DALLAS -- The celebration began before the second period was complete.
The party poured over into the second intermission, the entire third period, and long into a sticky Texas night.
Game 7 of the Western Conference finals was never really in doubt. The Stars outclassed their gutsy opponent, the Colorado Avalanche, in every aspect of the game. They had to win the last two games to advance and end the scrutiny and probing that has surrounded their rise to the NHL's elite.
They did it, and did it with panache, finishing off the Avalanche, 4-1, last night at Reunion Arena, ending what was a terrifically entertaining and well- played series.
"We know what people would've thought if we hadn't won the game," Stars center Mike Modano said. "The speculation, a lot of finger-pointing and some animosity, I'm sure. And it's nice to get where we wanted to go."
The Stars will make their third appearance in the Finals, and their first since moving to Dallas, when they play host to the Buffalo Sabres on Tuesday night. The Sabres reached the Finals in 1975. Neither franchise has won a Cup.
The Western Conference finals were a stylistic tug-of-war. Colorado attempted to spread the ice, open up and trade chances. The Stars wanted to seal off the center, shield the neutral zone, and wait for turnovers to pounce on.
This was a controlled game. The Stars dumped the puck, their grinders forechecked hard, their heavy hitters banged away. And again, their top line was not the one featuring Mike Modano and Brett Hull. Joe Nieuwendyk's trio led the attack early, then muckers like Mike Keane (two goals) and Pat Verbeek took over. Nieuwendyk found Jamie Langenbrunner on a two-on-one, defenseman Sandis Ozolinsh failed to tie up his man, and Langenbrunner smacked the puck into the empty side of the net 8: 25 into the game.
Now trailing, Colorado began to yank the tempo its way, briefly. The Avalanche skated more aggressively, threw the puck rink-wide, and gambled it could out-skill Dallas. Peter Forsberg, Claude Lemieux and Theo Fleury, in perhaps his last game with the Avalanche, nearly scored in the closing minutes of the period. It lasted but a few shifts. Calm, steady hockey prevailed.
Colorado could not gain the offensive zone in the second period. The Avalanche was completely pinched off. The Stars played their system to perfection. They went down to block shots. The Avalanche was forced just to dump and chase.
"The second period, it was close to perfect," Dallas captain Derian Hatcher said. "We got back to doing the things we've done all season."
A former teammate only intensified the Avalanche's hurt. In fact, he ended their season.
Keane, once an alternate captain in Colorado, scored twice in about four minutes in the second period to end any suspense.
After Keane's second score, Avalanche goalie Patrick Roy grimaced and contorted in anger and frustration. Hull threw his arm around Modano on the bench. The Stars were going to the Finals.
The Avalanche was going home, its one-time captain Dale Hunter likely having played his last game. No NHL player has played more games without winning a Stanley Cup.
Colorado 0 0 1 -- 1
Dallas 1 2 1 -- 4
First period--1, Dallas, Langenbrunner 9 (Nieuwendyk, Reid), 8: 25. Penalty--Carbonneau, Dal (roughing), 19: 53.
Second period--2, Dallas, Keane 4 (Verbeek, Carbonneau), 11: 13. 3, Dallas, Keane 5 (Matvichuk), 15: 18. Penalty--Sakic, Col (cross-checking), 18: 20.
Third period--4, Dallas, Lehtinen 7, 6: 18. 5, Colorado, Sakic 6 (Fleury, Foote), 13: 58. Penalties--Klemm, Col (high-sticking), 7: 37; Modano, Dal (ob.-tripping), 8: 57; Yelle, Col (slashing), 11: 48.
Shots on goal--Colorado 6-3-10--19. Dallas 4-9-12--25. Power-play opportunities--Colorado 0 of 2; Dallas 0 of 3. Goalies--Colorado Roy, 11-8 (25 shots-21 saves). Dallas, Belfour 12-5 (19-18). A--17,001 (16,928).
Pub Date: 6/05/99