The Anaheim Ducks run for the cup in 2003 is a momentous occasion in franchise history. However, the journey in the Finals wouldn’t have been possible without a few unsung heroes.
Those who are Anaheim Ducks fans know about the miracle run in ’03 that would be marked by the captain’s return in game 6 that brought down the house and inspired us to believe that heroes can indeed fly. However, to get to that point, the Mighty Ducks had to get off the mat and show the Devils that their miracle run was far from over.
After sweeping the defending Stanley Cup champions, the Detroit Red Wings, dethroning the top seed, the Dallas Stars, and knocking out another surprise team in the Minnesota Wild, the Anaheim Ducks entered the Finals with supreme confidence. Heading into the Devils’ lair, the Ducks got burnt twice, getting shut out in both games.
With their journey taking them back home to the Pond, the Ducks needed to respond, and it wouldn’t be an easy task, going against one of the toughest goaltenders, Martin Brodeur. However, things started to the Ducks’ way for a change, as Marc Chouinard scored the first ever Mighty Ducks goal in the Stanley Cup Finals.
Although the Devils tied the game early in the second period, the game would be remembered for one of the most improbable, unfathomable goals in Stanley Cup Finals history: Sandis Ozolinsh, dumped the puck into the Devils’ zone, but as Martin Brodeur tried to play the puck, the puck bounced off his stick into the back of the net, giving the Ducks a 2-1 lead.
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Eventually, the Devils would tie the game up and the game would go to overtime. The Devils were one shot away from pretty much putting the final nail in the series. However, the Ducks always thrived under pressure, winning in overtime on multiple occasions, including Game 4 against Detroit to sweep the Cup champs.
An Unsung Hero Arises
With the series hanging in the balance, the Anaheim Ducks needed someone to rise to the occasion, that person was none other than defenseman Ruslan Salei. A well-beloved defenseman in Anaheim, Ruslan, or Rusty as he was called, only scored four goals in the regular season, but with the team needing a miracle, Ruslan Salei scored the overtime game-winner, breathing life back into the Ducks, but more than that, giving the franchise its’ first-ever win in the Stanely Cup Finals.
With the win in Game 3, the Ducks looked to duplicate that in Game 4. Unlike game 3, however, the Ducks played a “D3” style of hockey against the Devils. If you’re a M.D. movie fanatic, like me, then you know that in the third movie of the trilogy, Coach Orion tried to implement a shutdown style of hockey, playing two-way against the Varsity. Eventually, the Ducks bought into the style and beat the Warriors varsity squad, shutting them down and winning the game one to nothing on a game-winning goal by Goldberg set up by the newly reinstated captain, Charlie Conway.
Taking Cues from Their Namesake
But back to reality, in Game 4, the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim took a page out of Coach Orion’s playbook and played a shutdown style of hockey against the Devils. Neither side was able to break the tie in regulation despite multiple attempts on both sides. Eventually, the game went to overtime, and though the Ducks were able to have one overtime heroic moment by Ruslan Salei, the fans knew that they needed another hero to step up if the Ducks wanted another win in this series.
Thankfully, it didn’t take long as another unsung hero stepped forward, Steve “Stumpy” Thomas scored on an odd-man rush, tying the series, giving the Ducks renewed life in this series. For the first time, the Ducks felt like they could stand on their own again, and though they lost game 5, Steve Thomas and Ruslan Salei should be commended for what they brought to the table because it set up what would be the most dramatic game in Stanley Cup Finals history for the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim.
As for the unsung heroes, Steve Thomas retired a year later without a cup in his name, but to a select few, he’s forever immortalized as a hero that really jumpstarted the Ducks in the Finals. Though he didn’t win the Cup, he had a long career and is now a father to a son Christian, who also plays hockey.
Unfortunately, things didn’t end well for Ruslan Salei. His life ended in a plane crash on September 7, 2011, as he, along with several others, were flying to Russia. It was a sad day for us Mighty Ducks fans because, though he wasn’t one of the popular players, history would’ve been totally different had he not scored the game-winner in overtime.
The Anaheim Ducks would’ve been a game away from getting swept which meant the infamous Paul Kariya goal wouldn’t have happened. So, thank you Ruslan Salei, and Steve Thomas, for giving us Mighty Ducks fans, something that we won’t ever forget.