Stars' hopes slipping away

Tuesday, June 6th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

Dallas looking for rare, wondrous comeback to hold on to the Cup

The Dallas Stars have to travel a road that has not been successfully navigated in 48 years if they indeed want the Stanley Cup to stay here. They'll have to go to the archives to relive the wondrous comeback of the 1942 Toronto Maple Leafs.

In the wake of Monday night's 3-1 loss to the New Jersey Devils in the Stanley Cup Finals at Reunion Arena, the Stars need three consecutive victories to win a second-consecutive NHL championship.

The Devils lead the best-of-seven series, 3-1.

Leading 1-0 after two periods, the Stars were stunned by a three-goal Devils barrage in the opening six minutes of the final period.

"We got the hearts ripped out of us today," Stars coach Ken Hitchcock said. "We went from quite a high to quite a low."

Here's where that low leaves the Stars. No team has ever come back from three games to one deficit to capture the Cup. But there is an asterisk. The Maple Leafs were down three games to none before rebounding to grab the Cup from the clutches of the Detroit Red Wings in the old six-team NHL.

The Stars would have to win two games at the Devils' Continental Airlines Arena sandwiched around a sixth game in Dallas. The next game is scheduled Thursday in New Jersey.

The Stars actually have won one more game in New Jersey than they have in Dallas. They were 9-1 in the playoffs at Reunion Arena before dropping their last two home games to New Jersey.

The Devils reached the Stanley Cup Finals by winning the final three games in their seven-game Eastern Conference finals. It was the only time a team has come from so far back in the conference finals since the league expanded from six teams to 12 in 1968 and went to the two-conference format.

Devils coach Larry Robinson said his team would be wise to end the Stars' season as soon as possible. He has no interest in allowing the Stars any lifelines.

"I mean, we know firsthand, having come through a series ourselves where we thought we were down and out of it and never gave up," Robinson said. "So there is no reason why with the amount of veterans they have, and the talent and experience that is over there, that they are [not] going to come out even stronger the next game."

Much of the sellout crowd of 17,001 was rabid and loud from the moment B.J. Thomas completed his rendition of the national anthem. But not even having the good-luck Thomas on-hand could guarantee the Stars would end the game on a positive note.

The crowd was buoyed when the Stars took their 1-0 lead in the waning minutes of the second period. The Stars had been 11-0 in their playoff run in games they led after two periods.

But the fans did not stick around for the bitter end. As fans streamed out in the final 1:30, Stars goaltender Ed Belfour tried in vain to get to the bench in favor of getting an extra offensive player on the ice.

The Stars only goal had come on a power play in the waning minutes of the second period when Joe Nieuwendyk, standing in front of the net, banged home the rebound of a Darryl Sydor slapshot from the point. But Nieuwendyk had to wait for the puck to first ricochet off the skates of defenseman Scott Niedermayer and goaltender Martin Brodeur.

It was the first goal of the Cup Finals for Nieuwendyk, who had been a Scoreless Joe against the Devils. He had not even contributed an assist in the first three games.

Much attention had been paid to Nieuwendyk's lack of scoring. Last season, he was voted the Most Valuable Player in the playoffs in leading the Stars to the Cup. Scoring from Nieuwendyk has been deemed essential. His goal was perceived as an omen of better things to come.

But only bitter things followed.

The Devils scored three goals in span of 3:41 soon after they took the ice for the final period. None of the goals came from any of their top scorers.

Rather, it was the unlikely trio of defenseman Vladimir Malakhov, rookie John Madden, who plays on the third line, and rookie defenseman Brian Rafalski, who put New Jersey close to holding its second Stanley Cup parade in the last five years. Mike Modano said his team was stunned by the Devils' barrage.

"We really don't know what happened," he said. "I think we felt we played a great 40 minutes."

Given off days on Tuesday and Wednesday, Modano said the Stars will be well-rested for the next game. He said anything was still possible.

But as Modano and his teammates left Reunion Arena they could stop and read the writing on the walls. The electronic signs reminded them that this may have been their last game in Dallas this season. "The next Stanley Cup Finals home game to be determined," the signs said.