Ugly on ice
Stanley Cup finals will be gritty, not pretty
Posted: Tuesday June 08, 1999 01:47 PM
DALLAS (AP) -- These Stanley Cup finals are made for hockey purists who prize goaltending more than goal scoring, backchecking more than breakaways.
They will be gritty, not pretty. They will be a turf war on skates, with goals given only grudgingly.
They are not made for TV, darn the NHL's luck.
Here is hockey's best chance in years to gain some artistic and competitive ground on the Michael Jordan-less NBA, to add some rating points and build off the publicity created by the nostalgic farewell of its own megastar, Wayne Gretzky.
But just when the NHL needed some offense, some oomph, some Mark McGwire vs. Sammy Sosa-like fireworks to steal the NBA's thunder and some of its TV viewers, it gets a Stanley Cup final between ... Buffalo and Dallas?
In hockey, it doesn't get any better defensively than Sabres vs. Stars, the Dominator vs. the Indomitable. But when it comes to hockey on TV, defense usually is a tough, tough sell.
"Look, this isn't going to be a series made for television," Stars coach Ken Hitchcock said Monday, little more than 24 hours before Tuesday night's Game 1 at Reunion Arena. "So if you're looking for Champions on Ice, you are watching the wrong game. This is going to be a hard-fought, passionate contest where ice is going to be defended very tough. It is a series where both teams' wills will be extended to the max."
So could the ability of fans to hang with a series where goals will likely result mostly from breakdowns, not breakouts.
Buffalo has the Dominator, goaltender Dominik Hasek, the game's most dominant defensive player and the one most capable of deciding a series single-handedly.
Proof of evidence: his unyielding goaltending for the gold medal-winning Czech Republic in the 1998 Nagano Olympics and Buffalo's 12-3 record in these playoffs following a seventh-place finish in the Eastern Conference standings.
And no one can question Dallas' credentials for greatness. The Presidents' Trophy champions unquestionably were the NHL's best regular season team, with 16 more points than Colorado and 23 more points -- and 14 more wins -- than Buffalo. They are a team so committed to the defense-first style of Hitchcock and general manager Bob Gainey that reformed one-way player Brett Hull has even adapted to it.
Picture Jose Canseco willingly accepting a role as a late-inning defensive replacement, and you get the idea.
"You have two teams that are as committed to physical play, to defending, to second and third shots, to sacrificing in front of both goals. It is going to make for very emotional hockey," Hitchcock said.
Emotions already were stirred in Buffalo by Stars center Mike Modano's remarks following Dallas' 4-1 victory Friday over Colorado in Game 7 of the Western Conference finals. Modano wondered if the Stanley Cup Finals, already awarded to Dallas in the minds of many, might prove a letdown.
Those four-game Stanley Cup sweeps by the last three Western Conference champions, Detroit in 1998 and 1997 and Colorado in 1996, might have contributed to his mindset.
"I think everybody is anticipating a little bit of a letdown going into the finals," Modano said. "Once you saw teams like Philly, New Jersey and Ottawa go down, it was kind of disappointing. To be the best, you want to go through the best."
On Monday, Modano, one of only three players remaining from the Stars' last Stanley Cup finalists, the 1991 Minnesota North Stars, couldn't have backtracked any faster if he had been on motorized skates.
"What I said was never meant to take anything away from Buffalo," Modano said. "I think a lot of people were discussing a letdown because of what our conference finals were against Colorado. They figured everything was going to be a letdown, but we never felt that way. I think everybody wanted the top two teams to be in the finals, and you do have the top teams."
The Sabres' Dixon Ward didn't sound overly insulted.
"Whatever people think doesn't matter to us," he said. "It is not anticlimactic for us whatsoever. We are excited to be here, and we have earned the right to play for the Stanley Cup."
That's evident. The Sabres are 7-0 at home, compared to Dallas' 7-2, and Hasek historically plays better in bigger games than the Stars' Ed Belfour, who went winless for Chicago in the 1992 Stanley Cup finals against Pittsburgh.
Dallas' biggest edge may be its ability to seize a lead, then protect it. They are 10-1 when they score first, 7-0 when leading after the first period and 8-0 when leading after the second.
"They are the best hockey club in the NHL, on top of being the toughest team to play against when they have the lead," Colorado coach Bob Hartley said.
But with a series that promises to more passionate than aesthetically pleasing, how many outside Buffalo and Dallas be watching when it is over?
"We're not here to put on a fashion show and make it exciting," Modano said. "When you win, you win. I think the fans here have finally accepted that, whether you win ugly or pretty, it doesn't matter."
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