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Inside The NHL


Nearly five dozen players will become unrestricted free agents on
July 1, and those who made it to the postseason know that
prospective employers have been watching. "At this time of year
you look for that intangible: Is he a winner?" says Sharks
general manager Dean Lombardi. "You want to see a player suck it
up and produce at crunch time."

Here's how five top free agents had shaped their future through
the early part of the playoffs.

--Brett Hull, RW, Blues Though he had only 27 goals in 66
regular-season games, he played the best two-way hockey of his
career. He continued that in the playoffs: Through the first
five games he hadn't been on the ice for a goal against while
also producing three goals and three assists. Expect Hull, 33,
to get a three- or four-year deal at more than $6 million per
annum. Possible suitors: Blues, Blackhawks, Kings, Capitals.

--Doug Gilmour, C, Devils He was New Jersey's best player and
only consistent offensive threat against the Senators in Round
1, scoring five times and setting up two other goals. His $3.55
million salary will very likely balloon this summer. Possible
suitors: Blackhawks, Maple Leafs, Mighty Ducks.

--Ron Francis, C, Penguins Despite being hounded by Canadiens
checking center Marc Bureau, Francis had one goal and five
assists in Pittsburgh's six-game first-round loss to Montreal.
The 35-year-old Francis, who earned a relatively modest $1.9
million in '97-98, showed his legs are still strong. Possible
suitors: Blues, Rangers.

--Curtis Joseph, G, Oilers For the second straight season he
helped the Oilers to a first-round upset, this year closing out
Edmonton's 4-3 series win over the Avalanche with back-to-back
shutouts. Then he had another whitewash in Game 2 of the
second-round series against the Stars. At 31, Joseph often
dominates when it counts. Expect him to double his $2.3 million
salary. Possible suitors: Flyers, Oilers.

--Sean Burke, G, Flyers He hurt himself more in the postseason
than any other prospective free agent. Burke, 31, had a
league-worst .860 save percentage against the offensively
challenged Sabres in Philadelphia's five-game defeat. It's hard
to imagine a team giving Burke an increase on the $2.5 million
he made this year. Possible suitors: ?

Brian Bellows

On a cold and starless evening in Nuremberg, Germany, three
months ago, Brian Bellows was huddled over a pregame nosh of
coffee and cake. He and his Berlin Capitals teammates had
traveled six hours by bus to Nuremberg and were about to play a
German pro league game before a sparse crowd braving the bitter
elements at an open-air arena. Bellows, who had been an All-Star
three times in 15 NHL seasons and had scored 40 goals for the
1993 Stanley Cup-winning Canadiens, sat there chilled to the
bone, thinking, So this is how it's all going to end.

These days Bellows, who was signed as a free agent by the
Washington Capitals in March, is a long way from such empty
thoughts. He was the offensive hero of Washington's first-round
playoff triumph over the Bruins, assisting on the winning goal
in Game 3 and scoring in overtime of Game 6 to clinch the
series. He added two goals and two assists as the Capitals took
a 2-0 lead in their second-round series against the Senators.

Thus continued the remarkable reversal of a career that had been
on the verge of an unceremonious end after Bellows, 33, was cut
by the Canucks last September. A 462-goal scorer, Bellows had
struggled through three years of declining performances. He was
viewed as a one-dimensional player with fading skills, and no
NHL team would give him a job. Still, Bellows believed an offer
would come, and he went to Berlin to stay sharp. Between games
he sustained himself on schnitzel und sauerkraut and spent many
aimless afternoons window shopping. Time dragged. "After the
Nuremberg trip I told my agent that if nothing happened by the
March 25 [NHL] trading deadline, I was going home to retire,"
says Bellows.

One day before the deadline, the goal-starved Caps gave Bellows
a contract for the balance of this season. "I hoped he could
give us experience," says Washington general manager George
McPhee, "and put the puck in the net." Bellows scored six times
in 11 regular-season games before going on his postseason tear.
"This is my second life," he says. "If I play next year, great.
If I don't, that's O.K. I won't be going back to Germany, though."

NHL Justice

When Stars right wing Grant Marshall slammed the butt end of his
stick into the face of Oilers captain Kelly Buchberger in Game 1
of the Dallas-Edmonton second-round playoff series last
Thursday, he caused Buchberger's right eye to swell and become
grossly discolored--the latest black eye on a league that is
plagued by gratuitous violence.

Brian Burke, the NHL's chief disciplinarian, pored over tapes of
the incident before ruling that Marshall would be fined $1,000
(the highest amount allowed under the league's collective
bargaining agreement) but would not be suspended. Burke said he
felt that Marshall hadn't intentionally hit Buchberger in the
eye and that Marshall's gloved hand may have cushioned the blow.

Marshall should have gotten at least a one-game ban. Several
players have rightfully been suspended for lesser offenses this
season, but Burke says he evaluates each incident on its own
demerits. Yet his leniency in the Marshall case raises questions
of what unstated factors--the importance of the games being
played? the personnel of the teams involved?--are taken into
account in the league's arbitrary system of discipline. The NHL
needs to levy stiff punishment consistently and should not
accept black eyes without sitting someone down.

COLOR PHOTO: DAVID E. KLUTHO MONEY GOALIE The playoffs will help determine how Joseph and others do as free agents. [Curtis Joseph in game]


May 18, 1971, Canadiens vs. Blackhawks

Trailing 2-0 in the second period of Game 7 in Chicago, Montreal
roared back. Jacques Lemaire blasted a 65-foot shot past
Blackhawks goalie Tony Esposito, and Henri Richard scored the
tying and winning goals as the Canadiens triumphed 3-2 to win
their 10th Stanley Cup in 16 years. Ken Dryden, Montreal's
23-year-old goalie who had played in only six regular-season
games, was named the playoff MVP. Dryden would win the rookie of
the year award the following season.