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The Bitter End
Michael Farber
June 28, 1999
A dubious goal that gave the Stars the Stanley Cup over the Sabres tarnished what had been the best final series in years
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June 28, 1999

The Bitter End

A dubious goal that gave the Stars the Stanley Cup over the Sabres tarnished what had been the best final series in years

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Defensive Titans
The Stars and Sabres scored a combined 3.67 goals per game during the Stanley Cup finals, the lowest average since 1952 and the fourth lowest since the NHL went to a best-of-seven format in '39. Here are the five Stanley Cup finals with the fewest goals per game.

YEAR

TEAMS

GAMES

GOALS PER GAME

1945

Toronto-Detroit

7

2.57

1952

Detroit-Montreal

4

3.25

1939

Boston-Toronto

5

3.60

1999

Dallas-Buffalo

6

3.67

1947

Toronto-Montreal

6

3.67

They couldn't disallow it. Not now. Mike Modano's tear ducts were working as if they were Niagara Falls, and Mike Keane was already smoking a stogie that was as long as his Stanley Cup résumé, and bottles of Tott's Extra Dry domestic champagne were gaily being passed around the Dallas Stars' sopping dressing room in Buffalo's Marine Midland Arena. Brett Hull's Cup-winning goal in the third overtime of Game 6 at 1:30 a.m. on Sunday would stand, even if by dawn some of the Stars could not.

Buffalo was equally blinded—but by Outrage. The citizenry reached the reasonable conclusion that Hull's goal was simply hockey's version of wide right, another crushing and surreal chapter in Buffalo's sporting history, although this time the culprit wasn't an unreliable field goal kicker named Scott Norwood but an expedient NHL that was in too much of a hurry to hand out its most celebrated trinket.

Hull's goal, at 54:51 of overtime in the second-longest finals game ever, will be remembered as long as any in history. It was the final postseason goal of the millennium, and it gave the league its first southern Stanley Cup champion. It also shifted the focus, after a splendidly tense and compelling finals between the steadfast Stars and the resilient Sabres, to the imperfections of technology and the warts of the NHL. This series should have revived a showcase event but instead left a worse taste than a champagne bender. "Everybody is going to remember this as the Stanley Cup that was never won," Buffalo forward Joé Juneau said after the game.

Rewind to the wee hours of Sunday. The bottles of maple syrup that had been distributed in the press box—compliments of the Rigas family, who owns the Sabres—looked as if they might come in handy at any moment for a pancake breakfast. For almost six periods Buffalo and Dallas had been entrenched in another taut defensive standoff, a 1-1 match that resonated in the soul if not on the scoreboard. Then Dallas center Modano took control of the puck at the half boards. He passed it to the front of the cage, where it reached his right wing, Hull, who took a shot on Dominik Hasek. Hasek made the save, and the puck clearly left the crease for an instant, although Hull's left skate didn't. Hull then corralled the rebound and shoveled the puck past the left arm and leg of the prone Hasek with his forehand, touching off a wild on-ice celebration. The Stars came together in a group hug. Modano hurled the cast from his broken left wrist into the stands, and some fan threw it back onto the ice, Bleacher Bums-style. The Sabres, crestfallen, waited single file until the Dallas players could tear themselves from the rejoicing for the traditional postseries handshake. "The play happened so fast, and the next thing you know, there's 500 people on the ice," Buffalo captain Michael Peca said about an hour after the game. "What the heck is the NHL going to do? Open the floodgates by making the right call?"

The league insists it did make the proper call. Director of Officiating Bryan Lewis looked at the replays within seconds of Hull's goal, as did two other replay officials, and ruled that the goal counted because of a March 25 directive issued by NHL senior vice president Colin Campbell regarding the crease rule. The clarification to the rule states that an attacking player can stay in the crease even if the puck leaves the blue-painted area as long as he maintains control of the puck. (The 1998-99 NHL rule book does not mention anything about "control of the puck" when interpreting the crease rule.) The rule used to stipulate that the puck always had to precede a player into the crease, but the matter was addressed by Campbell the day after a similar goal by the Washington Capitals was disallowed. Lewis decided that Hull, a righthanded shooter, had simply been kicking the puck to his stick and was thus in control, a liberal interpretation. When Hasek saw the replay in the dressing room, he got ready to tug his sweater back on because he assumed the game would start again. "They told me, 'Dom, it's over,' " Hasek said, "and I said, 'But it's not a goal.' "

The Sabres appealed to commissioner Gary Bettman for an explanation. Peca said he spoke to Bettman on the ice. "I tried to be nice. I said, 'Gary, the guy's foot was in the crease,' " Peca said, "but he turned and walked away. Wouldn't listen." Buffalo coach Lindy Ruff, who stormed out of the dressing room and toward the ice after surveying the replay, also says Bettman snubbed him when Ruff encountered him between the benches. Bettman, who left Marine Midland Arena with his family shortly after the Cup presentation, told SI later Sunday morning that he wasn't approached by Peca, and that "Mr. Ruff's conduct was out of control and inappropriate. I'm not sure he was in any condition to have a conversation."

The Sabres would have had better luck getting an explanation from Campbell, who at 2:45 a.m. was sitting outside the Dallas dressing room, dapper in a dark suit and matching expression. "There will always be a gray area," Campbell said about the rule that in its eight years of existence has engendered more controversy and undergone more touch-ups than Cher. "Someone's going to cry, 'Cover-up, cover-up!' [That someone was Juneau, who said the NHL was "just trying to cover its ass."] But we automatically review everything, and that's what Bryan did. The celebrations weren't an issue. We've discussed a game-over scenario many times, that we would stop and go back if that's what we had to do." (On Monday the NHL announced it will no longer use video replay to decide disputed goals when a player is in the crease, relying solely on its on-ice officials. Bettman said the decision had nothing to do with the controversy in Game 6.)

Until Hull's dubious goal, the finals looked as if they were going to save face for the NHL. This wasn't a pretty series—"There's been a meanness, an ugliness to the series," Buffalo general manager Darcy Regier said before Game 6—but it had been a brave one, true to the foundation of the game. Modano played with that broken wrist for three games. Hull played with a torn medial collateral ligament in his left knee and a groin strain for the last two games. After four depressing years of sweeps, all but one of them a punch-the-clock effort by the losers, the Sabres and the Stars burnished the Cup. They played with fervor. Mostly they played with an eerie constancy. Buffalo and Dallas played Game 1 in a fiercely defensive fashion and replicated it five times, varying hardly at all. The smaller crease, the added space behind the net, the two referees and all the other tweaking that was supposed to favor the offense was mocked like the class Poindexter by two bullies who decided to play by their own rules.

"The series did a lot for hockey, but maybe not in the way the league intended," Regier said. "We've been doing everything the past few years to get more offense. This wasn't an offensive series. If you equate offense with excitement, you might not have liked seeing the two teams with the lowest goals-against averages during the season go at it. But for the fans who've been around the game, they understood this was about character. This was about the soul of the game."

The Sabres and the Stars produced a combined 22 goals, 16.75 below the average of the eight previous six-game Stanley Cup finals since expansion in 1967-68. The 22 matched the lowest in any six-game finals since 1947, though the meager scoring was a result not of ham-fisted offensive play but of systems, styles and the goaltending of Hasek and Dallas's Ed Belfour. (Belfour finished with a 1.67 goals-against average and a .930 save percentage but he was beaten out for the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP by teammate Joe Nieuwendyk, who tied a postseason record by scoring six game-winning goals.) The Stars were tougher, more savvy and more skilled than their counterparts from Buffalo, although at the core both teams were counterpunchers. Like disputatious but wary middleweights, neither wanted to lead—at least not by more than one goal. Of the 430 minutes played in the series, a team was ahead by more than one goal for only five minutes, or 1.2% of the time. This was hermetically sealed hockey, as Dallas's feral team defense—dubbed the Texas Manhandle by the Toronto Globe and Mail—sucked the air but not the life from the finals.

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