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It's not that they don't appreciate the attention. But some of the Minnesota North Stars aren't so sure they like their team's new nickname, Cinderfellas. Doesn't exactly ooze masculinity, does it? On the other hand, if the shoe fits....
Having gone just 27-39-14 in the regular season, as of Sunday the North Stars were inexplicably 8-4 in the postseason ball and were the newly crowned champions of the Norris Division. They gained that distinction by knocking off the NHL's No. 1 (the Chicago Blackhawks) and No. 2 (the St. Louis Blues) regular-season teams as easily as powdering their noses. "The Twins' ['87] march to the World Series was improbable," wrote the Minneapolis Star Tribune's Patrick Reusse. "What is happening to the North Stars is approaching the mystical."
Minnesota fans, who had taken pains to avoid the Met Center in recent seasons, have returned by the thousands, tailgating in the parking lot before games and chanting the name of the North Stars' new owner, shopping-mall mogul Norm Green, during them. Phlegmatic first-year head coach Bob Gainey, as animated as a Bud Grant bust, is being celebrated in the Twin Cities for his dullness. How hot is Minnesota? Even its goons are scoring.
In Game 2 of the Norris semifinals, on April 6, North Star enforcer Basil McRae was as surprised as anyone to find himself skating in alone on Blackhawk goalie Ed Belfour. Perhaps mistaking McRae for one of Minnesota's more gifted players, Steve Konroyd pulled down the burly winger from behind, and McRae was awarded a penalty shot. McRae, who in 10 NHL seasons has scored 43 goals and logged 1,816 penalty minutes, deked twice—woodenly—and scored. The North Stars, who finished 38 points behind Chicago in the regular season, lost that game 5-2 but won the series, four games to two.
In Game 1 of the Norris finals, on April 18, a slapstick giveaway of the puck resulted when Blues center Dan Quinn and defenseman Jeff Brown collided at the North Stars' blue line. More slapstick seemed assured when McRae, who pulled in the loose puck, and right wing Shane Churla (six goals and 879 penalty minutes in four seasons) found themselves leading a three-on-one breakout. Churla took McRae's seeing-eye pass and flipped the puck past netminder Vincent Riendeau for the game-winning goal. Minnesota went on to win the series, which ended with a thrilling 3-2 North Star victory on Sunday night, four games to two.
It has become a rite of spring: An underdog squeezes its way into the NHL playoffs, catches fire and wins a round or two, illustrating once again the near irrelevance of the regular season. Yet these North Stars rate special mention on the roll of postseason upstarts. No one had knocked off the No. 1 team in the first round since 1971, when the Bobby Orr-led Boston Bruins ran into the Montreal Canadiens and a rookie goalie named Ken Dryden. No team had upset both No. 1 and No. 2 since the NHL first expanded, in 1967-68.
Two seasons after that epic upset of the Bruins, Dryden was joined in the Canadiens lineup by Gainey, a barrel-chested, 19-year-old left wing from Peterborough, Ont. Sixteen seasons, 1,342 games and five Stanley Cups later, Gainey retired to become a coach—though former teammates suggest he had in essence become one years before his playing career ended. Says Bobby Smith, who played with Gainey for six seasons in Montreal and now plays for him, "He was always taking home those pieces of paper with the little rinks printed on them to figure out new power-play schemes, new breakouts. I know he's a first-year coach, but calling him a rookie is unrealistic."
It is said that teams take on attributes of their coaches. In The Game, his book on those formidable Montreal teams of the 1970s, Dryden wrote of Gainey's "insistent passion, enormous will to win. and a powerful style, secure and manly, without the strut of machismo."
The North Stars were only too pleased to let the Blackhawks outmacho them. While Chicago's tough guys baited them and cheap-shotted them, Gainey's players, for the most part, turned the other cheek—and scored 15 power-play goals, which tied an NHL record for one series. That discipline, and the Blackhawks' lack of it, was the difference.
Minnesota's most valuable players in the St. Louis series were defensive forwards Stew Gavin and Gaetan Duchesne, who tag-teamed the Blues' 86-goal scorer Brett Hull, and goaltender Jon Casey, who stopped Hull whenever he was able to wriggle free. With the dueling shadows hooking and bumping him and lifting his stick, Hull had to settle for a pair of meaningless power-play goals in the Blues' 8-4 loss in Game 3 and an even-strength goal in the series finale.