Whatever good fortune has befallen the North Stars this spring, Minnesota has advanced to the Stanley Cup finals because it has not taken any of that luck for granted. It has made the most of uncommonly good health, fine bounces, timely goals and, on Sunday night, a bad break for the opposition. About five minutes before Game 3, Minnesota received word that Pittsburgh Penguin superstar Mario Lemieux had suffered back spasms and would not play. "It was like Christmas morning," said North Star winger Stew Gavin.
Not only was the significance of Lemieux's absence quickly grasped but the opportunity was as well. Minnesota center Bobby Smith, who coach Bob Gainey said would have played against Lemieux on the majority of his shifts, scored the winning goal in the 3-1 victory that gave the Stars a 2-1 series lead.
Gainey had not planned to use Smith as strictly a defensive shadow against Lemieux, who had scored a goal in each of the series' first two games. After all, by scoring five game-winning goals in these playoffs through Sunday's game, Smith has demonstrated that his hands can be used for things other than clutching and grabbing. Nonetheless, it is fair to say that had Lemieux—whom the Penguins expected to return for Tuesday's Game 4—played in Game 3, Smith would have spent more of the night thinking defensively than offensively. Says Smith, "Against a guy like Mario, the risks of gambling easily outweigh the rewards."
So, if Lemieux had been on the ice, would Smith have nailed that perfect wrist shot over Pittsburgh goalie Tom Barrasso's right shoulder only 33 seconds after Minnesota center Dave Gagner had broken a scoreless tie in the second period? Who knows? Fate and success have been the North Stars' partners since the playoffs began in early April.
Smith, 33, is one of the grander stories of this most unpredictable postseason. The North Stars made their only other trip to the finals, in 1981, with Smith, the first player taken in the '78 draft, anchoring their No. 1 line. He wasn't nearly enough against the mighty New York Islanders, who beat Minnesota in five games. As the Stars fell far short of the finals in subsequent years, so too did Smith's star fall. In '83, he was traded to the Montreal Canadiens, with whom he enjoyed seven solid but unspectacular seasons and whom he helped win the Cup in '86.
Minnesota reacquired Smith last August for a fourth-round draft choice. Both Gainey, a teammate of Smith's in Montreal, and general manager Bob Clarke thought Smith would provide stability and leadership while the North Stars were undergoing an overhaul. Now Smith is doing exactly what Minnesota felt that he couldn't do when he was in his prime: putting the Stars over the top.
As things stand now, if Minnesota wins the Stanley Cup, choosing among Smith, goalie Jon Casey and defenseman Mark Tinordi for the Conn Smythe Trophy as MVP in the playoffs will be tough. Throughout the postseason, Smith has usually been matched against his opponents' best centers. Still, he has repeatedly scored game-turning goals. "I don't know why," Smith says, "but this is the best playoff I've ever had."
He also says he has never felt so much pressure, even though every Canadiens team that he played for had high expectations, and the 68-point North Stars started this postseason without any. "The pressure has built up as we've gone along," he says. "Even our young guys don't have to be reminded of the opportunity we have, but having been around, I appreciate how precious this is. After Montreal lost to Calgary [in the 1989 finals], I never thought I'd get this chance again."