- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 24, 2003

How do you sweep the defending Stanley Cup champion from the first round of the playoffs?

Start with the NHL's master of lost causes, throw in a handful of proven veterans, add a red-hot goalie and a pinch of that Disney magic and presto, you have the Mighty Ducks.

Anaheim's 4-0 triumph over the Hall of Fame-laden Detroit Red Wings was nearly unprecedented. The only other time such a first-round sweep happened was back in the six-team NHL of 1952 when Detroit treated Toronto with similar rudeness. And those Wings had clearly been the league's best team that year as well as the previous season.

While the Ducks went 25-11-2-3 during the second half to finish with franchise records of 40 victories and 95 points, they had missed the playoffs by 26 points in 2002, their third straight year in the Pacific Division cellar. It had also been six years since they last won a playoff game and the Wings had swept them in 1997 and 1999.

Anaheim pulled off the shocker despite an 0-for-14 power play. All-Star left wing Paul Kariya and center Steve Rucchin the only regulars left from the Ducks' other series triumph in 1997 won Games 1 and 4 in overtime and 25-year-old Jean-Sebastian Giguere whom general manager Bryan Murray had tried to pry loose from Calgary's minor league system when he was Florida's GM posted the fourth-lowest goals-against average (1.24) and third-highest save percentage (.965) for a goalie in his first playoff series during the 36-year expansion era. The latter figure is a record against a defending champion during that time.

"We went into the series thinking that in the beginning we just had to compete," said Murray, who relished beating Detroit after the Red Wings fired him in 1994 following a string of playoff failures. "The first game was even and when they outshot us in the first overtime 20-4 and [Giguere] didn't let anything in, from that point on our team got better. Each game was even, but we found a way to score timely goals [Anaheim won each game by a goal, two in overtime]. Detroit is a veteran group with a lot of talent. We were very conscious of their potential throughout the series."

When Murray became Anaheim's coach in May 2001, there didn't seem to be much potential. Teemu Selanne had been traded, leaving Kariya as the only true mighty Duck. But Murray wasn't fazed. After all, his rebuilding projects had paid off in their second seasons everywhere else. Downtrodden Washington became a playoff team under coach Murray in 1983. The previously sagging Wings won the Norris Division for GM Murray in 1992. And floundering Florida reached the Stanley Cup Finals in Murray's second season as its GM in 1996.

"I can't say that there's any real secret other than after you get to know your team's talent level, you have a chance to do something about it," said the 60-year-old Murray. "Sometimes you wish that you had the best tools to work with, that you had gone to a team that was ready to win a Stanley Cup. I haven't won a Cup, but otherwise I've had a great career in terms of helping to build franchises. It's been very satisfying to run this organization without having someone to report to. Disney [which owns the Ducks] told me to do what I had to do to make the team as good as I could."

Murray actually had to report to GM Pierre Gauthier last year, but after the Ducks remained stagnant, Gauthier was fired and Murray moved upstairs, promoting 39-year-old coach Mike Babcock from Anaheim's American Hockey League team in Cincinnati. The 2002 Ducks had lost 21 games by a goal and their 175 goals were the NHL's second-fewest. Kariya, who had averaged 99 points during his four healthy seasons from 1996 to 2000, scored 57.

So Murray traded for New Jersey's potent right wing, Petr Sykora the lone Duck who has won a title and signed prolific 40-year-old passer Adam Oates as a free agent. Kariya jumped to 81 points as the Ducks added 28 goals. Keith Carney and Sandis Ozolinsh bolstered the defense and Steve Thomas and Rob Niedermayer were added for grit and experience.

If the Ducks can upset physical and experienced Dallas 11 Stars have their names on the Cup they'll face equally unproven Minnesota or Vancouver in the conference finals. And they fared a bit better against the Stars than the Wings this season.

As Murray said, "We talk about what can happen. If you do the right stuff every game, you have a chance to go a long way."

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