Dallas stars center Mike Modano was put to the ultimate challenge, the single most formidable test facing modern NHL players: You have 15 seconds to name as many Buffalo Sabres as you can. A sly smile crossed Modano's lips, the corners of his eyes crinkled with amusement. He plays hockey games, not parlor games, and he wasn't about to be ambushed by a pop quiz last Friday on which a score of anything less than 100 might be hung on the other team's bulletin board. Time was ticking. Modano was grinning. Finally he said, "I probably wouldn't get half."
He hadn't yet been reintroduced to the team that's going to save the Stanley Cup finals. The NHL's showcase series—known as Sweeps Week the past four years, not for its television ratings but for the dominance the Western Conference has held over its Eastern foes—has been an embarrassment as the trailing clubs have drifted away like a schoolboy's attention in early June, the Florida Panthers' worthy effort in 1996 excepted. The glut of sweeps and the conspicuous strength of the top Western teams have prompted respected hockey observers to suggest that semifinal teams be reseeded to enhance the odds of a more competitive Stanley Cup final, an idea that might snare more television viewers but ignores the big picture of conference rivalry. Enough. The NHL already has tinkered with its game to distraction. There is nothing wrong with the playoff system that this Buffalo team can't fix. The Sabres, anonymous even within the mom-and-pop industry of hockey, won't beat the Stars for the Cup, but they have the ability to salvage it from the tyranny of another sweep.
At first glance Buffalo hardly seems the obvious candidate to restore the luster to the loveliest trophy in sports. The Sabres are ingenues in the championship business: None of them ever has played on a Stanley Cup winner. Only five times in the last 71 years has a team won without having at least one player whose name had previously been engraved on the trophy. ( Dallas has eight.) Arguably the most celebrated moment in Buffalo's history, although probably not according to the ASPCA, occurred when one of its players, Jim Lorentz, struck a bat with his stick at the old Aud during a stoppage in play during Game 3 of the 1974-75 finals.
Buffalo is also a modestly budgeted team that relies more on homegrown talent than on free agency. But even if this Cup final was supposed to be a foregone conclusion before it began, the Sabres know they will be judged not by their pedigree but by their game. They're quick, opportunistic, fun and hard to discourage, one Cinderella who won't show up for the finals in a gown. They spread the scoring around—first a Stu Barnes, then a Geoff Sanderson will leap off the side of the milk carton and into the game summary. Despite the 23-point differential between the teams in the regular-season standings, this series figures to be more nuanced than the simple Stars-versus-No Stars (other than goalie Dominik Hasek) formulation would suggest.
This year's finals might not always be compelling given Dallas's ability to convert the neutral zone into a minefield and Buffalo's inclination to counterattack, but at least there should be more than four games played. Stars director of player personnel Craig Button says, "This is not even going to be close to a sweep."
The 34-year-old Hasek would neither stand nor sprawl for it. Conceivably this could be his last, best chance at a Stanley Cup—expansion and the exigencies of a small market like Buffalo point to that conclusion—and while he doesn't need a Cup to validate his career, winning one might help in making the argument that he's the best goalie ever. Hasek is the Sabres' biggest weapon, the one player able to win games, if not a series, by himself. Hasek has been nursing a pulled groin muscle since February, and he missed the first two games of the Eastern Conference finals against the Toronto Maple Leafs, but he looked O.K. by his uniquely high standards while allowing six goals in winning the last three games of the series.
Going into the finals Dallas knew it had to find a way to beat Hasek. Actually the Stars, and the rest of the NHL, know the best way to beat him: shoot high. For all his puck-stopping genius, Hasek doesn't have an imposing glove hand. He doesn't catch the puck above shoulder level as often as he swats at it like a noisome mosquito at a backyard barbecue. The intriguing question is not where to try to put the puck on Hasek, but how best to get it there—a question that elicited an unconventional response from Dallas scouts.
Tim Bernhardt, a former NHL goalie, developed this stratagem: Instead of the traditional approach of buzzing Hasek and camping outside his crease like paparazzi at Madonna's hotel—"I think bumping him helps him get into the game," says Bernhardt, the Stars' chief amateur scout—Dallas forwards were instructed to pull back three to five feet. Hasek, who covers the bottom of the net with the elasticity of a carnival freak, will probably stop the initial shot in either case, but the buffer zone between the forwards and the goalie will make for longer, trickier deflections and give the Stars more room in which to roof a rebound. "Good shooters put the puck where they want to," Button says. "Against Hasek, you have to find a way to give them a better chance. The extra distance does that. Maybe you get him thinking a little. If he has to stop and think about rebounds, it's like a pitcher whose rhythm you've disrupted. Certainly Hasek is the key. That team draws a ton of confidence from their goalie and their captain."
Michael Peca, the Buffalo captain, is an old-time player at the old-time size of 5'11" and 180 pounds. He's a fierce hitter, precisely the reason the Stars will try to level Peca, a center, before he has a chance to lay out the high-scoring Modano or even Derian Hatcher, the punishing defenseman who is 6'5" and 230 pounds. Indeed, Peca could be vulnerable. There was speculation last week that he is playing with bruised ribs. Peca denied he was injured, but he failed to score a goal in the semifinals against Toronto, and in recent weeks he has never been bare-chested when the media invaded the Sabres' dressing room.
Dallas also has targeted the Buffalo defense. The Stars want to pummel defensemen Richard Smehlik, Rhett Warrener and Jay McKee into coughing up the puck deep in their zone, but the Dallas scouts decided that the offensive-minded Alexei Zhitnik, who forms the No. 1 blueline pair with Smehlik, can be coaxed, rather than battered, into committing turnovers. The Stars plan to trap Zhitnik, lulling him into a false sense of security by giving him room to carry the puck and then quickly cutting off his ice and forcing a poor pass.