Shooting Stars

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.

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.

"Sure, you always have the tendency to think you've failed if you don't make it all the way," Modano said. "It's like, you might as well have not even made the playoffs if you don't make it to the finals." Then he grinned. "But I don't think anyone on this team has this attitude." Because there is still hockey left to be played between the Stars and the Red Wings, and Ken Hitchcock's team has not failed. Not yet.


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