First comes a conference final in which both sides are angling for the gutty-little-hockey-team-that-could character.

That starts with the pinch-me sound bites.

“We’re in the Western Conference finals,” Wild defenseman Willie Mitchell said Thursday. “I can’t believe I’m saying that.”


Not to be outdone ...

“When you dream about winning Stanley Cups,” Duck goalie Jean-Sebastien Giguere said, “you dream about raising that cup over your head. I still dream about that. But there is no time to think about that now. These games are going to be hard.”

This is exactly the time, according to Duck winger Petr Sykora, who has been this route a few times with the New Jersey Devils and knows all about playoff road hazards.

“I was on the best team in the [Eastern Conference] for seven years and we made it to the final twice,” Sykora said. “Getting to the [Stanley Cup] final is something special and we are approaching that now.


“This is a huge chance. You never know when you’re going to get back here. We have to realize that.”

Duck players are quick to point out that they are starting a series on the road against a team that finished ahead of them in the standings.

Technically, they are right. Both teams finished with 95 points, with the Wild seeded sixth,ahead of the Ducks, because of tiebreakers.

“At the time we were fighting for sixth, seventh and eighth, we weren’t sure it was that big of deal,” Walz said. “But sixth obviously means something now.”


Maybe. But the Ducks are 4-1 on the road in the playoffs. The Wild has won its last four road games.

The comparisons can be extended.

They have similar defense-first, opportunity-knocks styles. The Wild allowed 178 goals, the sixth fewest in the NHL; the Ducks set a franchise record by allowing only 193.

Both teams were not considered playoff contenders when the season began, and when they did make it weren’t supposed to advance from the first round.


“As a kid, I remember sitting in front of the TV watching guys raise the Cup many times, especially the Edmonton Oilers,” Paul Kariya said. “I would sit there thinking, ‘I want to do that.’ ”

And so he may, for the Duck captain has a new vision.

“When I envision winning the Stanley Cup, it’s with the Mighty Ducks,” Kariya said. “And, obviously, we are a lot closer now than we have ever been. But we got a lot of work to do still.”