There are plenty of things the Edmonton Oilers would rather do
than face the Dallas Stars in the playoffs, such as chew on balls
of tinfoil or bushwhack naked through a brier patch. "It's
painful, it's difficult, and it can get seriously frustrating,"
says Oilers coach Craig MacTavish. "They're physically committed,
and they confine you to small areas of play. Yes, you could call
Move over Kathy Bates. In taking a 2-1 series lead against
Edmonton on Sunday, Dallas abided by a tenacious, thorny and
misery-inducing style that wore down the Oilers. The Stars, ever
so slightly more intent on puck possession than they've been in
recent years, controlled the play along the walls and in the
corners to dominate Edmonton at even strength. That Dallas was,
as usual, better by the thinnest of margins on the score sheet
only worsened the Oilers' pain. It won Games 1 and 3 in
overtime--by scores of 2-1 and 3-2, respectively--and raised its
playoff record against Edmonton to 14-3 over the past four
postseasons. Eleven of the Stars' victories have been by one
goal. "Every time, every f------ time, they find some way to
win," said Oilers defenseman Tom Poti after a goal by center
Benoit Hogue, who played only because Joe Nieuwendyk had suffered
a knee injury in Game 2, won Game 3. "It's getting hard to take."
Edmonton's solace lay in its strength with the man advantage. The
Oilers scored three power-play goals in their 4-3 victory in Game
2, and in Game 3 they rallied from a 2-0 deficit in the final
1:03 of regulation, scoring twice after pulling goaltender Tommy
Salo. Dallas remained unbowed by that impertinence and stuck
stoically to its ways in sudden death. "We prepare all season to
play the hard, unhappy style you need in the playoffs," says
Stars forward Kirk Muller. "No one in this room feels the
privilege to play any other way."
Dallas still relies on its trademark throttling defense, but this
season coach Ken Hitchcock has ordered up a new aggressiveness,
urging players to fight for the puck even when that means taking
a calculated risk on defense. The dedication to this style runs
from superstar center Mike Modano to fourth-line wing Ted Donato,
and while the Stars are driven by what defenseman Daryl Sydor
calls "team pride," they're also a bumptious lot. That, as much
as anything, explains why they overwhelmed Edmonton in last
week's one-on-one battles.
Not long ago Dallas devised a practice drill called the Piranha
Game. In it, a forward takes the puck into the corner, and four
teammates surround and attack him, throwing their elbows high and
cracking their sticks against his shins. "The idea is that
whatever happens, you don't lose the puck," says winger Mike
Keane. "If you get hit or you get knocked down, it doesn't
matter. When the puck is on your stick, you keep it. The Piranha
Game hurts, no doubt, but it helps us win."
COLOR PHOTO: DARREN CARROLL Dallas's Shaun Van Allen leaped at the chance to jolt Jason Smith in Game 2.