Mike Modano stood by his locker last Saturday night--no emotions
on his sleeve, no cast on his fractured left wrist--and answered
questions about his injury with a casual vagueness. The only
evidence of the injury were the white splotches left on the back
of his hand by the soft, rubberized cast Modano had worn in the
Dallas Stars' 2-1 win over the Buffalo Sabres in Game 3 of the
Stanley Cup finals.
Does the wrist hurt?
"Not now, it doesn't," said Modano, a grin lighting up his face.
Four hours earlier a doctor had jabbed two needles just below
Modano's thumb that froze his wrist more thoroughly than NHL ice
in June. Modano, who had sustained the small break when checked
by defenseman Jay McKee midway through the third period in Game
2, was once derided as the softest star in hockey. But in the
trainer's room before Game 3, he had lived the Stanley Cup
finals cliche, taking two shots for the team. His Stars then
went out and absorbed 19 more shots against Buffalo, hurling
themselves in front of Sabres slappers with masochistic
pleasure. On a night when Modano could wield a stick at only 75%
effectiveness, and right wing Brett Hull left the game with a
strained groin during his third shift, and the NHL's
second-oldest player, 39-year-old center Guy Carbonneau, was
obliged to play an unusually high 19 minutes, Dallas put on a
clinic of shot blocking and defense to take a 2-1 series lead.
The Sabres had the seemingly lethal combination of home ice and
younger, fresher legs, but they were so completely schooled that
they were lucky Dallas didn't charge them $150 an hour for the
ice time. "Sometimes when you take away a star, you're left with
a system," said Buffalo captain Michael Peca. "And their system
is great. They smothered us."
Dallas's Game 3 win, the most lopsided one-goal victory in the
1999 playoffs, was another delightful surprise in a weird,
compelling series that seemed as if it were being played under a
full moon, and not just the one Sabres goalie Dominik Hasek kept
sticking in the path of Stars forecheckers. Consider:
--For the first time in more than three years--a streak of 104
matches--Dallas, the NHL's best defensive team, lost after
holding a third-period lead at home, falling 3-2 in overtime in
--Referees Terry Gregson and Bill McCreary called seven
consecutive penalties against the Sabres in the first and second
periods of Game 1, a run that defied the nudge-and-wink NHL
tradition of balancing the calls in the postseason. Since 1996,
refs had never awarded more than five straight power plays to
any team in the finals. The referees also called two penalties
against Buffalo and none against Dallas in the overtime, the
first time a team has been awarded two power plays during sudden
death of a finals game.
--The Stars were able to force overtime in Game 1 because in the
last minute of regulation the blade of Peca's stick, amazingly,
lodged in a slit between the boards behind the net at Reunion
Arena. Modano swooped in, stole the puck and set up wing Jere
Lehtinen in the slot for the tying goal.
--In Game 2 Dallas defenseman Craig Ludwig, a shot blocker
supreme, scored a postseason goal for the first time since 1988,
ending a drought of 102 games. "When was your last playoff
goal?" Ludwig was asked in the dressing room after Dallas's 4-2
"Third period tonight," Ludwig replied. "Weren't you watching?"
--Modano, who had not taken more than two minor penalties in a
match in his last 96 regular-season and playoff games, was
whistled for three infractions in the second period of Game 3.
They were all dumb penalties, leading to speculation that the
numbness had spread to his brain.
But the most telling curio in all this madness was Joe
Nieuwendyk's first fight since 1992, a highlight of Game 2. If
the squeaky-clean Stars center, who scored both goals in Game 3,
could be roused to fistic combat against the Sabres' Brian
Holzinger, another featherweight, the gloves truly had come off
in this series.
At the center of the maelstrom was, of course, Hasek. When he
ranged deep into the corner to his right to play the puck with
7:35 left in the first period of Game 2, Dallas center Brian
Skrudland's predictable reaction was to try to turn him into an
inkblot. An unrepentant Skrudland got a charging penalty, and
the Sabres vowed vengeance--"Eddie, you're next," left wing
Dixon Ward screamed from the bench, brandishing his stick at
Stars goalie Ed Belfour--but Hasek, who wallows in the
self-deception that he's a sterling puck handler, had no
business being in the corner. The Sabres had a defenseman
hustling back to help their goalie, and even if the plodding
Skrudland had been able to corral the puck, he was no threat to
The truth? Hasek was bored. Dallas had only two shots through
the first 12 minutes and had not come close to satiating Hasek's
taste for action. Hasek can't help himself. When Lehtinen scored
to send Game 1 into overtime, Hasek wasn't square to the shot
because he had wandered to the edge of his crease to pick off
the forechecking Modano. Despite his protests to the referees,
the disputatious Hasek must have been at peace after the first
period of Game 2. At that point the Stars had more shots at him
than on him.
The nastiness spilled into the next day. Buffalo coach Lindy
Ruff declared, "It's a war." Peca said the Sabres would make
life miserable for the injured Modano by targeting him. Dallas
coach Ken Hitchcock was unamused by Peca's comments. Hitchcock
is an engaging man in public, a witty coaching lifer whose
conversation is rife with pet phrases such as "defend the
critical areas with passion." If shown the X in the road near
Dealey Plaza that marks the spot of President Kennedy's
assassination, Hitchcock might have to suppress a natural
inclination to scribble an accompanying O. "If they go after our
player, we'll go after their best player," Hitchcock said in
response to Peca's remarks. "Tit for tat. Their best player is
The Sabres did whack Modano's hands on the nine face-offs
Hitchcock allowed him to take in Game 3, although the bulk of
the draws went to the venerable Carbonneau, who won 17 of 29,
including two in the final minute. Carbonneau also blocked a
shot as time expired. "You can take age and shove it," the
38-year-old Ludwig said. Eleven of the 18 Sabres skaters didn't
even get off a shot against Belfour, who saw just 12 shots in
all, a potentially deflating total for a team that had been
unbeaten at home in the playoffs.
Still, the Sabres didn't seem unduly perturbed by being down a
game in the series. They are not prone to extended bouts of
either nerves or self-pity. Take Game 1, for example. With the
glut of penalties, a goal waved off because of a borderline
interference call, Peca's stuck stick and Dallas's last-minute
score in regulation, the Sabres had every possible excuse to
lose except the dog ate the penalty-killing tapes. Rather than
curse the fates while resting in the dressing room before
overtime, about half a dozen players announced that they planned
to score the winning goal and proceeded to give a preview of
their celebratory dances. "This is the loosest team I've ever
been on," left wing Joe Juneau said. "It's almost like the
players don't know any better." Alas, there was no pool on who
would score the winner, which would have gone to defenseman
Jason Woolley, Buffalo's playoff scoring leader. "We can't
afford to have a pot," Ward said after the game. "We're a
small-market team, remember?"
This is the time of year when a team isn't measured by the size
of its payroll (Dallas, $42 million; Buffalo, $26 million) but
by the indomitability of its will. The Stars, who seem incapable
of blowing anybody out, who rely on their minds as much as their
legs, will match their desire against the Sabres' and take their
chances. "The great thing about these series," said Nieuwendyk,
"is that over time, the best team prevails."
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DAVID E. KLUTHO Bad to the bone Modano (9) fractured his wrist in Game 2 (above), but he returned to lead the Stars to victory in Game 3.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DAVID E. KLUTHO Working overtime Though Dallas's Pat Verbeek (16) clamped down on Miroslav Satan, Buffalo eked out a sudden-death win in Game 1.
"If they go after our player, we'll go after their best player,"
said Hitchcock. "Tit for tat. Their best player is Hasek."