The stars came out again last week, leaving the Detroit Red Wings blinded by the light, deafened by the crowd and dumbfounded by their predicament. The Wings, a flashy-skating, slick-puckhandling bunch who swaggered into the Stanley Cup playoffs with the third-best record in the NHL, were in danger of being fore-checked into oblivion.
Regular season, schmegular season. Who needs it? Not the Minnesota North Stars, who are making a habit of strong playoff runs. A year ago the Stars finished a distant fourth in the Norris Division with only 68 points. Yet they knocked off the first-place, 106-point Chicago Black-hawks in six games in the first round and weren't stopped until the Cup finals, when they lost to the Pittsburgh Penguins in six games. Minnesota improved by a scant two points this season and wound up fourth again, which meant another suicidal best-of-seven first-round series. Perfect!
In winning the first two games at Detroit's Joe Louis Arena, then splitting a pair in the crazed confines of the Met Center in Bloomington, Minn., the North Stars outworked and outmaneuvered the more talented Red Wings. Minnesota's hulking defensemen repeatedly made pretzels out of Detroit's darting centers, Steve Yzerman, Sergei Fedorov and Jimmy Carson. The Stars' forwards knocked the wheels and doors off Detroit goaltender Tim (Chevy) Cheveldae with selective and accurate shooting. Meanwhile Minnesota goalie Jon Casey was nearly as impenetrable as he had been in the 1991 postseason, when he put on a superhuman performance and simply refused to let the North Stars lose for three rounds.
Cheveldae redeemed himself somewhat with a shutout on Sunday night in Detroit. The 3-0 win proved the Red Wings still had a pulse, though they trailed 3-2 in the series as the scene shifted to Minnesota for Game 6 on Tuesday.
Even in defeat the Stars played with a powerful hunger. "We have a bunch of guys who have the ability to turn it up a notch," said Minnesota center Dave Gagner before Game 3. "We have some talent but not an abundance of it. Maybe we overestimated our abilities this season and underestimated the work ethic it takes to finish at the top of the division. But now that we're here, we're not going to say, 'Oh, O.K., these guys are better, and we're going to bow out.' We're going to try and win the Stanley Cup."
"We can divorce ourselves from mediocrity by having a good playoffs," said center Bobby Smith. "That's what happened last year, and we hope that's what will happen this year."
These North Stars aren't the same cute Cinderella story they were a year ago. They even look different. They have new uniforms, a new logo and a new primary color, which matched their mood for much of the season: black. The euphoria that lingered after they lost to Pittsburgh in the 1991 finals was blasted away by the team's sorry '91-92 regular season. In its place now is a kind of gritty determination. "The season didn't go as well as any of us wanted," said Casey. "We're trying to prove that we can still play the game."
He's not kidding. After signing a four-year, $3.8 million contract in November, Casey suddenly couldn't stop a beach ball. Indeed, he went more than a month without a victory, disgracing the hallowed patch of ice that was once defended by the legendary Gump Worsley. Casey's coach, the usually taciturn Bob Gainey, even ripped him in the newspapers. Casey fired back. Finally, on March 2, Gainey and Minnesota general manager Bob Clarke persuaded Casey to spend a week in Kalamazoo, Mich. No, Casey wasn't looking for Elvis; he was a full-fledged member of the North Stars' minor league team, the Kalamazoo Wings, and in his first appearance he lost an exciting duel with former U.S. Olympic goalie Ray LeBlanc of the Indianapolis Ice. Casey went 2-1-1 for Kalamazoo before being recalled on March 9. By the time the playoffs opened in Detroit, he had regained his touch.
Casey stopped 55 of 60 shots in Games 1 and 2, and he had the battered Red Wings looking forward to a road trip. Detroit fans, who traditionally celebrate the start of the playoffs by throwing octopuses onto the ice, couldn't stand watching Minnesota make suckers out of their team, and they let the Red Wings know it. "We get booed less on the road," grumbled forward Shawn Burr after the North Stars had prevailed 4-2 in Game 2.
Yes, but the Wings still found themselves dodging seafood. After Minnesota's Neal Broten deflected a shot past Cheveldae to give the Stars a 3-2 lead in the second period of Game 3 on April 22, a very big, very dead walleye came flying out of the stands and flopped onto the ice. The Red Wings, though, were not ready to sleep with the fishes. Their second goal, a slap shot from the point by defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom, had broken an 0-for-11 postseason power-play drought, not to mention an 0-for-25 streak against Minnesota dating back to Jan. 9. The North Stars, by contrast, had scored on four of nine—44%—of their power-play opportunities in Games 1 and 2. During the regular season they made good on only 17% of their chances.