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Trophy Date

Stars and Devils Aren't Always Exciting, but Their Drive Has Pushed Them to the Finals

May 30, 2000|HELENE ELLIOTT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — They might have been built from the same blueprint, so similar are the Dallas Stars and the New Jersey Devils and the philosophies that have carried them to the Stanley Cup finals beginning today at Continental Airlines Arena.

Both are solid up the middle, balanced on defense and reliant on goaltenders whose playoff statistics are eerily close: a 1.81 goals-against average and .931 save percentage for Dallas' Ed Belfour and a 1.77 goals-against average and .923 save percentage for New Jersey's Martin Brodeur. Each team has a hard-hitting defenseman who can seize control of the game, a role filled for the Stars by Derian Hatcher and for the Devils by Scott Stevens.

"You look at both teams, and it's really like a mirror image of each other," said Dallas center Joe Nieuwendyk, the most valuable player in last year's playoffs.

Both also have proved the value of sacrificing personal gain for the collective good.

Each team had only one player among the NHL's top 25 scorers this season--Dallas center Mike Modano ranked eighth with 81 points and New Jersey left wing Patrik Elias ranked 22nd with 72 points--but the best example is Dallas winger Brett Hull. He will never equal the 86 goals he scored for St. Louis in 1991, but he never won the Cup with the Blues--and he scored the Cup-winning goal in the Stars' six-game triumph over the Buffalo Sabres last spring.

"It doesn't matter how good you are as an individual if you don't have a group of people around you and coaches who are going to put a system together to help you win," Hull said. "A lot of great players have never won the Cup. . . . You have to keep your nose to the grindstone and do the little things that help you score."

Because both are devoted to detail and defense and are artful practitioners of the neutral zone trap, both often are criticized for being less than scintillating. Not that they feel compelled to apologize.

"Our obligation is to each other," Devils Coach Larry Robinson said. "When you play a certain style that's boring, our job is to win the hockey game. They can call us whatever they want. When you stand there with the Stanley Cup, you don't care what style you played."

Robinson should know. He lifted the Cup six times as a player with the Montreal Canadiens and got his name on it as an assistant coach with the Devils in 1995. "You know what it takes to get there and you know what it takes to win," he said. "The feeling that you get, I just can't describe it."

The Stars know that feeling. They won hockey's most precious trophy last season but discovered defending it may be tougher than winning it the first time. The Devils already knew that from having won the Cup in 1995--the last East team to do so--and missing the playoffs in 1996.

"There's a certain stature that's gained with teams that have won two Cups, especially two in a row," Dallas Coach Ken Hitchcock said, "and we want that badly. We know emotionally, the level you have to play at is a really, really high emotional level."

Seeded second in the West behind St. Louis, the Stars almost were written off after the Colorado Avalanche acquired Ray Bourque and became a sentimental favorite. This time of year, though, sentiment matters less than execution. Led by Belfour, who outdueled career playoff win leader Patrick Roy, the Stars won a bruising but gratifying seven-game Western Conference final.

"Last year was magic. From the start to the end of the year, we were the best team in the NHL," Hitchcock said. "Every little thing we tried worked. We needed something good to happen, and it did.

"This year wasn't like that. This year has been a constant battle. Until Game 4 against Colorado, it was like we were swimming upstream."

Said Nieuwendyk: "It's different being the defending champ. It started in October, when we didn't get off to a very good start, and we didn't have our full team all season because of injuries to key people. But you look at the other side, which is it shows you the character we have to get this far when not many people thought we'd be here."

The Devils have the second-best record in the East but were seeded fourth, because they're in the same division as the Philadelphia Flyers. The Devils also had a turbulent season that was saved when Robinson replaced Robbie Ftorek with eight games left before the playoffs. Only the 1931-32 Toronto Maple Leafs and 1970-71 Canadiens changed coaches during a season in which they won the Cup, but both made their moves earlier; the 1981-82 Vancouver Canucks lost Coach Harry Neale to a suspension with five games left in the season and reached the finals under replacement Roger Neilson before they lost to the New York Islanders.

"I feel very fortunate I've been given the opportunity to coach an exceptional team," Robinson said.

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