Those improbable, impenetrable Ducks

Never mind that American television audiences by the multitudes will ignore tonight's hockey playoff game between the Anaheim Mighty Ducks and the Minnesota Wild. Hockey is the icebound pariah of the TV markets in the United States.

That is a pity. The Ducks are improbable. Jean-Sebastien Giguere, their bearded goaltender, is impenetrable.

And that's just a beginning of a show that is shaking up hockey's history and making a mess of some of the fundamental laws of nature.

Anaheim is in California. California is the land of sun, surf, and indigenous smog. By all of the environmental rules, hockey hysteria should be an undesirable alien in California.

But on Wednesday night, Jean-Sebastien Giguere stoned the Minnesota Wild without a goal for the third consecutive game, and tonight the Ducks have an opportunity to go storming into hockey's Stanley Cup finals.

Is it possible for ducks to storm? Listen. This is California and this is Anaheim. Anaheim is the home of Disneyland. It is the home of the Crystal Cathedral with 10,000 panes of glass. It is also the home of the Anaheim Angels, who won baseball's World Series last fall in the face of all logic and Barry Bonds. It is clear now that in Anaheim and this year in the National Hockey League, there is nothing beyond the kinetic powers of ducks.

Minnesota's nemesis

All of this seemed a little overwhelming for one of the lovable old sourdoughs of professional hockey, Glen Sonmor of Minneapolis. Sonmor once coached in the NHL and practically everywhere else in North America. He groaned watching the televised spectacle of the Ducks 4-0 victory in Anaheim Wednesday night. The Wild, the team for whom he occasionally scouts, fell once more to Giguere's big pads, his uncanny discipline, and his muscular bodyguards in front of the goal crease.

Sonmor offered a professional lament: "I've been in hockey for 60 years," he said. "I never thought I'd see a team named the Mighty Ducks rip through the Detroit Red Wings and Dallas and now go for the Stanley Cup. The Mighty Ducks. Who would have believed it? The world has changed. But you have to hand it to them. They're tough and they play together and they never stop. And this guy Giguere. He's almost out in space. I've coached and played against and admired some of the greatest goalies. I've seen guys like Ken Dryden, Terry Sawchuk, Patrick Roy, Plante, and a hundred of them. But this Giguere, what he's been doing the last few weeks just knocks my eyes out. Our guys can't figure him out. They try to do it with speed, by clogging the front of the crease, putting bigger guys in there, everything."

Three perfect games

But who, after all, has been able to fathom Giguere? In the NHL playoffs, almost nobody. His performance - three straight shutouts, 213 consecutive minutes without allowing a goal - has reached the point where the journalists and broadcasters are now covering him with a calendar and stop watch in addition to their computers.

To put him in perspective, you have to reach all the way back into the Pre-Cambrian age of professional hockey.

The playoff record for allowing no goals is 248 consecutive minutes, by Normie Smith of Detroit in 1936. Giguere can break that tonight on, coincidentally, his 26th birthday. Not since Toronto's Frank McCool in 1945 has an NHL goaltender scored three straight shutouts in the playoffs.

Giguere had one earlier in the post-season. The hockey gurus have put his style and comportment under a microscope over the past three weeks and can find no substantial flaws.

Calm amid the storm

He's personable and popular, unpretentious and relatively free of the eccentricities that many goalies bring to the ice. It's a lonely job of isolation in the midst of bedlam. It can produce emotional basket cases and candidates for yoga and the monastery. Giguere's temperament is relaxed, his butterfly goaltending technique - legs spread to protect both sides of the net - honed through hundreds of hours of training.

"He is," Anaheim defenseman Keith Carney said simply, "unbelievable."

But in front of him the French-Canadian has players of both quality and grit. Paul Kariya, the offensive star, is one of the extraordinary players of this generation due to his dexterity, instincts, and goal-scoring power. Sandis Ozolinsh, the defenseman, wins wherever he plays. Petr Sykora, venerable Adam Oates, Steve Rucchin, Niclas Havelid, Keith Carney, and others are complemented by youngsters like Stanislav Christov and Kurt Sauer.

But the trouble with tonight is that it might represent the last episode in an ironic collision of fairy-tale characters.

The Ducks have already beaten Detroit and Dallas, an act so unlikely that it was practically off the charts among the wizards of odds. Minnesota was hardly intimidated by the Ducks' unexpected overthrow of the mighty. It had battled back from oblivion twice in these playoffs. No one before had overcome deficits of three games to one twice in the playoffs. And today this team is practically buried, behind three games to none.

But not dead. Twice before teams have climbed out of that pit in the playoffs.

Can it happen in 2003? Don't discount it. If the Ducks can trample tradition, almost anything is possible. In hockey as in politics, as Glen Sonmor will tell you, the world has changed.

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