One tough Duck
Kariya returns, scores after taking big hit from StevensPosted: Saturday June 07, 2003 9:46 PM
Updated: Sunday June 08, 2003 3:50 AM
ANAHEIM, Calif. (Ticker) -- For five games, while the New Jersey Devils held him to a single assist in his first Stanley Cup Finals' appearance, Paul Kariya said all the right things. He made a bigger statement Saturday without saying a word.
Kariya did something Eric Lindros, Shane Willis and Ron Francis could not -- he came back from a vicious hit by New Jersey Devils captain Scott Stevens. And after coming back, the Ducks captain produced the signature moment of his nine-year career when he scored to restore Anaheim's three-goal lead en route to a 5-2 win.
"That's what great players do. When it's time to answer the call, answer the bell, they're there and they do it," goaltender Jean-Sebastien Giguere said. "And that's why Paul is our team captain, why he's our leader and why he's one of the top five players in this league, because he can do that."
Trying to force a decisive seventh game, the Ducks had a 3-1 lead when Kariya carried through the neutral zone. After passing ahead to a teammate, he had his head down and was the perfect target for Stevens.
"I sensed he was there, but I thought I had a little bit more time with that," he said. "That's Scott's game. He's very patient with his hits and he times them right. But I thought it was a little bit late."
The NHL -- and Stevens -- disagreed. NHL executive vice president and director of hockey operations Colin Campbell called the hit "legal," noting Stevens used his shoulder instead of his elbow and delivered the check "less than one second after Kariya made the pass."
It was latest in a long line of playoff hits delivered by Stevens. He knocked Lindros out of Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals and felled Willis and Francis a year later in consecutive games during the conference quarterfinals.
In each case, Stevens swung momentum to the Devils by sidelining a key member of the opposition. And when Kariya needed help from teammates Adam Oates and Sandis Ozolinsh to leave the ice, it appeared Stevens did it again.
"I was really concerned for Paul's well-being," Ducks center Steve Rucchin said. "You see a guy laying on the ice, I was concerned about Paul and whether he was going to be OK."
With good reason.
A similar hit by Chicago Blackhawks defenseman Gary Suter in February 1998 left Kariya with a concussion that sidelined him for the final 28 games of the season.
"Different helmet and mouthguard," Kariya noted. "I never wore [a mouthguard] before. ... I have been wearing it for four years and also, the helmet is a little thicker foam, the one that Patty LaFontaine used when he came back."
Still, his teammates feared the worst.
"You lose a guy like Paul, it doesn't matter what team he's on, that could be a huge blow," Rucchin said.
It wasn't. Kariya missed just four minutes of game time before returning to the bench to the first of three standing ovations.
"I was pretty clear," Kariya said. "Stevens is a big guy, but I went to the dressing room. The doctors did some tests. I felt great. Made sure everything was fine, got back on the ice."
"Immediately when he came back on the bench, there was a lift in the building and a lift on the bench," left wing Dan Bylsma said.
Kariya got another ovation when he stepped off the bench to test his skating.
"The way he came back, he goes for a little stroll, then the crowd just gets so behind him. He didn't just come back to skate, he came back to play and to win and to score," center Marc Chouinard said.
Any momentum the Devils built disappeared with 2:45 to go in the second period. That's when Kariya motored down the left slot and fired a slap shot from the top of the faceoff circle that flew past Martin Brodeur's and found the top right corner of the net.
"I was just going down the wing and that's where I like to put it in that situation," Kariya said.
Asked if he appreciated the drama of the moment, the soft-spoken 28-year-old said, "No, just you go out there and make plays. That's my job, to produce offensively."
"When he got on the ice, you could see he wanted the puck and he was flying," Bylsma said. "And that's the kind of play you look to in great players. Paul did that tonight for us."
Kariya's been doing it longer than that. He has spent his entire career with the Ducks, serving as captain since 1996. He played all 82 games for the second straight season, despite the death of his father.
Even before that, Kariya sent a message by sticking with an Anaheim team that reached the playoffs just twice in his first eight seasons. This despite missing the first 32 games of the 1997-98 season during a contentious contract holdout.
"It just goes to show what kind of leader he is. He easily could have wanted to go somwehere else and he could have made some qualms about it in the press and it could have been a detriment to the team," Rucchin said before the series began.
"But he's been a great leader. He's been here and he wants to win here. And it's great for him that he's finally getting his opportunity."
It took a while for Kariya to make the most of that opportunity. He was held without a point until Game 5 but picked up a goal and two assists Saturday to force a decisive seventh game.
"I haven't been playing well through the first part of the series, but I knew it was going to come," he said. "I felt good physically and it was just a matter of time."
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