DALLAS — When their three-goal lead was chopped to one, the Dallas Stars focused on what they do best: smothering defense.
That return to basics, some great saves by Ed Belfour and a friendly bounce off the right post in the closing seconds enabled the Stars to notch a 3-2 victory over the Colorado Avalanche in Game 7 of the Western Conference finals Saturday night.
"It was an unbelievable series," Dallas forward Brett Hull said. "It could have gone either way. I'm just thankful we got kind of lucky at end and held on."
The defending Stanley Cup champions will open the finals Tuesday night at New Jersey. The Devils overcame a 3-1 deficit in games to defeat Philadelphia in the Eastern Conference finals.
Early on, the Stars threatened to make Game 7 a rout. Sergei Zubov and Mike Modano scored on the power play in the first period, then Roman Lyashenko blindly kicked in a rebound early in the second period.
"The first half of the game, I thought our passion was unbelievable," Dallas Coach Ken Hitchcock said. "Then we got a little sloppy and gave them that first goal. That gave them some momentum and they built on that."
Dallas was 10-0 this postseason when taking a lead into the third period, so the only question left seemed to be whether Belfour could hold the shutout.
But Peter Forsberg scored a short-handed goal 5:25 into the final period. Three minutes later, Milan Hejduk redirected a shot by Ray Bourque past Belfour, reviving the tension that had been missing since the first period.
Colorado only got three more shots at Belfour before pulling goalie Patrick Roy for a sixth attacker with 1:20 left. They failed to punch it in on a good flurry in front of the net with 21.2 seconds to go, then Bourque fired a shot that hit Belfour and clanged off the right post with eight seconds left.
"I tried to get my body over there," Belfour said. "It hit me on the hip and it was like slow motion as it went toward the post."
Said Bourque: "I didn't see it, but I heard it hit the post."
The Stars knocked the puck to the other end of the ice, triggering a postgame celebration that was filled with as much relief as joy.
"There's so much pressure to perform," Modano said. "As you get older, you turn that into a positive and try to have fun with it."
This was the second year in a row the Stars and Avalance played a Game 7 in the conference finals. Dallas won last year's duel, 4-1.
This was the third consecutive year Colorado was eliminated in a seventh game, and the fourth consecutive time Roy has lost a Game 7. He's given up 16 goals in those games. He is 2-5 all time in Game 7s.
Although Roy had two shutouts, Belfour never allowed more than two goals in a game and was a steadying influence for his team. Dallas fans began chanting "Ed-die's bet-ter!" in the final period.
Belfour made 31 saves and won for the eighth consecutive time following a Dallas loss. He improved to 4-0 in Game 7s and 9-1 in elimination games for the Stars. He also has won 11 of his last 12 playoff games in Reunion Arena dating to last season's finals.
He won't get a chance to add to that until Saturday. First, he'll have to go to Continental Airlines Arena for games Tuesday and Thursday. The Stars went 2-0 against the Devils this season.
Around the League
Philadelphia star Eric Lindros spent Friday night in a hospital after sustaining his fourth concussion in five months and his sixth in two years during the first period of a 2-1 loss to New Jersey in Friday night's Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals. Lindros, 27, returned to his South Jersey home Saturday. . . . Developer Steve Ellman, with Wayne Gretzky as a partner, transferred $10 million Friday night as a down payment to buy the Phoenix Coyotes. Elman is preparing to buy the team from Richard Burke and build a new arena in Scottsdale. Burke will continue to run the team until the transaction is completed. That is scheduled to take place June 30. Ellman needs to raise another $90 million to cover the purchase price and an estimated $20 million in operating losses over the next two seasons at America West Arena.