Shooting Stars

Is this season a bust if Dallas doesn't win the Stanley Cup (or just beat Detroit)?

By the time you read this, the Dallas Stars will either be down two games to none in the Western Conference finals against the Detroit Red Wings or have the series all knotted up at one game apiece; by the time you read this, the Stars will either have their backs against the boards, or they will resemble the team that won the Presidents' Trophy just a few weeks ago. By the time you read this, the Stars will have either recovered from their embarrassing performance in Game 1 last Sunday--A puny 14 shots on goal! Shut out at home!--or they will have found themselves stuck in the Reunion Arena slush one more time, drowning in the slowly melting ice.

These Dallas Stars, already written off by the self-proclaimed prognosticators and skeptics who fill Dallas' airwaves with their sports talk-talk-talk, are a schizophrenic lot: One minute, they look like world-beaters, defeating the San Jose Sharks and the Edmonton Oilers with decisive offense and dominant defense; the puck looks as big as a Frisbee to goaltender Ed Belfour, and everyone not on the disabled list seems able to score at will. But the next moment, the Stars suddenly look lost on a thawing pond. They pull the plug on their power play opportunities and squander easy opportunities; they play offense on defense and defense on offense, and they take desperate cheap shots that result in costly penalty minutes. On Sunday against the Red Wings, the Stars barely resembled the NHL's best regular-season team--they looked more like junior-hockey amateurs in an exhibition game, displaying the enthusiasm of the dead in the second and third periods. They were lucky to escape by the score of 2-0.

"We just didn't play as hard as we can today," Belfour said after the game. It was an example of profound understatement.

A few days earlier, Belfour, Mike Modano, and their teammates often spoke of how "magnified" things become during deep playoff games: Every second counts, every play matters, every penalty hurts, and every shot on goal means the difference between an early summer vacation and one more game. "There's no time for slacking off five or six minutes here or there," Modano explained. "There's no times for letdowns in your game. One play might dictate the outcome of the game. You can't take any shifts off. You have to keep pressing."

In Game 1, Modano got off only two shots; he would also accrue two penalties during the game's first 38 minutes--one for holding, another for hooking. He seemed to play with frustration; he looked tense, uncomfortable, and he was unable to shake loose the Red Wings who teemed around him every time he skated into the middle of the ice. If Modano plays like this the rest of the series, the Stars might well be out of the playoffs one week after the series began.

Flashback to the Wednesday before Game 1, after a morning practice at the Stars Center in Valley Ranch.

Modano was still wearing his skates when the cameras and notebooks and tape recorders were in his face. Sitting in front of his locker, he still had on his thick pads, still had not wiped the sweat from his flushed face. He was still even a little out of breath from the rigorous practice that had ended just moments before.

For half an hour, the reporters--many of whom had never even been in the Stars Center--grilled Modano about all manner of things, from the upcoming conference finals against the Red Wings to his newfound fame and wealth in Dallas. And for half an hour, the 27-year-old multimillionaire center answered every question with affable grace.

A few of his teammates were amused at the attention; others seemed a little irritated. When one out-of-towner asked whether the Dallas-Detroit series was a battle of paychecks--Red Wings center Sergei Federov collected $12 million for helping his team to the conference finals, while Modano had recently signed a guaranteed six-year, $43.5 million deal--Stars right wing Pat Verbeek, who sits next to Modano, grumbled to everyone and no one: "Is that all you guys care about? Money? Get off of it, willya?" Verbeek just sat in front of his stall, not saying anything else for a while. "I have nothing to say right now," he explained. "Come see me tomorrow."

It was either a tense moment or one easily laughed off; when you are eight wins away from the ultimate goal--The Cup--or just four losses away from a tee time, the difference is negligible. That morning, Coach Ken Hitchcock led a practice so brutal it was just a paying crowd away from a game. And, he explained, "we haven't even begun to prepare for Detroit. That comes Friday and Saturday."

In 31 years of existence, the Dallas Stars (born in 1967 as the Minnesota North Stars) have never won a Stanley Cup; theirs is a no-win streak almost as long as that of the Washington Senators-cum-Texas Rangers, a team that doesn't even know what the second round of the playoffs looks like. At least the Stars have been to the Cup finals: first in 1981, losing in five games to the New York Islanders and the great Mike Bossy, then again in 1991, failing in defeat to an injured Mario Lemieux and his Pittsburgh Penguins.

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