Stars struggle past Avs, gain return to Cup finals; Dallas stems rally, 3-2, earns right to defend title; Hockey


DALLAS - The Dallas Stars nearly cruised back into the Stanley Cup Finals. Instead, the Colorado Avalanche made them earn it.

Sergei Zubov and Mike Modano scored on the power play in the first period as Dallas built a three-goal lead, then withstood a Colorado rally that lasted to the closing seconds for a 3-2 victory in Game 7 of the Western Conference finals last night.

"It was an unbelievable series," Stars forward Brett Hull said. "It could have gone either way. I'm just thankful we got kind of lucky at the end and held on."

The defending champions will open the finals Tuesday night in New Jersey. The Devils overcame a 3-1 deficit to beat Philadelphia in the Eastern Conference finals.

The Stars dominated the first period and led by 3-0 in the second after Roman Lyashenko blindly kicked in a rebound. Dallas was 10-0 this postseason when taking a lead into the third period and the only question seemed to be whether goalie Ed Belfour could hold the shutout.

Then Peter Forsberg beat him for a short-handed goal 5:25 into the final period. Three minutes later, Milan Hejduk redirected a shot by Ray been missing since the first period.

Colorado only got three more shots at Belfour before going to an open net with 1:20 left. The extra skater didn't help, though, as Belfour made a series of saves with 21.2 seconds to go, then Bourque's shot hit Belfour and clanged off the right post with eight seconds left.

"We had a bit of luck of on our side," Modano said.

The Stars knocked the loose puck to the other end of the ice, triggering a postgame celebration that was filled with as much relief as joy.

This was the third straight year the Avalanche has been eliminated in a seventh game.

"We played good enough in this series to win," Colorado forward Dave Andreychuk said. "We didn't get the bounces, especially in this game. It's hard to explain the way the bounces go."

The Stars blew a chance to end the series in Game 6, although they knew the 2-1 loss was one of their best performances of the postseason. They seemed to pick up where they left off by scoring on their first two power-play chances.

Zubov got Dallas going 6:36 into the game by beating Roy on a one-timer from the center point just inside the blue line. As the 100th straight sellout at Reunion Arena roared, Roy sat up on his knees and stared ahead in disbelief, then dropped his back to the ice in agony.

Colorado's second penalty was even more devastating, partly because it was silly but mainly because it gave Dallas a great scoring chance with just 16 seconds left in the period.

The culprit was Andreychuk, whom many Stars fans wanted suspended for a concussion-inducing hit on Richard Matvichuk in Game 6. His late hit to the head of Darryl Sydor was whistled for roughing.

Fittingly, it was Matvichuk who started the ensuing goal. He fed Modano in front of the net and his shot ticked off Roy's glove and sailed just inside the left post.

Modano raised his arms and head to the roof and was met in the corner by all four teammates. The four Avalanche skaters stiffly drifted up the ice several feet apart, while Roy stood motionless in the goal. The hometown horn operator pushed the button so long it seemed to be jammed.

Five minutes into the second period, Lyashenko scored a weird one. Derian Hatcher drilled a shot from the right point that hit teammate Mike Keane's backside and bounced in off Lyashenko's foot.

"The first half of the game, I thought our passion was unbelievable," Stars coach Ken Hitchcock. "Then we got a little sloppy and gave them that first goal. That gave them some momentum and they built on that."

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