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Five for the Drive

Times Staff Writer

Mighty Duck Coach Mike Babcock is talking about foundations ... again.

You’ve got to have one, he says ... again.

You’re lost without one, he says ... again.

The Ducks wouldn’t be in the Stanley Cup finals without one, he says ... again.

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He’s right ... again.

“Before you can do anything, you have to have a foundation,” Babcock said Monday. “You have to have that to fall back on when times get tough.”

Foundations, though, need solid footings. The Ducks have them. Every game was the most important of the season -- Babcock has said again and again -- but looking back, five stand out.

“There are always steppingstones,” veteran center Adam Oates said. “We had games that were huge. Games that went into the memory back. They were games that we could build on.”

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These are the five most important of the Ducks’ 82 most important games of the regular season:

Oct. 10, 2002: Ducks 4, St. Louis 3

The setup: Opening night. General Manager Bryan Murray had spent the summer renovating a franchise in disrepair. Oates, Petr Sykora and Fredrik Olausson were the veteran help brought in. Babcock had spent training camp changing the attitude. German Titov, Jason York and Denny Lambert were the veterans sent packing.

Babcock walked into the dressing room before the game and said, “Fellas, this is the most important game of the season.” The players’ response, according to goalie Jean-Sebastien Giguere, was, “What?”

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The game: The Ducks fell behind, 1-0, in the last minute of the first period. But no collapse followed. Oates and Sykora were the marquee acquisitions during the summer, but rookies Stanislav Chistov and Alexei Smirnov got the Ducks stepping to center stage. Chistov had a goal and three assists, the most points by a player in his NHL debut since 1977. Smirnov had a goal and an assist.

The aftermath: St. Louis was a perennial playoff team. The Ducks beat St. Louis. Drawing a straight line between those facts helped the Ducks make an 82-game beeline to the playoffs.

“For me, that was my first NHL victory,” Babcock said. “For the team, it gave us a chance to get off to a good start. We just tried to take a step a day all season.”

Some of those subsequent steps were pratfalls. But the seed had been planted.

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Oct. 29, 2002: Ducks 2, Montreal 2

The setup: The Ducks had been embarrassed the previous night in Toronto, for the second consecutive year. The 5-2 loss left them with a 2-5-2 record.

“It’s embarrassing to come to Toronto, the hockey capital of the world, and play like that,” team captain Paul Kariya said.

It had been Duck tradition to be red-faced in Toronto. A year earlier -- almost to the day -- after a 6-1 loss in Toronto, Kariya had said, “That was embarrassing, especially in Toronto. To play like that anywhere is bad, but when you come to Toronto once a year and play like that, embarrassing is the only way to describe it.”

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The game: The Ducks played with zip and passion, but were denied by a flop-show put on by Canadien goalie Jeff Hackett. Still, they were trailing, 2-1, when Steve Rucchin centered to Keith Carney, who whipped a shot between Hackett’s legs with 4 minutes 52 seconds left.

“Well, I mean, is that the same group we had last night?” Babcock said after the game.

The aftermath: The Ducks surged into the playoff mix. They won in Boston two nights later and posted a 6-1-3 record over the next 10 games. This was a taste of the effect Rucchin and Carney -- both injured much of the previous season -- could have on the team. Fast-forward to Game 4 in the first round of the playoffs. Carney centered to Rucchin, who scored the overtime goal to eliminate Detroit.

“We bounced back,” Leclerc said. “Montreal is always a tough place to play and we actually deserved better in that game. We outplayed them.”

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Jan. 9, 2003: Ducks 5, Colorado 3

The setup: As the Ducks sink slowly in the Pacific (Division).... They came out of the Christmas break seemingly with a New Year’s resolution to revert to their woeful ways. They were riding a seven-game winless streak, 0-6-1. They were closer to last-pace Nashville, five points, than they were to eighth-place Colorado, six points.

“If you’re making sandwiches for the kids, you don’t just go, ‘There’s some baloney,’ even though they like cheese and lettuce and tomatoes on it,” Babcock said at the time. “That’s not good enough. The good-enough meter isn’t good enough.”

The game: The Ducks, playing their second game in as many nights, fell behind by two goals twice but rallied both times. Sykora gave the Ducks the lead late in the second period, then added the clincher with less than two minutes left in the game and the Ducks got back to .500 with a 16-16-7-3 record.

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“Anytime you beat one of the top teams in the NHL, it’s a momentum builder,” Rucchin said.

The aftermath: Momentum? The Ducks gathered no moss, they were rolling so fast. This was the first game that Sykora, Oates and Kariya had skated as a line. They got opponents’ attention over the next month, with 20 goals and 59 points in 19 games. Andy McDonald suffered a concussion in the game, but Jason Krog filled that void. He scored the Ducks’ first two goals, erasing a 2-0 Colorado lead, and became a vital piece of the team’s puzzle.

“We were patting ourselves on the back too much going into the Christmas break,” Babcock said. “We came out of it going the other way. We needed to put a stop to that.”

Jan. 22, 2003: Ducks 6, Kings 5

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The setup: The Kings had owned the Ducks, with a 6-0-3 record in the previous nine games. The Arrowhead Pond had become the Kings’ home away from home. The Kings had been in the playoffs three consecutive seasons, playing before sellout crowds at Staples Center. The Ducks had gaping holes in the stands at the Pond, which left plenty of tickets for King fans.

The game: Both teams seemed willing to go paws up. The Ducks blew a 3-0 first-period lead. The Kings scored the next five goals, then squandered the lead in the last nine minutes. Rucchin got things rolling with a power-play goal. Marc Chouinard tied the score a minute later. Then, with 3:25 left, Sykora circled from behind the net and knocked in an Oates pass for the game-winner.

“Just a thumb twiddler, huh?” Rucchin said in the postgame interviews.

The aftermath: This put the Ducks into eighth place. It proved they were on equal footing with the Kings, which didn’t last long, as the Kings spiraled out of the playoff race. It was also the moment when some Southern California fans put the King jersey back in the closest and got the Duck jersey out of mothballs.

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“L.A. had been beating us up all the time,” Giguere said. “Just to put an end to that was great for our team.”

March 9, 2003: Ducks 4, Detroit 1

The setup: The Red Wings arrived with a 12-game unbeaten streak and figured to pick up another silver-platter victory over the Ducks. This series had been so one-sided that the Ducks had talked glowingly a few months earlier about getting a point in an overtime loss to the Red Wings at Joe Louis Arena. There was no reason for the Ducks to be highly motivated, as they were playoff bound, in seventh place, with a seven-point cushion over ninth-place Nashville. But the bar had been raised in the Duck dressing room.

The game: It was a rout all right, but for once it was the Red Wings getting spanked. Samuel Pahlsson, in a flash of things to come, had the first three-point game of his career. The Ducks did this with only one goal from a top-line forward. Chistov scored, as did rookie Kurt Sauer, getting his first NHL goal. Even the crowd had changed, as Duck fans, for the first time in years, shouted down Red Wing fans late in the game, especially when Giguere smothered Sergei Fedorov’s breakaway try.

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“Actually, I thought he scored,” Giguere said after the game. “The crowd was cheering. But it was for us.”

The aftermath: How do you like us now? Giguere stopped 39 of 40 shots, a prelude to his playoff performance against the Red Wings. Two days later, the Ducks acquired Rob Niedermayer and Steve Thomas in trade-deadline deals and the first-round ambush was set. But it was after this game that the Ducks could look the Red Wings in the eye for the first time.

“Any time you beat an upper-echelon team, it is going to have a great rollover effect,” Carney said. “After this game, we knew we could play with them if we met in the playoffs. We knew we could play with any team.”


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