Work in Sports
Stars just beginning to shine
Posted: Monday May 08, 2000 02:40 PM
By Austin Murphy, Sports Illustrated
SAN JOSE, Calif. -- For candor and humor in the ranks of head coaches -- in all sports, not just hockey -- you're not going to do much better than Ken Hitchcock of the Dallas Stars. Last Friday night, after the Stars held serve and hung on for a wild, woolly 5-4 win over the San Jose Sharks in Game 4 of the Western Conference semifinals, the big guy did not disappoint.
"I was looking for my parachute back there," cracked Hitchcock, implying that his team's uncharacteristic defensive lapses had him longing to bail out. "A game like that is hard on everyone. It was wild. It was fun. It was bizarre as hell, but it was entertaining. I'd have paid to see it."
The San Jose fans who had paid to see their team for the last time this season left the Shark Tank knowing that their gritty club had blown its last, best chance to get back in the series. (The defending Stanley Cup champs would, indeed, close out the Sharks two nights later in Dallas.)
Having scored two goals in the first three games of the series, the Sharks lit the lamp behind Ed Belfour four times on Friday night. "That should be enough," grumbled San Jose head coach Darryl Sutter.
Because it wasn't -- Stars second-line center Joe Nieuwendyk took a smart feed from Jamie Langenbrunner and tapped in the game-winner with less than two minutes to play in the second period -- the Sharks found themselves in a deep, dark hole that led to the driving range. Before we bid them adieu, let's acknowledge one of the gutsiest performances of this postseason: Owen Nolan, take a bow.
What's that you say? You'd like to, but it's too painful? Buster was a physical wreck in the series, suffering, as it turned out, from a pulled abdominal muscle that made skating agony for the Sharks captain. He was unable to play in two of the five games. Yet when he did drag himself on the ice, he was amazing, potting the game-winning goal in Game 3, then scoring the most spectacular goal of the series three nights later in Game 4. While killing a penalty, he stripped the puck from Stars captain Derian Hatcher, then essentially carried Hatcher the length of the rink before roofing a shot over Belfour's right shoulder. But Nolan was too thrashed to take the ice for Game 5, and the Sharks were history.
Before exiting the playoffs, San Jose provided the Colorado Avalanche with a possible blueprint for getting to Belfour: Go low on him.
That is to say, get under his skin. The Eagle, who made headlines in March for clamping a headlock on a security guard at a posh Dallas hotel -- Belfour refused to release the guard, forcing Dallas police to Mace, then arrest him [a court date has not been set] -- put his hair-trigger temper on display in Game 4, allowing himself to be baited into not one but two roughing penalties late in the third period, with his teammates valiantly trying to hold off the Sharks.
No one in the Stars dressing room seemed surprised by Belfour's antics. "Eddie's a fiery guy," said Nieuwendyk. "You've got to take the good with that part of his game."
Then there was Hitchcock, a glass-is-half-full kind of guy, congratulating his high-maintenance netminder for regaining his composure after taking those hammerhead penalties. Had this happened to Belfour a couple of years ago, Hitch said, "we would've had a pretty good mess on our hands."
But the Eagle hung on to his wits and hung on for the win. His goals-against average in these playoffs is a scant 1.80. Every day, in every way, he's getting better and better.
Sports Illustrated senior writer Austin Murphy is covering the Stanley Cup
playoffs for the magazine. He will check in periodically with postcards from the
edge of the action.