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  •   Stars' Nieuwendyk on Playoff Mission

    Stanley Cup Finals Logo By Rachel Alexander
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Monday, June 14, 1999; Page D1

    BUFFALO, June 13 – At this time last year, Joe Nieuwendyk was hot. It was more than 100 degrees in Dallas, and Nieuwendyk was starting to rehabilitate his knees after reconstructive surgery. As a variation to the usual weight lifting, Dallas Stars strength coach J.J. McQueen had hooked Nieuwendyk up to a harness with bungee cords dangling behind him. Then he told the 32-year-old center to run around the parking lot outside the team's training facility.

    With McQueen attached to the other end of the bungee cords.

    Pulling in the other direction.

    "It was painful for me to watch," Dallas Coach Ken Hitchcock said. "Joe was willing to do the work and J.J. pushed the hell out of him. It was six in the morning, seven in the morning, and it didn't matter.

    "I think it made [Nieuwendyk] a lot more mentally tough. The rest of the players would go do their thing for 90 minutes, and there would be Joe, just going up and down and up and down."

    Nieuwendyk's schedule is a bit different this year, with the Stars leading the Buffalo Sabres, two games to one, in the Stanley Cup finals. After scoring both goals in Dallas' 2-1 victory in Game 3 on Saturday, Nieuwendyk took today off with the rest of his teammates, relaxing near their hotel in a Buffalo suburb. Some, like winger Brett Hull (groin) and center Mike Modano (wrist), used the opportunity to rest injuries, although Hitchcock said Hull was "doubtful" for Game 4 on Tuesday and may also miss Game 5. Modano will play, although his range of motion is still somewhat limited.

    That leaves most of the scoring burden on Nieuwendyk, who appears quite comfortable in the role. Nieuwendyk leads the league with 11 goals this postseason, and his 10 assists give him 21 points in 20 games. His six game-winning goals have tied him with Colorado's Joe Sakic for an NHL playoff record.

    More threatening, Nieuwendyk just looks good, skating with authority and playing with confidence. More than one of his teammates have described him as a "man on a mission," desperate to make up for a near absence from the 1998 postseason. Nieuwendyk had started those playoffs sharp, scoring Dallas' first goal two minutes into its first playoff game. But about 13 minutes later a vicious check from behind by San Jose's Bryan Marchment ripped the anterior cruciate ligament in Nieuwendyk's right knee.

    He missed the rest of the playoffs, suffering as he sat behind the glass and watched Dallas fall to Detroit in the Western Conference finals.

    "Right now, he's just trying to make up for last year," right wing Pat Verbeek said. "He was depressed, literally depressed to not be able to help in the playoffs. Everything he enjoyed was just ripped out of him. It's hard to put into words, but emotionally an experience like that just leaves you ruined."

    Nieuwendyk's injury required surgery, and since he had been skating on a detached ACL in his left knee for seven years, he decided to have both knees done at the same time. The grueling physical workouts with McQueen followed, as did all the mental games of "what if" that surrounded last year's playoff run.

    Nieuwendyk certainly had a lot of missed opportunity to think about. When he was 22 years old, he turned in a 51-goal season, won the Stanley Cup with the Calgary Flames and had the world at his feet. He was tagged as one of the next great players and turned in two more seasons with 40-plus goals.

    But he injured his left knee in a Canada Cup training camp in 1991, and he was never the same player. Over the next eight years, the closest one of his teams came to the Stanley Cup was last season, when he was too injured to help.

    "Obviously it was difficult leaving the playoffs the way I did, and very frustrating knowing how hard my teammates were pushing against Detroit," he said. "When you are 22 years old and you have the type of success our team had, you think it is maybe going to happen year after year, or at least be competitive in that way.

    "It just makes you appreciate it all the more when you do get back again. [Calgary] was such a long time ago, and it happened so fast. I am really trying to absorb much more on this run."

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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