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Yi-Wyn Yen
April 03, 2006
Double Clutch Unstoppable in shootouts and unmatched in come-from-behind wins, Dallas is primed for the pressure of the playoffs
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April 03, 2006

The Nhl

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Double Clutch
Unstoppable in shootouts and unmatched in come-from-behind wins, Dallas is primed for the pressure of the playoffs

Before Jussi Jokinen became the NHL's shootout king (he'd scored nine times in 11 attempts through Sunday), the confident Stars rookie had already made a strong impression on his teammates. Less than a month into the season, the 22-year-old from Kalajoki, Finland, pulled aside several veterans, including captain Mike Modano and three-time All-Star Sergei Zubov, and led them to a whiteboard, where he drew up plays. "He'd tell us what he wanted us to do on a power play. He'd say, 'Give me the puck here, and you do this,'" says right wing Bill Guerin. "We were a little taken aback, like, who is this kid?"

It didn't take long for his teammates to find out. Dallas is a remarkable 11-0 in shootouts largely because of Jokinen's league-best success rate, and the speedy left wing has also fit in neatly on the Stars' top line alongside center Modano and Jere Lehtinen. On March 22, with the Stars trailing Minnesota in the third period, Jokinen fed Lehtinen for the power-play goal that tied the score. Lehtinen's goal was one of three that Dallas, the Pacific Division leader (48-20-3), scored in the period en route to a 4-2 win.

No team has pulled out more come-from-behind victories this season than the Stars. Dallas has won an NHL-record 11 games in which it trailed after two periods, and the Stars' record in games they trailed at any point in the third is best in the league (14-20-1). "We don't panic. It's something we learned from Day One when we came back from a 4--0 deficit [against L.A. on Oct. 5] in the first period [to win 5-4]," says defenseman Philippe Boucher. "We thrive on the comeback."

So does their star, Modano. Coming off a career-worst season in 2003-04 (14 goals, 30 assists), he nonetheless landed a five-year, $17.3 million contract, and through Sunday led the team with 27 goals and 43 assists. On March 11 against Vancouver, Dallas was down a goal when Modano scored twice to lift the Stars to a 2-1 victory. Says coach Dave Tippett of Modano's season, "I knew Mike was going to rebound."

What Tippett couldn't foresee was how easily the 5'11", 190-pound Jokinen would adapt and excel. Taken with the 192nd pick in 2001, Jokinen--a methodical player who studies power-play footage from every Dallas game--had 16 goals and 35 assists at week's end. And he does his best work with the game on the line. Says Jokinen of his shootout scoring, "I really enjoy it when 20,000 people get up and cheer me or boo me."

Like their rookie, the never-say-die Stars seem primed for the playoffs. "That'll be the real test," Guerin says. "We've been in a lot of pressure situations this year. We're going to have to try to use that to our advantage."

Nothing but a Charade

Although the NHL appeared to crack down on excessively curved sticks when it decided in February to measure the blades before shootouts, league hockey operations vice president Mike Murphy told SI that it was a "Band-Aid solution." In fact, the NHL has seized the moral middle ground. While use of illegal goalie equipment costs a netminder a two-game suspension without pay and carries fines to the team and its equipment manager, an illegal stick costs a skater only two minutes during regulation or disqualification from a shootout. Perhaps the ambivalence reflects a growing sentiment among general managers to allow unlimited curvature--a logical extension of the league's efforts to boost scoring. The G.M.'s will revisit the stick curvature issue next summer, and will either have to get serious or return to the banana-blade era of the 1960s. --Michael Farber

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