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Unthinkable Is About to Happen

It’s 5 on Wednesday afternoon. There is a parade of men, women and children walking up Katella Avenue. They are wearing Mighty Duck hockey sweaters. It is May 14.

This is unreal.

It’s about halfway through the first period of Game 3 of the NHL Western Conference finals and Jean-Sebastien Giguere, in a crouch, slams shut the empty space in front of his goal as Minnesota’s Marian Gaborik swoops in, alone, on a breakaway. The puck, and Gaborik, never have a chance.

The save is unreal.

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Steve Rucchin, an earnest, polite, magic-handed, tragedy-touched center for the Ducks, scores the first goal. Rucchin has overcome serious injuries and struggled through hockey while a brother was dying of cancer. There is no one more worth rooting for. As his goal is scored, ESPN shows a stat -- 10 different Ducks have scored their last 10 goals.

The stat is unreal.

“I don’t know what to say about Steve,” Duck Coach Mike Babcock says. “He makes you proud to be his coach.”

The quote, it’s real. Very real. Very much the kind of thing that makes the Ducks so endearing, so sweetly unaffected by this mystical confluence of good play and good luck.

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But the game is continuing, this pivotal moment on the road to the Stanley Cup finals.

Giguere catches a puck with his crotch. He blocks it with his right leg. Then his left. He flicks out his gloved hand to snatch a shot out of the air. The hand reaches in, comes back as quickly as a lizard’s tongue.

The shutout, the third in a row? Unreal.

Giguere and the Ducks beat the Wild, 4-0. A rock-solid blowout, a morale crusher that is, well, unreal.

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With every save he makes, every team he blanks, Giguere threatens or passes the records of goaltending legends. Bernie Parent, Terry Sawchuk, Jacques Plante, Glenn Hall, Dominik Hasek, Martin Brodeur. Consecutive playoff shutouts, longest overtime shutout streaks, save percentage, goals-against average, Giguere is racing past all the greats.

Which is unreal.

Paul Kariya scores two goals and has a third on his stick in the third period, a perfect pass unexpectedly having come his way from Keith Carney. But Kariya doesn’t get off a shot. And he feels bad afterward.

“Keith made an unbelievable pass,” Kariya says. “I wasn’t expecting it, to be honest. It came through one of their players. I felt badly for not finishing it off for him.”

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“For him.” For Carney. Kariya feels bad for not getting Carney his assist, after Kariya has played a superb game, after he has quietly been playing defense and making passes and doing small, important things all during the playoffs that go unnoticed.

Kariya feels bad for his teammate.

Unreal.

During the third period a handout comes down the rows in the press box. This handout announces the “2003 Bring the Cup Home Stanley Cup In-Store Appearance Schedule.” On May 20, from 4-8 p.m., the Cup will be at the Buena Park Mall; May 21 from 4-8 at the Los Cerritos Mall; May 22 from 4-8 at South Coast Plaza.

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In Toronto and Montreal hockey fans are rubbing their eyes, hitting themselves on the forehead and maybe weeping a little.

The Stanley Cup might reside in Orange County, home of surfers, shoppers and rollerbladers, residence of Angel fans, Dodger fans, Laker fans, even Clipper fans.

But of few Mighty Duck fans in the last couple of years.

Over the last decade, Duck ownership has manufactured a team out of a movie and created goodwill with a new building and a fast ascent into the second round of playoffs. They have signed a young, ethnic, budding star in Kariya and added another charismatic scorer and a certified NHL power in Teemu Selanne.

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Then it squandered all that goodwill by firing the coach, Ron Wilson, who took the young and innocent Ducks into the second round of the playoffs, by becoming parsimonious with the payroll after corralling Kariya and Selanne, by trading off the popular Selanne.

By the start of this season, even the most loyal Ducks fans were discouraged, disillusioned, angry, frustrated or -- worst of all -- bored. The Pond was seriously empty many nights and no one was to blame but the ownership, the Disney company.

A good way to win back the loyalty is to have your team win the Stanley Cup.

“Sweep, sweep, sweep.”

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The chant started in the third period. Considering the possibility, Duck fans waited a respectful amount of time before voicing the grand opportunity that has arrived.

The Ducks can clinch a trip to the Stanley Cup finals. Here. At the Pond. Friday night. Five more victories and Anaheim will be home to the World Series and Stanley Cup champions.

Unreal? No.

Very, very real.

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Diane Pucin can be reached at diane.pucin@latimes.com.


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