Mighty Ducks push Devils to seventh game

Sunday, June 8, 2003

ANAHEIM, Calif. -- The Anaheim Mighty Ducks' comeback was impressive enough. Paul Kariya's was one for the storybooks.

Kariya, leveled by a hit from Scott Stevens that was so hard it appeared he might be seriously hurt, returned to score his first goal of the series, and the Mighty Ducks evened the Stanley Cup finals by beating New Jersey 5-2 in Game 6 Saturday night.

"That's unbelievable," Steve Rucchin said. "What a great goal. He's a great leader."

Kariya was invisible for much of the series, as he couldn't escape the Devils' trapping defense. But he set up two of the Ducks' three first-period with the breakthrough game coach Mike Babcock said was necessary from him to force a Game 7.

Rucchin scored the Ducks' first two goals about 4 1/2 minutes apart in a fast-paced, all-offense first period that mimicked that of the Devils' 6-3 victory in Game 5, when each team scored twice.

For New Jersey, which looked flat and uninspired at the start for a team in position to win the Stanley Cup finals, it's a familiar story. This is the second time in three years the Devils couldn't close out the finals in Game 6; they lost 4-0 in Game 6 to Colorado in 2001, then lost Game 7, too.

"We had a great opportunity to finish a series and let it slip away," Devils defenseman Scott Niedermayer said. "We just didn't play our game again. We weren't playing as a team, and that's how we have to be play in order to be successful."

Added Devils coach Pat Burns: "I was surprised we did that."

In what is threatening to become the first finals since 1965 in which the home team wins every game, Game 7 will be Monday night in the New Jersey swamp. The Devils have outscored the Ducks 12-3 there in three wins all decided by three goals apiece. Anaheim outscored New Jersey 9-4 in the three games at the Pond.

If Anaheim can somehow find a way to win Monday, the Ducks will be the first team since 1971 to rally from a 2-0 deficit to win the Stanley Cup.

That Colorado comeback in 2001 also marked the only time since Montreal rallied past Chicago in 1971 that a team leading the finals hasn't held a 3-2 lead. If the Mighty Ducks go from last place a year ago to one of the most unlikely Stanley Cup champions ever, it will be Kariya's comeback that will be remembered.

The Ducks, playing with the desperation expected of a team possibly playing in its last game, led 3-1 in the second period when Stevens leveled Kariya with a violent hit only a moment after the Anaheim captain had passed the puck.

Kariya was in open ice and was vulnerable, but clearly never saw Stevens coming, much like the Flyers' Eric Lindros didn't when he suffered a concussion on a similar hit by Stevens in a 2000 playoff game. Lindros ended up missing an entire season.

Kariya lay motionless for about a minute, the crowd at the Pond barely making a sound, before being helped up and taken to the locker room on wobbly legs.

"I wasn't out cold," Kariya said. "I was right there."

Kariya said he thought the hit was a little late. NHL officials issued a statement saying the hit was legal and not subject to a penalty.

Despite appearing to lose consciousness, Kariya returned to the bench quickly and was back in the game less than five minutes. Only a few minutes after that, he was on the scoreboard for the first time in a series, only a day after repeatedly fielding questions whether his lost scoring touch might doom the Ducks. He had only one assist in the first five games.

Kariya took Petr Sykora's pass and, seeing open ice for one of the first times in the finals, let go of a hard slap shot from above the left circle that streaked by goalie Martin Brodeur and inside the far post.

The crowd of 17,174 couldn't have reacted with a much louder noise if the Ducks had just won the Stanley Cup -- which, indeed, they now have a chance to do Monday night.

So much for those who questioned Kariya's toughness earlier in the series.

"They can question it all they want. I wasn't playing well at the first part of the series," Kariya said.

If the Ducks can pull it off, it would be the second near-miraculous championship won by an Anaheim team in seven months. The Angels also staged a Game 6 comeback against the Giants in October, then won Game 7 to win their first World Series since joining the AL in 1961.

Could it have been the Rally Monkey? The scoreboard mascot that became such a symbol of the Angels' magical postseason run was displayed in a Mighty Ducks sweater, drawing a cheer that almost matched that after the Kariya goal.

But it was the Devils who looked like they didn't know what hit them. They were unable to match the Ducks' desperation pace or intensity in their biggest game of the series and were down 3-0 not even 16 minutes into the game.

"Our season was on the line," Mike Leclerc said. "We know what's at stake. We are desperate. ... We had to keep our foot on the gas pedal. We can't let up."

Rucchin, who got the memorable series-clinching overtime goal in Game 4 that sealed Anaheim's first-round upset of the defending champion Red Wings, got the first two goals as the Ducks improved to 11-1 in games in which they score first.

Rucchin scored at 4:26, taking Kariya's pass in the high slot and wristing a shot that deflected off Stevens and past Brodeur, who would go on to allow five goals for only the second time in the playoffs this spring.

Rucchin beat Brodeur again with a shot from the right circle at 13:42, after Rob Niedermayer fought off two Devils along the boards for the puck and managed to get it out to Leclerc, who got it to Rucchin. It was Rucchin's seventh of the playoffs.

Anaheim also scored on the power play for the first time in 11 chances in the series when Steve Thomas put Kariya's deflection past Brodeur at 15:59. The Ducks got a second power goal, by Sykora, early in the third period.

Brodeur was lifted after stopping only 17 of 22 shots. By contrast, Ducks goalie Jean-Sebastien Giguere had a relatively stress-free night, making 26 saves. His best save came on a 2-on-1 break when he stopped Scott Niedermayer in the first, with the Ducks ahead 1-0. The Devils also couldn't convert two odd-man rushes about a minute apart in the second period, after Jay Pandolfo scored to make it 3-1. Notes: Brodeur allowed three goals in the first period for only the second time in 138 playoff games. ... New Jersey is 4-7 on the road. ... Anaheim allowed only 13 goals in its 10 home playoff games. ... Home teams trailing 3-2 in the finals had won only seven of 20 previous times in Game 6.

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