The Mighty Ducks looked as if they were skating through quicksand in Game 1 of their first Stanley Cup finals Tuesday against the ferocious New Jersey Devils. They were huffing and puffing, but getting nowhere fast.
In many ways, the Ducks paid a steep price for their early-round efficiency in polishing off the Detroit Red Wings in four games in the opening round, the Dallas Stars in six in the second and the Minnesota Wild in four in the Western Conference finals. Their rustiness was unmistakable after a 10-day layoff, the longest in league history before the start of a Stanley Cup finals.
The Ducks were flat and listless in their own end of the ice, tentative and uncertain in the attacking zone and outskated to loose pucks all around the rink. They were consistently a step behind the Devils, taking hits along the boards instead of delivering them as they had in their early-round victories.
“We came this far, we just can’t waste a game like that,” winger Petr Sykora said after the Ducks’ 3-0 loss to the Devils. Sykora had one of the Ducks’ few quality scoring chances, whistling a low slap shot from the left wing past Devil goaltender Martin Brodeur and off the right goal post less than five minutes into the game.
“Our preparation was not there,” he said. “We were not ready to play.”
The Ducks had eight shots through two periods and were down by a goal after New Jersey’s Jeff Friesen scored the only goal the Devils would need 1:45 into the second period. The Devils then suffocated the Ducks in the neutral zone, turning errant passes into numerous two-on-one and three-on-two breaks.
By game’s end, the Ducks had been outshot, 30-16, with their leading goal-scorer, Paul Kariya, failing to record a shot until whipping one from the high slot well into the third period.
Sykora, with 44 shots and two goals in the playoffs, and Kariya, with 43 shots and five goals, were the Ducks’ leading snipers going into the finals. But Sykora had only two shots and Kariya one Tuesday.
What’s more, the Duck power play failed to click twice in the first period, falling to six for 54 (11.1%) in the playoffs.
“We didn’t get off to a good start,” Duck defenseman Keith Carney said. “They established their game before we could establish ours. I don’t think the layoff was a factor. We had time to rest and put the Western Conference finals behind us.... We need to play a lot better. Obviously, we didn’t have our A game for whatever reason.”
Carney agreed that the Ducks might have cobbled together a more satisfying result had Sykora’s early shot found the net. He would not say that the team that scores first is necessarily destined to win.
“That’s playoff hockey,” he said. “The goaltenders are so good, especially these two guys. We know these games are going to be tight and low scoring.... It was still a one-goal game in the third period.”
The last words were left to Coach Mike Babcock, who said when asked if the 10-day hiatus hurt the Ducks, “A layoff is an excuse. We had an opportunity tonight. They were better than we were. They executed better. They were hungrier and you have to give them credit.”
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Duck playoff averages compared to Game 1 of Stanley Cup finals against New Jersey:
*--* DUCK AVG Playoffs Game 1 Goals 2.1 0 Goals against 1.5 3 Shots 28.9 16 Shots against 34.5 30