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The Bitter End A dubious goal that gave the Stars the Stanley Cup over the Sabres tarnished what had been the best final series in years

They couldn't disallow it. Not now. Mike Modano's tear ducts
were working as if they were Niagara Falls, and Mike Keane was
already smoking a stogie that was as long as his Stanley Cup
resume, and bottles of Tott's Extra Dry domestic champagne were
gaily being passed around the Dallas Stars' sopping dressing
room in Buffalo's Marine Midland Arena. Brett Hull's Cup-winning
goal in the third overtime of Game 6 at 1:30 a.m. on Sunday
would stand, even if by dawn some of the Stars could not.

Buffalo was equally blinded--but by outrage. The citizenry
reached the reasonable conclusion that Hull's goal was simply
hockey's version of wide right, another crushing and surreal
chapter in Buffalo's sporting history, although this time the
culprit wasn't an unreliable field goal kicker named Scott
Norwood but an expedient NHL that was in too much of a hurry to
hand out its most celebrated trinket.

Hull's goal, at 54:51 of overtime in the second-longest finals
game ever, will be remembered as long as any in history. It was
the final postseason goal of the millennium, and it gave the
league its first southern Stanley Cup champion. It also shifted
the focus, after a splendidly tense and compelling finals
between the steadfast Stars and the resilient Sabres, to the
imperfections of technology and the warts of the NHL. This
series should have revived a showcase event but instead left a
worse taste than a champagne bender. "Everybody is going to
remember this as the Stanley Cup that was never won," Buffalo
forward Joe Juneau said after the game.

Rewind to the wee hours of Sunday. The bottles of maple syrup
that had been distributed in the press box--compliments of the
Rigas family, who owns the Sabres--looked as if they might come
in handy at any moment for a pancake breakfast. For almost six
periods Buffalo and Dallas had been entrenched in another taut
defensive standoff, a 1-1 match that resonated in the soul if
not on the scoreboard. Then Dallas center Modano took control of
the puck at the half boards. He passed it to the front of the
cage, where it reached his right wing, Hull, who took a shot on
Dominik Hasek. Hasek made the save, and the puck clearly left
the crease for an instant, although Hull's left skate didn't.
Hull then corralled the rebound and shoveled the puck past the
left arm and leg of the prone Hasek with his forehand, touching
off a wild on-ice celebration. The Stars came together in a
group hug. Modano hurled the cast from his broken left wrist
into the stands, and some fan threw it back onto the ice,
Bleacher Bums-style. The Sabres, crestfallen, waited single file
until the Dallas players could tear themselves from the
rejoicing for the traditional postseries handshake. "The play
happened so fast, and the next thing you know, there's 500
people on the ice," Buffalo captain Michael Peca said about an
hour after the game. "What the heck is the NHL going to do? Open
the floodgates by making the right call?"

The league insists it did make the proper call. Director of
Officiating Bryan Lewis looked at the replays within seconds of
Hull's goal, as did two other replay officials, and ruled that
the goal counted because of a March 25 directive issued by NHL
senior vice president Colin Campbell regarding the crease rule.
The clarification to the rule states that an attacking player
can stay in the crease even if the puck leaves the blue-painted
area as long as he maintains control of the puck. (The 1998-99
NHL rule book does not mention anything about "control of the
puck" when interpreting the crease rule.) The rule used to
stipulate that the puck always had to precede a player into the
crease, but the matter was addressed by Campbell the day after a
similar goal by the Washington Capitals was disallowed. Lewis
decided that Hull, a righthanded shooter, had simply been
kicking the puck to his stick and was thus in control, a liberal
interpretation. When Hasek saw the replay in the dressing room,
he got ready to tug his sweater back on because he assumed the
game would start again. "They told me, 'Dom, it's over,'" Hasek
said, "and I said, 'But it's not a goal.'"

The Sabres appealed to commissioner Gary Bettman for an
explanation. Peca said he spoke to Bettman on the ice. "I tried
to be nice. I said, 'Gary, the guy's foot was in the crease,'"
Peca said, "but he turned and walked away. Wouldn't listen."
Buffalo coach Lindy Ruff, who stormed out of the dressing room
and toward the ice after surveying the replay, also says Bettman
snubbed him when Ruff encountered him between the benches.
Bettman, who left Marine Midland Arena with his family shortly
after the Cup presentation, told SI later Sunday morning that he
wasn't approached by Peca, and that "Mr. Ruff's conduct was out
of control and inappropriate. I'm not sure he was in any
condition to have a conversation."

The Sabres would have had better luck getting an explanation
from Campbell, who at 2:45 a.m. was sitting outside the Dallas
dressing room, dapper in a dark suit and matching expression.
"There will always be a gray area," Campbell said about the rule
that in its eight years of existence has engendered more
controversy and undergone more touch-ups than Cher. "Someone's
going to cry, 'Cover-up, cover-up!' [That someone was Juneau,
who said the NHL was "just trying to cover its ass."] But we
automatically review everything, and that's what Bryan did. The
celebrations weren't an issue. We've discussed a game-over
scenario many times, that we would stop and go back if that's
what we had to do." (On Monday the NHL announced it will no
longer use video replay to decide disputed goals when a player
is in the crease, relying solely on its on-ice officials.
Bettman said the decision had nothing to do with the controversy
in Game 6.)

Until Hull's dubious goal, the finals looked as if they were
going to save face for the NHL. This wasn't a pretty
series--"There's been a meanness, an ugliness to the series,"
Buffalo general manager Darcy Regier said before Game 6--but it
had been a brave one, true to the foundation of the game. Modano
played with that broken wrist for three games. Hull played with
a torn medial collateral ligament in his left knee and a groin
strain for the last two games. After four depressing years of
sweeps, all but one of them a punch-the-clock effort by the
losers, the Sabres and the Stars burnished the Cup. They played
with fervor. Mostly they played with an eerie constancy. Buffalo
and Dallas played Game 1 in a fiercely defensive fashion and
replicated it five times, varying hardly at all. The smaller
crease, the added space behind the net, the two referees and all
the other tweaking that was supposed to favor the offense was
mocked like the class Poindexter by two bullies who decided to
play by their own rules.

"The series did a lot for hockey, but maybe not in the way the
league intended," Regier said. "We've been doing everything the
past few years to get more offense. This wasn't an offensive
series. If you equate offense with excitement, you might not
have liked seeing the two teams with the lowest goals-against
averages during the season go at it. But for the fans who've
been around the game, they understood this was about character.
This was about the soul of the game."

The Sabres and the Stars produced a combined 22 goals, 16.75
below the average of the eight previous six-game Stanley Cup
finals since expansion in 1967-68. The 22 matched the lowest in
any six-game finals since 1947, though the meager scoring was a
result not of ham-fisted offensive play but of systems, styles
and the goaltending of Hasek and Dallas's Ed Belfour. (Belfour
finished with a 1.67 goals-against average and a .930 save
percentage but he was beaten out for the Conn Smythe Trophy as
playoff MVP by teammate Joe Nieuwendyk, who tied a postseason
record by scoring six game-winning goals.) The Stars were
tougher, more savvy and more skilled than their counterparts
from Buffalo, although at the core both teams were
counterpunchers. Like disputatious but wary middleweights,
neither wanted to lead--at least not by more than one goal. Of
the 430 minutes played in the series, a team was ahead by more
than one goal for only five minutes, or 1.2% of the time. This
was hermetically sealed hockey, as Dallas's feral team
defense--dubbed the Texas Manhandle by the Toronto Globe and
Mail--sucked the air but not the life from the finals.

"There is a lot of criticism about playing at this time of
year--personally, I don't like it either--but you forget about
those things in a series like this," Campbell said about the
series' stretching until June 20, the second-latest finishing
date in Stanley Cup history. "When it's a sweep, we talk about
everything that's rubbing us the wrong way."

If anything about the Stars' play rubs him the wrong way, Dallas
coach Ken Hitchcock is certain to talk about it. So when the
telephone rang at Modano's home at suppertime on June 16, one
day after a 2-1 loss to Buffalo in Game 4, the hour of the call
suggested two prime candidates to be on the other end: a
telemarketer or Hitchcock. Both can be intrusive and insistent,
the major difference being that the Stars have no choice but to
buy what Hitchcock is selling. They have reached a tacit
agreement, this complex, gregarious 47-year-old coach and his
old, calloused players. Hitchcock will micromanage them and
squeeze the childlike joy out of their sport and nag them like a
shrew in his quixotic search for hockey perfection. "Most
miserable first-place team I've ever been on," one Stars veteran
said of his team at midseason. The players, in turn, will endure
Hitchcock's hectoring.

"Hitch is out there, in his own little world," Keane says. "He's
a philosopher. His philosophy has everything to do with
perfection. One bad pass, you know you're going to hear it from
him. It's like, O.K., here we go again. Mostly in the playoffs,
he's just been giving us a look."

Modano got more than that from Hitchcock. Dispensing with any
pleasantries on the phone, Hitchcock asked Modano, who hadn't
been assertive in the fourth game, "What kind of player are you
going to be in Game 5?" The directness of the question might
have been perceived as insulting by some players, but Modano
took the prod in stride. He replied that he would be involved in
every aspect of the game. Hitchcock and the suddenly reenergized
Modano chatted for 10 minutes before hanging up. "He seems to
have a good understanding of what makes me tick," Modano said.
"Sometimes you need a refresher. I tend to veer off. He
recognizes it early and straightens me out fast. No, it wasn't
surprising to hear from Hitch. He probably phones once a month."

Modano was as good as his vow in Dallas's 2-0 victory in Game 5
the following night, setting up defenseman Darryl Sydor's
power-play goal with a sweet cross-ice pass from the right half
boards and creating the second goal with sheer determination.
Modano pried the puck from Buffalo defenseman Alexei Zhitnik
along the boards and then kicked it ahead to defenseman Richard
Matvichuk for a two-on-one break that wing Pat Verbeek finished
with a deke and a backhander. Modano also won 15 of 23
face-offs, stole the puck three times and blocked a shot. These
weren't the little things; they were huge things.

Modano continued his rejuvenation in Game 6, taking a hit from
forward Erik Rasmussen along the boards to make the play that
led to the Stars' first goal and starting the winner with his
strong work down low. He should have been exhausted by then. He
had played 46:12, six minutes more than any other forward in a
game that would have had a guaranteed spot in the safe-deposit
box of the memory even without its contentious conclusion. "When
we thought the game was special was going into the third
overtime," Hitchcock said. "We knew that whichever way it
turned, we were going to be part of something that people would
be talking about for a long time."

Little did he know that they would be talking about it for all
the wrong reasons. After the game, 39-year-old Dallas center Guy
Carbonneau, who has seen everything during his 17 full seasons
in the league, was asked if he had watched the replay of the
disputed goal.


When do you plan to?



Defensive Titans

The Stars and Sabres scored a combined 3.67 goals per game
during the Stanley Cup finals, the lowest average since 1952 and
the fourth lowest since the NHL went to a best-of-seven format
in '39. Here are the five Stanley Cup finals with the fewest
goals per game.


1945 Toronto-Detroit 7 2.57
1952 Detroit-Montreal 4 3.25
1939 Boston-Toronto 5 3.60
1999 Dallas-Buffalo 6 3.67
1947 Toronto-Montreal 6 3.67

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY DAVID E. KLUTHO Crash course Stars such as Keane (12) and Carbonneau couldn't lay Hasek low in a 2-1 loss in Game 4.

COLOR PHOTO: LOU CAPOZZOLA Legal or not?In two views of the Cup-winning goal, Hull's skate was in the crease before the puck, but the NHL determined--despite the visual evidence--Hull controlled the puck, which, according to a late-season rule clarification, made the goal legit.

COLOR PHOTO: GENE PUSKAR/AP [See caption above]

COLOR PHOTO: LOU CAPOZZOLA Smash hit Rasmussen got nailed in Game 6 by Derian Hatcher, whose Stars were dubbed the Texas Manhandle.