Shooting Stars

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

Mike Modano was on that '91 North Stars team: He was just a 20-year-old kid then, three years out of junior hockey. In almost no time at all, the first pick overall in the 1988 draft found himself playing for history, and he was so sure he would be there again in no time at all. Seven years later--and just a few games away from that goal--he wonders if he will ever return to the Stanley Cup finals again.

"I really thought I would be back a couple more times, and eight years later, I'm not even close," he said during a rare quiet moment in the days before the series with the Red Wings began. "You take it for granted when you're there, but when you're away for a long time, you realize how hard it is to get back there."

Stars defenseman Craig Ludwig, center Guy Carbonneau, center Brian Skrudland, and Stars general manager Bob Gainey were all members of the 1986 Montreal Canadiens that won the Cup; there are a handful of other players here who have been on teams that lost in the ultimate series. There are even more players who were in Dallas just one year ago, when the Stars--bottom-feeders in 1995-96, Central Division champs one year later--were humiliated in seven games by the Edmonton Oilers.

Sitting in the Stars Center locker room, I asked Modano if losing to the defending Stanley Cup champs in the Western Conference finals would be worse than being knocked out in the first round last year after such an astonishing season. He pondered the question for a second.

"It's tough to say," Modano said. "Initially, you're going to think it's tough, the same as last year. But in a week or two, you're gonna think how good a year it was to reach the place--where there's four teams left out of 26. I think you have to look at it that way. It's just...people's expectations are..." He paused. "We have players on our team right now who are one or two years away from maybe not playing in the NHL, and you have to figure this may be their last real effort to make their run at it, and you want to win one last time for them."

From here on in, the Stanley Cup playoffs are as much about defeat as they are victory. The conference final winners advance toward their showdown with immortality and infamy. The losers will be greeted by a few nights of restless sleep and a seemingly endless off-season spent wondering where it all went wrong.

In a couple of weeks, one team from the Western Conference (the Red Wings? your Stars?) and another from the East (the Buffalo Sabres? the Washington Capitals?) will battle for the oldest, most coveted prize in professional sports. The two teams that do not make it--the losers--skate off the ice aware of only one thing: They came this close to having their team's name inscribed alongside those of the Toronto Maple Leafs of the 1940s, the Montreal Canadiens of the 1950s and 1970s, and the New York Islanders and Edmonton Oilers of the 1980s, only to come up short of permanent glory.

For the Dallas Stars, every 1997-98 regular-season victory and every playoff series win against the Sharks and the Oilers was but a prelude to the conference finals, foreplay leading up to the inevitable--the Stanley Cup Finals. "What happens during the regular season doesn't mean anything in the playoffs," Belfour said. "The tempo's way higher...And there's so much more at stake."

This team won the Western Conference for the first time in 31 years of franchise history. It captured the NHL's best record (49 wins, 22 losses, 11 ties) and, in the process, brought home the Presidents' Trophy. It won its first two playoff series, despite the injury to center Joe Nieuwendyk in the first round, when Bryan Marchment Shark-bit him into the operating room with a nasty hit against the boards.

But that's how the Stars won the West this season, by overcoming one injury after another--to Greg Adams (out 33 games), Modano (30 games), Benoit Hogue (25 games), and 20 other players; the Stars lost 318 total man games to injury this year. Yet Ken Hitchcock--a man who vehemently, fanatically preaches the philosophy of the team over the individual--managed to piece together enough winning lines to turn excuses into victories. This team had plenty of opportunities to call it quits throughout the season; that they did not, that they succeeded like no other team in Stars history, only heightened expectations.

But all this means nothing now, especially not with the Dallas Stars, at press time, down one awful game to nothing in the best-of-seven conference finals against the Detroit Red Wings. The Presidents' Trophy is yesterday's accomplishment, meaningless history, proof you were good in the regular season--before it counted. The last Trophy-winning team to win the Stanley Cup was the 1993-94 New York Rangers; who remembers who won the Presidents' Trophy last year, or the year before that? No one. It's all about the Stanley Cup, and nothing tarnishes the Presidents' Trophy more quickly than coming within a few wins, only to melt on the ice.

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