Dallas stars center Mike Modano was slumped on a sofa in a hotel lobby last week, playing what has become the team's favorite parlor game: If You Were a Colorado Avalanche Player, Which One Would You Be? It may be a stretch, but veteran Stars goalie Andy Moog is Colorado's All-World Patrick Roy, Sergei Zubov is rushing defenseman Sandis Ozolinsh, and Modano and Joe Nieuwendyk are prime-time centers Joe Sakic and Peter Forsberg. Modano happily played along, figuring out which Stars pair off with the players on the Stanley Cup champions, not an outlandish conceit if you check the standings. "Our units of five on the ice," Modano says, "are a lot more solid than theirs."
"We beat Colorado pretty good twice so far this season," says Dallas defenseman Craig Ludwig. "So maybe the question should be, How do they match up with us? Boy, they're going to love reading that."
Gentlemen, start your bulletin-board quote war. The gauntlet has been laid down, and Colorado—which was 46-21-9 through Sunday and led the 45-23-6 Stars by five points in the race for home ice advantage throughout the Western Conference playoffs—is welcome to accept the challenge when it visits Dallas on April 11 for the penultimate game of the regular season. The perennially dreary Stars, a team that was eliminated from playoff contention with eight games remaining last spring and that began 1996-97 shooting for a .500 season, clearly are a notch below the Avalanche in overall talent, but except for a middling power play, which has languished at 15% efficiency, Dallas exhibits all the attributes of a Stanley Cup contender.
The Stars have won regularly on the road; at week's end their .635 winning percentage away from home was second-best in the NHL. They have won with defense; they had allowed fewer goals than any other team except the New Jersey Devils. They have won with consistency; this is the first club in the 30-year history of the franchise to have a winning record in every month of the season. And they have won because a newly focused Modano can make the critical play that will turn a game in the Stars' favor.
Dallas coach Ken Hitchcock—who took over the team in January 1996 after general manager Bob Gainey gave up the coaching reins—invited Modano to a local coffee shop last May and gave it to him black, no sugar: Hitchcock wanted Modano, the team's leading scorer four out of the past five seasons, to center a high-powered checking line. "I'd watched him play enough," Hitchcock says, "and it was obvious he was our best offensive player. But he could be a great defensive forward too. Not only could he check, he could also check with speed. I was thinking, Who can I compare Mo with? Finally I came up with [the Pittsburgh Penguins'] Ron Francis, a No. 2 center who is a strong defensive player. I told Mo that I wanted to play him with wings Jere Lehtinen and Greg Adams and that he was going to be our go-to guy on defense."
In the past Modano had been known as a floater, spending much of his ice time looking for scoring opportunities. He had been called a perimeter player. He had also been a Cosmo Boy—Modano did photo shoots for Cosmopolitan and Mademoiselle in December 1995 to help publicize the league—a glossy player on a team with a neutral-zone trapping. Popular Mechanics-style.
When Gainey stomped into the locker room after the final game last year and suggested that the Stars' players look in the mirror, Modano saw an offensive-minded dandy who could check in his own zone but who was a prisoner of others' expectations. He was a 6'3" 200-pounder with soft hands and more jump than a double espresso, and while the Stars never were able to Hank him with high-scoring wingers, many thought there was no reason why he couldn't put up bigger numbers.
"The two numbers I heard for seven years in a row were 50 and 100, 50 and 100," says the 26-year-old Modano, who was the first overall pick in the 1988 draft. "For this team to be successful, I was going to have to get 50 goals and 100 points." The trouble was no one believed it more fervently than Modano, who bagged his 50 goals in 1993-94 but fell seven points short of the century mark that season. He also finished with a-8 in the plus-minus ratings, an embarrassment considering his high point total. Now Hitchcock was asking him to play another role.
"I knew going into the game that when [the Detroit Red Wings"] Sergei fedorov or [the St. Louis Blues'] Brett Hull or [the Vancouver Canucks'] Pavel Bure or other players like that were going out on the ice, my line was going out there too," Modano says of this season's change in responsibilities. "It was a little frightening at first because the weight of the game was on my shoulders. If we shut those guys down, we have a great opportunity to win because of our depth."
At week's end Modano had 32 goals and 45 assists, slightly better than a point-per-game pace, which is a little higher than his career average. But after bumping heads with the NHL's best centers every night, Modano, who was-34 in his career before this season, had a +40 rating, second-best in the league. Some credit belongs to Lehtinen, a smart, second-year right wing whose feel for his new center's style has let Modano be the front man in Dallas's aggressive 1-2-2 forechecking system. But it is Modano who has reinvented himself. Through Sunday he was tied for the NHL lead with five shorthanded goals and nine game-winning goals; he also had assisted on 12 others, giving him a hand in 21 of the team's 45 game-winners. Modano's scoring, a by-product of his game instead of its focus, still had him ranked in the league's top 20, but Moog was touting him for the Selke Trophy as the NHL's best defensive forward. However, during the Stars' recent nine-game unbeaten streak—Modano had 16 points in those games—he also had put himself in contention for the MVP award.