- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 8, 2003

ANAHEIM, Calif. — Anaheim star Paul Kariya was on wobbly legs, staggered by a thunderous hit that threatened to end his Stanley Cup Finals. Then he made a comeback that stunned even the New Jersey Devils.

Just like the rest of the Mighty Ducks.

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 Anaheim evened the Stanley Cup Finals by beating New Jersey 5-2 in Game6 last night.

Kariya was invisible for much of the series, unable to 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 Game7.

“It definitely showed a lot of grit for him to come back from a hit like that,” Devils goalie Martin Brodeur said. “There’s not too many guys who can do that.”

What’s equally remarkable is his unexpected return mimicked that of his own team. The Ducks were wobbly themselves after being dominated in the first two games of the series, in danger of being swept, yet have forced a Game7 it seemed unlikely they would ever see.

“One game to win Stanley Cup? You can’t ask much more than that,” Steve Rucchin said.

Rucchin scored the Ducks’ first two goals about 4 minutes apart in a fast-paced, all-offense first period that imitated the Devils’ 6-3 victory in Game5, when each team scored twice.

It was a familiar story for the Devils, who looked flat and uninspired at the start for a team in position to win the Stanley Cup. This is the second time in three years the Devils couldn’t close out the finals in Game6; they lost 4-0 in Game6 to Colorado in 2001, then lost Game7, 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, Game7 will tomorrow 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 tomorrow, 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.

“Obviously, I was raring to get back out there,” Kariya said.

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 legs so unsteady he needed help.

“I wasn’t out cold,” said Kariya, who began wearing a stronger helmet and a mouthpiece several years ago to help prevent concussions. “I was right there.”

NHL officials issued a statement saying the hit was legal and not subject to a penalty, but Kariya clearly didn’t agree.

“I didn’t like the hit, obviously,” Kariya said. “That’s Scott Stevens’ game. He’s done that throughout his career. … There’s a fine line there.”

Stevens said, “You can’t let your guard down. Hey,it’s a physical game out there.”

After passing a quick series of tests and being cleared to return, Kariya 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 Brodeur and inside the far post.

“That’s where I like to put it that situation and I took a good shot,” Kariya said.

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 tomorrow night.

“That’s what great players do. When it’s time to answer the call, they’re there and they do it,” goalie Jean-Sebastien Giguere 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 Game6 comeback against the Giants in October, then won Game7 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 jersey, 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, and were down 3-0 not even 16 minutes into the game.

Rucchin, who got the memorable series-clinching overtime goal in Game4 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 allowed 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 Mike 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 play 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 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.

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