The Dallas Stars, the same Dallas Stars who came to McNichols Arena on life support tonight, are headed home right on schedule. The surprise is that the Colorado Avalanche is going with them.
In the latest, stomach-churning twist in this roller coaster ride that is the NHL's Western Conference finals, the Stars emerged with a 4-1 victory in Game 6, extending the series one more game and three more days.
The seventh game is Friday in Dallas, a fact that if you consider the way this series has gone so far, means virtually nothing. The Avalanche already has won two of three games at Reunion Arena, with the Stars returning the favor in Denver.
"There definitely hasn't been [a home advantage] so far," Stars left wing Jamie Langenbrunner said. "But we'll take this. It doesn't get any bigger than this."
On an evening when the Avalanche was prepared to celebrate its second trip to the Stanley Cup finals in four years, the Stars postponed the party with a series of standout performances.
Dallas right wing Jere Lehtinen came up with one of the most critical goals of the Stars' season less than two minutes into the second period, and Langenbrunner scored two goals in the third period.
"I think we just stuck with it," Langenbrunner said. "We kept coming at them and coming at them in the third period, just trying to keep it on their end as much as possible, and I think we wore them down a little bit."
But perhaps more than anything else, there was Ed Belfour, the veteran goaltender who stopped 27 shots, 19 in the first two periods when the Stars either trailed or were tied.
"He was good early, when we needed him," Stars Coach Ken Hitchcock said. "I thought Colorado generated a lot of offense on the power play. There was a lot of scrambling around the net area, and Eddie had to make some big saves."
If history repeats itself, he will make a few more on Friday. Belfour is 2-0 in seventh games of playoff series. Colorado goalie Patrick Roy, meanwhile, is 2-3.
The Stars outshot the Avalanche 40-27. More important, Dallas proved once again to be stingy in penalty-killing situations. The Avalanche failed to convert any of its three opportunities.
The Avalanche wasted two of those in the first period, but finally broke through with an even-strength goal at the 19-minute 25-second mark when Claude Lemieux's slap shot from the right circle got past Belfour. Adam Foote and Peter Forsberg assisted on Lemieux's third postseason goal this season and his 76th overall, good for eighth place on the NHL all-time list.
But just 1:55 into the second period, Lehtinen picked the puck out of a goalmouth scramble after a shot from the point by Sergei Zubov and, with an assist from Brett Hull, rammed it home, tying the game.
It stayed that way until the final period, when the Stars took advantage of their own penchant for penalty killing and a touch of Colorado ineptitude to pull in front.
First, the Stars' Richard Matvichuk was called for elbowing at 2:43. This time, Colorado was within inches of taking advantage, when Forsberg took a shot that was on line before caroming off Zubov. The Stars finished off the penalty, the 39th time in their past 42 short-handed situations in which the opponent failed to score.
Shortly thereafter, Avalanche defenseman Sandis Ozolinsh misplayed a puck in the Colorado crease. It ended up underneath Roy, and Langenbrunner was there to poke it between Roy's legs.
Later, with the Stars on the power play, Langenbrunner came through again, wristing in a shot at 17:15. The goal extended the lead to 3-1 and officially transformed the Stars from a team teetering on the brink of elimination to one firmly in control and going home for the seventh game.
Matvichuk scored again off a faceoff less than a minute later to cap the scoring. Guy Carbonneau assisted.
CAPTION: Colorado's Patrick Roy makes an early save but Dallas slipped three goals past him in the final period.