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Monday, June 9

Updated: June 11, 9:10 AM ET

Kariya on finals: 'We'll be back'

By Chris Stevenson
Special to ESPN.com

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- This wasn't the movies.

There was no Emilio Estevez to the rescue.

There was no happy ending for this Mighty Ducks story, but what are the chances for In Search of Stanley, Part Deux at this time next year?

What are we seeing with these real-life Ducks from Anaheim?

Is this a spreading of wings that will cast a shadow over the NHL for the next few years?

Or was this a straight-to-video performance, the NHL's version of Ishtar on ice?

Are these Ducks for real or just this year's Carolina Hurricanes, an unlikely participant in the Stanley Cup final riding a two-month burst of brilliance that will flame out come next year?

The Hurricanes made it to the final last spring and turned into a zephyr, missing the playoffs this season.

As he stood on a podium minutes after the Ducks' crushing defeat at the hands of the New Jersey Devils on Monday night, Ducks captain Paul Kariya vowed: "We'll be back."

Will they?

So much needs to go right for a team to make it to the Stanley Cup final in a 30-team league. Just ask the Detroit Red Wings or the Dallas Stars, top contenders who were eliminated by the Ducks along the way.

Ducks coach Mike Babcock did a remarkable job in his rookie season, but he need look no farther than to the bench next to his to see how cruel this game can be.

Devils coach Pat Burns made it to the Stanley Cup final in his first season in the league, too, and then had to wait 14 years -- including almost two years out of the game -- to get back here.

"We want to be like the Devils," said Babcock. "We want to be a team that's here every year, a team to be reckoned with, but who knows if we ever get the chance again in my lifetime? You can have a great team and never get to this stage and then it goes away. Who's to say it comes this way again?

"Look at Pat Burns. He made it in his first year and how long did he have to wait to get back again?"

Ducks general manager Bryan Murray did a good job of turning around a franchise that had missed the playoffs three years in a row and made the postseason just twice in its 10 years in the NHL.

Half the roster -- a dozen players -- were changed in a year. The culture of the franchise was changed with the arrival of Babcock, whose intensity rubbed off.

All that being said, the biggest reason to believe the Ducks won't be another version of the Carolina Hurricanes is goaltender Jean-Sebastien Giguere. The Conn Smythe Trophy winner is no one-shot, stop-the-rebound wonder. He got everybody's attention with his performance in the playoffs this spring, but he quietly went about putting together two very solid regular seasons over the last two years.

He has had a save percentage of .920 the last two regular seasons. He boosted his wins from 20 to 34 this year, a reflection of increased playing time (53 to 65 appearances) and an improving team in front of him.

You simply don't go anywhere in this league without goaltending and there is no reason to believe Giguere is anything but a first-class goaltender. His challenge will be to avoid being next year's Jose Theodore, the Montreal Canadiens goaltender who struggled this year after playoff glory last spring. Babcock is confident Murray can continue to build on the foundation the Ducks established in the second half of the regular season and in the playoffs.

"Jiggy was so good and we just found a way to win games late and in overtime," said Murray. "I think we showed we have much better players than anybody recognized. They showed they can compete hard every night. We have a core of players now, a foundation for sure.

"Winning breeds more winning and going forward, it's going to be easier for some guys to understand the level of commitment needed to win. We've got more depth and more players who played at a higher level.

"This is not a one-year blip. This is going to continue."

Kariya, the Ducks' offensive star, took an important step in Game 6, getting floored by that Scott Stevens hit and coming back to score a goal. It was in important moment in his career and perhaps for the Ducks immediate future, as Kariya augmented his reputation in those few minutes from a talented player to one with guts and character as well.

The Ducks have a solid core on defence, led by defenseman Keith Carney.

"We made big strides this year," he said in his soft-spoken manner. "We made our team better last off-season and better through out the season. Obviously, we're deeper now. We have young guys who make the team better and are pushing the older guys to be better.

"I think the future looks very bright. We've got young guys, we've got guys in the minors and we got confidence that allowed us to go on this good run.

"And we have a great goalie."

Yes, they do.

The Ducks have a core of hard-working grinders and a bright young talent like Stanislav Chistov. The futures of veterans Adam Oates and Steve Thomas are in doubt with the club. The Ducks hold an option on Oates while Thomas is poised to become an unrestricted free agent July 1. If they aren't back, capable replacements will have to be found in order for the Ducks to continue their forward progress.

"We made big strides as an organization and there's a lot of pieces of the puzzle there," said Kariya. "Starting at goal. Bryan did an unbelievable job this season getting us to be a much-improved team. Obviously, Mike did a great job coaching us."

The Ducks have the makings of a playoff team again next year, but duplicating what they did this spring will be very, very difficult. They stayed healthy this spring. They got more than their share of luck, as teams who make it this far always do.

Even while the hurt of losing to the Devils was still sinking in, Babcock knew that.

"People didn't know we were alive at the start of the year and we're alive now," said Babcock. "We know that we have to have a much better team to be back here again."

Chris Stevenson of the Ottawa Sun is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.
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