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Pro Hockey | Helene Elliott ON THE NHL

Stars Were Ready for This Moment

October 09, 2003|Helene Elliott

DALLAS — It felt like five minutes ago but it was five months ago that the Mighty Ducks left Dallas on the sore end of a 4-1 loss to the Stars in Game 5 of a second-round playoff series. The Ducks were rattled and the Stars appeared ready to pounce, jeopardizing the course of the Ducks' already improbable playoff run.

Would the Ducks be cowed by the aggression of the Stars' forwards and the banging of the Stars' defensemen? As playoff neophytes, did the Ducks have the physical and mental strength to stand up to a veteran team?

They had the perfect response at Anaheim in Game 6, a 4-3 win that ended the Stars' season and launched their run to the Stanley Cup finals.

But they were back to seeking new answers Wednesday after they opened defense of their Western Conference title with a 4-1 loss in which they were dominated in every aspect of the game.

The charged-up Stars, who spent five months wondering where they went wrong last spring, wasted no time in revealing the conclusion they'd reached. They kept the Ducks off balance and never gave skill players Sergei Fedorov, Petr Sykora and Vaclav Prospal room to operate. The Stars hit early and often and caused countless turnovers, a formula they figure to employ well after their opening-night adrenaline wears off.

"We were pretty hungry," Star Coach Dave Tippett said. "I thought our whole group was a very focused and committed group tonight. We talked about the physical commitment in a game and we had everybody on board with that."

It didn't matter that behemoth defenseman Derian Hatcher left for greener financial pastures in Detroit. Teppo Numminen picked up Hatcher's minutes and Richard Matvichuk picked up the baton of Duck-bashing.

"Yeah, there was more emotion for us because of last spring," said Bill Guerin, whose performance offered a glimpse of how the teams' playoff series might have looked if he hadn't had a thigh injury.

"It's kind of funny how it turns out, that we open with Anaheim. The last time we played them, we thought we had a pretty good team, but they moved on and played a few more rounds.

"Was this revenge? I don't think so, but there was a little added incentive, for sure."

The motivation was obvious for Tippett, who had led the Stars to a conference-leading 111 points in his first season only to lose to the seventh-seeded Ducks. He said he'd endured no sleepless nights, but he acknowledged having watched hundreds of hours of film and analyzing whether he had the right personnel to delve deeper into the playoffs this season.

"I'm more a person that I want to fix things. When something is broke, I want to fix it," he said. "For me it's more a determination factor. You take experiences and try to incorporate them into a new plan for success.

"It would be too easy to just mope about it and say, 'We should have won. We should have won.' We said, 'We didn't, and we have to do something about it.' "

And they did, working Antti Miettinen in at center, giving rugged defenseman John Erskine more ice time and protecting goalie Marty Turco as if the Cup depended on it. Maybe it will.

"Our plan every night is to play pretty physical," said Turco, who faced few rebounds in a 20-save performance. "They're a team that's pretty poised and we felt if we tried to press them it might work. Tonight, guys stuck to the game plan."

His own plan last summer was to file the playoff loss in his relatively thin file of unpleasant experiences and move on.

"What I thought about was the lost opportunity, and how close we were to being a great team," he said. "I don't think people realize how close we came, hitting a few posts and not really getting the breaks in that series."

The victory Wednesday, although merely the first game of 82, meant a lot to him.

"It's the home opener, the season opener, it's on TV, it's as big as you can get this time of year," he said. "It's nice to see those guys. The last time we played, they beat us and ended our season. It's especially nice to beat them."

One game does not a season make, and the Stars know it.

"There are going to be times we face adversity," Tippett said, "and we'll see how we hang together there."

Nor will the Ducks always be so hapless. They're still blending styles and personalities, still seeking the best line combinations. But they were devoid of the raw emotion that any team should be able to muster, a passion the Stars had aplenty.

"We should be coming in hungry too," Duck goalie Jean-Sebastien Giguere said. "We haven't played a regular-season game in a while. There are no excuses in that department."

And no time to waste in rekindling the fire that blazed their trail to the Cup final.

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