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Original Issue

Who Woulda Thunk?

The Penguins and the North Stars meet in a most unlikely Stanley Cup final

Look what the cat has dragged on-stage for the NHL's big show: the Minnesota North Stars and the Pittsburgh Penguins, two franchises that have generated more red ink than red lights in their 24-year histories. Think of it: Five teams that scored at least 100 points during the regular season, plus the defending champion Edmonton Oilers, are out, and the 88-point Penguins and the 68-point North Stars are in.

But don't think of the Stanley Cup finals in those terms. Never mind that Minnesota had fewer regular-season points than any other finalist since the NHL's first expansion, in 1967-68. Or that it could become the first team in North America with a losing record (27-39-14) to win a championship in any major sport since the Toronto Maple Leafs won the Cup in '49. And do not assume that the Penguins played over their heads in beating the Boston Bruins, '88 and '90 Stanley Cup finalists, in six games for the Wales Conference title. Nor should you ascribe the North Stars' success to mere good fortune. Minnesota had a lot more than that going for it to dispatch the regular-season champion Chicago Blackhawks; the St. Louis Blues, the No. 2 team in the league; and an Edmonton team trying for its sixth Cup in eight years. All three series ended in less than seven games.

So do not prejudge this final as being between two teams about to decide nothing more than who can stay luckier longer. And please—puhleeeze—spare us that tedious refrain about the meaninglessness of hockey's regular season. The evidence remains strong that the best teams in the regular season usually succeed in the playoffs. In 17 of the 23 postseasons since 1968, the team that finished first in the regular season reached the finals. In 20 of those 23 years, either the No. 1 or No. 2 team did.

Sure, there have been a few flukes, but 1991 isn't one of them. This isn't like '82, when the 77-point Vancouver Canucks reached the Stanley Cup finals without facing an opponent with a winning record before getting swept by the New York Islanders. Nor is this like '86, when a 119-point Edmonton juggernaut was stunned by the 89-point Calgary Flames, who proceeded to lose to the 87-point Montreal Canadiens in the finals. The NHL had no dominating teams this season. That five clubs accumulated 100 or more points indicates that the league had a larger-than-normal group of good teams. All of them, though, had significant flaws.

Minnesota and Pittsburgh simply had more good players and more ways to win than the teams they defeated. In the case of the North Stars, this conclusion may sound particularly absurd, but it's true. The Blackhawks and Blues were both one-line teams, a species that becomes extinct come playoff time, when the importance of strategy increases and the checking tightens. Chicago had no reliable scorers other than Jeremy Roenick and Steve Larmer. St. Louis had none aside from Brett Hull and Adam Oates. And the same factor that doomed the Oilers to regular-season mediocrity—a banged-up Mark Messier—caught up with them. Edmonton lost to Minnesota because it wasn't deep enough offensively to make up for the production it normally would have gotten from Messier.

The North Stars have smart role players like Stew Gavin and Gaetan Duchesne to frustrate an opponent's top scorers. Minnesota also has two scoring lines, each anchored by a fine playmaking center, Neal Broten or Dave Gagner. Going into Wednesday night's Cup-round opener against the Penguins, four of the North Stars—Broten, Gagner, Brian Bellows and Brian Propp—had an average of more than a point a game in the postseason. Minnesota had gotten power-play goals from 10 different players and had clicked through three rounds at an impressive 26.9% efficiency with the man advantage. The North Stars have no stars, but they have balance.

Minnesota was in turmoil at the start of the season, following a threatened shift of the North Stars to San Jose, the sale of the franchise last spring and a coaching change. And the team hardly got a lift from playing before 5,000 fans in a 15,039-seat arena, as it did for most of its regular-season home games. However, these were essentially the same Stars who had taken Chicago to seven games in the first round last year, so it was hard to understand how they could be so abysmal. Once the North Stars adjusted to their new coach, Bob Gainey, who's as icy as his predecessor, Pierre Page, was fiery, they steadily improved.

During the two-month stretch from Jan. 17 to March 17, Minnesota went 14-6-6, and it has lost only two of its last 23 games at home, including the playoffs. Now shots launched by players who couldn't have hit any of the empty Met Center seats earlier in the season are zipping under crossbars with such accuracy that even Grant Fuhr, the world's greatest goalie, couldn't reach them in the Edmonton series. It's also uncanny how often in the playoffs Minnesota has given up a potentially pivotal goal only to come back and score within a few shifts.

Two veterans picked up last summer by new North Star general manager Bobby Clarke—Propp and Bobby Smith—have played well and added a stabilizing presence. Jon Casey's goaltending has also been excellent. In short, Minnesota enjoyed favorable matchups in its three previous playoff series, so its accomplishments to date have been genuine, not flukes.

The North Stars entered the finals almost completely healthy, an unlikely occurrence after three rounds. Moreover, their young defense has remained poised far beyond its level of experience, but that's more a reflection of confidence and solid coaching than of beginner's luck. A combination of an excellent game plan and extraordinary concentration allowed Minnesota to control the neutral zone in the postseason. That's the key to shutting down a team with exceptional speed, like Pittsburgh. It's also one of the keys to shutting down Mario Lemieux.

Lemieux was the first pick in the 1984 draft. In the first period of his first NHL game he broke away to score and immediately surpassed Burgess Meredith as the greatest Penguin of all time. Pittsburgh had a star. Then it had to get a team. Even after acquiring Paul Coffey, the second-highest-scoring defenseman in league history, in November '87, the Penguins missed the playoffs in two of the next three seasons. Now, however, the development of forwards Kevin Stevens, Mark Recchi and Jaromir Jagr has given Pittsburgh too many threats for it to be stopped for lengthy stretches. Finally, the March 4 acquisition of center Ron Francis and defenseman Ulf Samuelsson in a deal that sent John Cullen and Zarley Zalapski to the Hartford Whalers provided the Penguins with a lift—they went 9-3-2 after the trade, and came from 10 points behind the New York Rangers to win the division title.

Francis, who is bigger, stronger and more defensively aware than the higher-scoring Cullen, fits in perfectly as a second center, behind Lemieux. In the series against Boston, Francis hounded Craig Janney, the top Bruin center, and Francis still contributed a goal and four assists.

Samuelsson, one of the most incessant and irritating hitters in the league, replaced Zalapski, a freewheeler who was redundant on a team with Coffey. He stepped into right wing Cam Neely, the engine that drives the Bruins, at every opportunity. In Game 3 he belted Neely with a center-ice check that left Neely with a charley horse. The unpenalized hit—probably worth two minutes for kneeing, at worst—enraged Boston coach Mike Milbury. It also effectively eliminated Neely as a factor.

In assessing any Stanley Cup final, start with goaltending. Pittsburgh's Tom Barrasso can blow hot and cold, but at his best he is capable of stealing games. Casey has been excellent, though he's going to have to be spectacular to stop Lemieux, who usually gets three or four dead-on chances a game. Minnesota has a slight edge in the nets.

Another key will be the play of the special teams. The Pittsburgh power play didn't produce at its expected rate in the first three rounds of the playoffs, during which the Penguins scored on only 19.2% of the occasions they had an advantage. That was largely because Coffey missed nine games—the last three of the Penguins' second-round series over the Washington Capitals and all six against the Bruins—with a broken jaw. He is expected to play against Minnesota. Coffey gives Pittsburgh a big shot from the point, as well as the speed it needs to gain the offensive zone efficiently. He is also a dynamite long passer. Because they fear being burned by Coffey's passes, fore-checkers aren't as aggressive when he has the puck in his own zone.

The North Stars have slick passers in Broten and Gagner and capable finishers in Propp, Bellows and Mike Modano, but they don't possess the monster offensive talents the Penguins do. As a result, Minnesota gets the most out of what it has by running power plays the way they're diagrammed at clinics. The Stars move the puck quickly, send forwards to the net and keep their shots from the point low.

You can win a Stanley Cup final without having your power play humming, but if your penalty killers can't do the job, you're sure to lose. Pittsburgh has done a decent job killing penalties, plus Lemieux gives them an extraordinary shorthanded threat. As for Minnesota, the same guys who did the defensive job at even strength on Larmer, Roenick, Hull, Oates and Messier also kill penalties. This means the Penguins are going to have to execute their power play better than they did in the first three rounds. The edge in the special teams goes to the North Stars.

The physical element? When push comes to shove, Minnesota does it a bit harder. Pittsburgh's Stevens is a budding Neely, not easy to move off the puck, and at 5'9", 185 pounds, Recchi has the build and driving force of a wrecking ball. Nonetheless, the North Stars have more defensemen who hit more often. Equally important, while their tough guys have taken the body, they haven't taken off anybody's head in the playoffs. Discipline has to go hand in hand with hitting to be effective. The team that piles up the hits while avoiding retaliation penalties will have an advantage in the finals, and that edge should belong to Minnesota.

Coaching? Pittsburgh's Bob Johnson, 60, is far more experienced than his rookie counterpart, but that won't show in this series. Gainey, 37, who wouldn't let the North Stars quit early in the season, has mixed and matched his lines and defensive pairings like a veteran. Neither side has an edge behind the bench.

Though the North Stars have a slight advantage in several areas, Pittsburgh has something that could outweigh them all: Lemieux, the most dominating force in the sport. Wayne Gretzky is 30 and looked it in the Los Angeles Kings' second-round loss to the Oilers. Hull is more of a finisher than a creator and cannot dictate the pace of a game the way Lemieux can. Acknowledgment as the world's best player awaits Lemieux at the end of this series if the Penguins prevail. One senses that he knows it.

Lemieux is strong enough to hold off checkers, and his arms are long enough to reach around them as well. Gretzky is the greatest playmaker of all time, but Lemieux is quite good. His sense of anticipation is almost as keen as Gretzky's, and his size and reach enable Lemieux to do things the Great One can't.

Defensemen back off in fear of Lemieux breakaways, but he still creates them time and again. He goes to the net and passes off equally well, shielding and holding the puck so long that even the strongest-willed and best-schooled goalie eventually loses the battle of nerves and flops to the ice. And when he decides to shoot, Lemieux can put the puck over, under or between the legs of any goalie.

All that has stood between Lemieux and favorable comparisons with Gretzky has been leading a team to a Stanley Cup championship. Now Pittsburgh has assembled a supporting cast that can give the Grand Penguin enough help. "It was hard all those years, trying to do so much and still not having it be enough," Lemieux said after the Penguins eliminated the Bruins. "But I had to be patient."

Note his use of the past tense. The waiting is over. Lemieux's broad back will carry Pittsburgh to the Stanley Cup title in seven games.



As Boston discovered, Lemieux (66) now has strong support in players like Stevens (25).



While Propp (top) stuck it to the Oilers and Jim Johnson (middle) tripped them up, Bellows got a leg up on Edmonton with a team-high nine points.



[See caption above.]



The March arrival of Francis, an ideal No. 2 center, and Samuelsson (5, below), who nailed Neely (8) at every turn, gave Pittsburgh a lift.



[See caption above.]