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  •   Alexander: Hasek Holds Key to Finals

    Stanley Cup Finals Logo Rachel Alexander, The Post's NHL and Capitals beat writer for the last three seasons, was on Sports Online to provide insight into the Stanley Cup finals between the Buffalo Sabres and Dallas Stars. Dallas has a 2-1 lead in the series going into Game 4.

    Philadelphia, Pa.: With so much emphasis on the goaltending matchup heading into the Stanley Cup finals, who is winning the battle of the goalies so far?

    Rachel Alexander: Greetings...Yes, goaltending was certainly the focus when this series started, and it could still become a big factor as the week wears on, but over the first three games the skaters have stolen more of the storylines. Belfour has certainly played well, but the real reason the Sabres only scored one goal in Game 3 is because the Stars blocked 19 of their shots, letting only 12 get through. Dallas has been suffocating in its own zone and forechecking very well when the Sabres have the puck in theirs.

    Hasek has also played well, especially in Game 1, although he has yet to outright steal a game in that fist-thumping way only he can. If he's going to do it, tonight would be a good night.

    Washington, D.C.: Can Buffalo win without a guy like Miroslav Satan producing? The guy had 40 goals in the regular season and doesn't even have a handful of shots on goal in the finals. What gives?

    Rachel Alexander: Miroslav Satan has put an enormous amount of pressure on himself to score tonight...and we know what that usually leads to. So far, he has been troubled by the Stars' oppressive checking, bumping and shoving at every opportunity. He is used to seeing a lot more open ice.

    Coach Lindy Ruff said he is thinking of moving former Cap Joe Juneau to Satan's line tonight, hoping Juneau can provide that line with a little playmaking and experience. The true difference is going to have to come from Satan himself, however. When the pressure is really on, some guys thrive, others crumble. We'll see how he does tonight.

    Springfield, VA: Hi Rachel,
    Give Dallas credit for hard work and executing their system - clogging the neutral zone and blocking shots - but its boring. Is there anything the NHL can do to open up the game so that the teams with speed and skill can win. Even Detroit used a trap -left wing lock-. I'm afraid with expansion it will get worse. Any thoughts?

    Rachel Alexander: There are two questions about this -- one from you, and one from Ottawa -- so I will try to get them both at once. Unfortunately, there are two kinds of 2-1 hockey games. Some are spellbinding, with excellent playmaking and scoring chances matched by acrobatic saves. Others are just grind-it-out hockey. This series has seen a bit of both, although the grind-it-out version has certainly been winning lately.

    And yes, it will get worse with expansion, which you may know from earlier chats I see as big mistake. The talent pool gets watered-down, so does the level of play.

    Luckily, we saw a lot of the other version throughout the playoffs. The Eastern Conference finals sometimes looked like a freeway,there were so many rushes from end-to-end (not great hockey at times, but certainly exciting), and the Western Conference finals displayed some of the most hard-fought hockey in years. That may have to be enough for this year.

    Alexandria, VA: There are too many ties in hockey. Should the NHL add another 5 minutes in OT? Have shootouts?

    Rachel Alexander: The NHL agrees with you and is looking at making overtime a 4-on-4 contest instead of 5-on-5. The AHL tried this for them at the end of last season, and they found scoring jumped a bit.

    Some players like this because it opens the ice and makes the game more exciting, others think it's too drastic a measure that digs at the integrity of the game. Other ideas are to extend overtime or to have a shootout. The first may be too grueling for players on a regular basis, however, and the second has drawn the most opposition of all, with players horrified that a 60-minute game could be decided on a shootout.

    Bristow, VA: What can the Stars do to counter Sabre's goalie Hasek's habit of dropping his stick on the ice at strategic times and locations?

    Rachel Alexander: Hasek certainly drops his stick strategically, although sometimes it's just because he really feels he can make the play better with his hands (One of the Sabres pointed out the other day that Hasek couldn't have made the "slinky" save in the MasterCard commercial without dropping his stick.."and then we'd all be using Visa")

    Other times, he's doing it to get in the other team's way. That can be frustrating for Dallas, although it is a gamble on Hasek's part. If it works, he makes the save. If the Stars can get to the puck on a rebound anyway, he has no stick to defend his net. This is what the Stars have to try for.

    California Md.: Are there differences in the ice surfaces between Buffalo and Dallas? If so, how does this affect each teams game?

    Rachel Alexander: According to Dallas' Pat Verbeek, the ice in Dallas is "soft," while the ice in Buffalo is "gristly," so players "stick like Velcro" when they fall instead of sliding. Neither is a compliment -- ice is rarely good anywhere in June, and certainly not in cities where the temperature is in the high 80s (like in Buffalo) or 90s (like in Dallas).

    Bad ice makes it harder to skate and makes the puck bounce in weird ways. But it is the same for both teams, so there isn't really an advantage for either.

    Springfield, Va.: Stars netminder Ed Belfour is criticized as being a goalie who can't win the finals. Is this Dallas team so good that any goalie could be in the pipes and they would still win?

    Rachel Alexander: No -- I don't think you can win the Stanley Cup with a bad or even average goalie; the other team will find a way to expose him. Does he have to be great, though? No, I don't think so. Look at Detroit last year; I wouldn't rank Chris Osgood up there as one of the greats.

    As for Belfour, he *is* one of the top netminders in the league. He has been tagged as not being able to win the big one because he has had trouble keeping his composure, and that's what Colorado was trying to exploit during the Western Conference finals. But Belfour stood up to the pressure then, and so far he appears okay in this series.

    Fort Washington, Pa.: Last year the Stars had to go through the playoffs without Joe Nieuwendyk and they didn't fare too well. Can the Stars win without Brett Hull this year? How key a component is he in their game plan?

    Rachel Alexander: Hull is a different kind of threat than Nieuwendyk...he's more of a sniper. That means he won't be as glaring an absence, although the Stars certainly will miss him. The goal he scored to win Game 2 was vintage Hull, and against Dominik Hasek, a sniper is often needed.

    So far, the Stars have been good at filling in the holes injured players leave; that's one of the strengths of their system. Dallas could also get some help if Benoit Hougue can come back. He was supposed to miss the rest of the season with a knee injury, but he delayed surgery and has skated the last three days. He may be able to come back tonight or in Game 5.

    Alexandria, VA: Who will take Wayne G.'s place in the NHL as the ambassador of the sport?

    Rachel Alexander: Jaromir Jagr was certainly the dominant player on the ice this year, and he showed a lot of character off of it as well during the Penguins' two playoff series. But is an ambassador the way Wayne was? I don't think so.

    In fact, I don't see anyone out there right now that has both Gretzky's talent and off-ice leadership/charisma/connection to the fans. I do think that person will come along again, but in the meantime guys like Jagr, Kariya, Forsberg and Lindros are going to have to do that kind of thing together. It won't be as good for hockey, but it is probably the best the sport can do right now.

    Washington DC: If the Stars end up winning the Finals do you think people will call it a fluke? They are a great team but I think player for player they are far outmatched by Colorado and Detroit in terms of talent.

    Rachel Alexander: No, I don't think Dallas winning would be considered a fluke. They have won the President's Trophy for the last two years and, as you pointed out, beat a really talented team (who beat a really talented team) to get here.

    They have a lot of talent themselves, but more importantly, they play well together with a good goalie and under a strong coach.

    Blacksburg, Va.: How do you think that the two-referee games have gone? Now that there are four officials on the ice do you think this will slow the game even more and lower the league scoring averages?

    Rachel Alexander: I like the two-ref system because I think in the end it cleans up the game. If both refs are whistle-happy, the game can get slow, and that's annoying. But the goal here is that two refs will make players less likely to commit penalties in the first place, knowing there will be another set of eyes on them. We've already seen that start to happen, and it should get better next year.

    Chevy Chase, MD: How do you think all the financial problems will effect the rest of the league? Commissioner Bettemen has really pushed hockey and it is at an all time high in terms of popularity, do you think this will hurt the popularity of the sport? What is the chances that the Penguins will be moved? I have also heard that they might divide the team in a "draft?" Is there any truth to these rumors?

    Rachel Alexander: A lot of teams are losing money right now because salaries have spiraled way past teams' incomes. The NHL has a nice new television contract from ESPN, but it's nowhere near the size of basketball's or football's, and teams can't keep raising ticket prices for funds (although they do seem to keep trying).

    Of course, this is no one's fault but the teams' -- they are the ones agreeing to pay some of these guys $10 million a year. No one sees much of a solution until the next Collective Bargaining Agreement is negotiated (there has been talk of a salary cap), only that won't be for another five years. When that does happen, though, you may want to find something else to do that winter besides watch hockey. Both sides are gearing up for a long, long lockout, and unlike the NBA, both sides are going to be financially prepared to sit each other out.

    D.C.: Any word on how Dale hunter is dealing with Colorado's loss in the playoffs? Any chance he'll take the ice again next year, or is he resigned himself to not getting his name on the Cup?

    Rachel Alexander: Dale's been taking some time away from hockey since Colorado lost, but I do know he's very, very disappointed he didn't at least get back to the finals. Colorado was so close to winning, and the team was so talented.

    Still, he was happy just to get a chance to try again this year, even if it had to be without the Capitals. He has said over and over again how thankful he is that he got that chance. He hasn't announced a decision about next year, although he certainly sounded at times this spring as if he this year would be his last.

    Luckily, Dale's son, Dylan, has shown himself to be an excellent hockey player at 13, winning the famed Quebec Pee Wee championship earler this season. So we may still have some Hunter NHL ice time to look forward to -- we may just have to wait a few years.

    Ft. Lauderdale, Florida: At this point in the finals, who deserves the MVP?

    Rachel Alexander: If Joe Nieuwendyk keeps up his play, he should grab the Conn Smythe, although it's still pretty early to make that call. A lot will depend on tonight's game. If Hasek becomes super-goalie again (instead of just being very, very good), he's always a threat for a trophy, especially if the series goes long.

    Washington D.C.: The NHL seems to be getting lax, I was watching the finals the other night and watched Hasek get run over several times. There was a penalty called and I know he was roaming out of the crease but I always thought there was an unwritten rule about goalies. Do you think this will be a problem next season?

    Rachel Alexander: Before Game 3, there was a lot of talk about running goalies...Dallas said they would run Hasek if Buffalo went after Mike Modano's wrist. If anyone actually did try to run a goalie to hurt him, though, you'd see a lot more than we have so far -- Dallas would sacrifice a player to an NHL suspension and send him after Hasek. That hasn't happened.

    On the other hand, there is no question both teams are being physical in this series, including toward the goaltenders. The goal is to push and hack a goalie enough that he starts to fear his shadow, that he thinks if he turns around an opponent will be there to whack him. This throws him off his game.

    Hasek has certainly fallen victim to this in the past -- during the Eastern Conference finals last year, Hasek left his crease to make a play at the boards, and Peter Bondra came along and checked him. Hasek was so flustered he threw his blocker at Bondra's head, which earned Washington a power play.

    Queens, New York: Who will win the Cup and how are they going to do it?

    Rachel Alexander: Ah...if only I knew that for sure, I'd be on a flight to Las Vegas right now instead of talking to you! Obviously, Dallas has the upper hand right now...if they win tonight, an already fragile Buffalo team will likely fall completely apart. The X-factor remains Hasek, however. Anyone who watched him in Nagano last year knows that he could come out tonight and put on a clinic. Anyone who watched him in the playoffs two years ago knows he could come out tonight and completely disappear.

    We'll know which one takes the net in just a few hours...Hope everyone out there enjoys the rest of the series!

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