There were times during the regular season when Dallas Stars Coach Ken Hitchcock grew frustrated with the play of veteran Mike Keane. The right wing did not seem to be playing up to his ability and at times it seemed as if he might be taking it easy in certain situations.
But Hitchcock knew Keane's value as one of eight Stars to have played on a Stanley Cup championship team. It was the postseason when Keane and 30-something teammates Guy Carbonneau, Joe Nieuwendyk, Brian Skrudland and Pat Verbeek excelled. And in a season that, at best, will be considered a disappointment if the Stars do not beat the Buffalo Sabres and win it all, those players have delivered again.
On Friday night, Keane scored two goals and goaltender Ed Belfour made 18 saves to lead Dallas to a 4-1 victory over the Colorado Avalanche in Game 7 of the Western Conference finals. After scoring just six goals in 81 games during the regular season, Keane has five in 17 playoff games.
"He is such an emotional player. He just lives for this time of year," Hitchcock said. "I think his experience of having gone through this, especially with Colorado [in 1996], he knows the challenges and how hard it was. He paced himself in the regular season. I know there were times we were frustrated with him. But he's smarter than any coach, I guess."
Dallas will host the Sabres in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup finals Tuesday; neither team has won a Stanley Cup.
On Keane's first goal Friday, he was simply in the right place at the right time when a loose puck caromed to him in the slot and he quickly one-timed it into the lower left corner of the goal. Later, on a 2-on-1 break with Verbeek, Keane eluded Colorado defenseman Adam Foote, cut toward the goal and put a splendid fake on goalie Patrick Roy, tucking the puck into the empty net.
"Everybody realizes this is a big year for the Dallas Stars," said Keane, 32, who won the Stanley Cup with the Montreal Canadiens in 1993 and the Avalanche in 1996. "We've got some free agents and we're getting old."
Said Nieuwendyk, who was with the Calgary Flames when they won the Stanley Cup in 1989: "This is a real unique group of guys. I really think that everybody realizes we have some older people. You don't get too many opportunities, and we have a golden opportunity."
In addition to the veterans, the Stars have gotten a huge contribution from 23-year-old forward Jamie Langenbrunner, who scored five goals in the conference finals. He is tied with Nieuwendyk and Detroit's Steve Yzerman for the league lead with nine postseason goals.
And Langenbrunner's goals have been timely. On Friday, he scored the game's first goal, converting what appeared to be an innocent pass from Nieuwendyk into a quick shot past Roy's left skate. He scored twice in Game 6, including the game-winner.
"You get players in situations like that who just rise above everybody else [and] I think Jamie is finding himself doing that," said Carbonneau, who helped Montreal win Stanley Cups in 1986 and 1993. "He has been scoring big goals for us this series. All I hope is that he keeps going."
Dallas also has gotten contributions from unexpected places, such as when Dave Reid scored in Games 2 and 3 of the Colorado series. The mix of players helped the Stars win their second consecutive President's Trophy for having the league's best regular season record. And they appear ready to bring the Stanley Cup to Texas for the first time.
"There are a lot of talented teams in the NHL and there are probably some teams with higher skill level than we have," Hitchcock said. "But not since I have been coaching have I ever seen a group pull the way this one does. It takes unbelievable pride in not cracking."
Said Belfour: "We've got a lot of great leaders in this room, with Guy Carbonneau at the front. Night after night, he's there giving 100 percent. Brian Skrudland same thing. Mike Keane, Dave Reid, all those guys. They are so experienced and keep all of us on track and confident."
1999 NHL Playoffs
Stanley Cup Finals
Best of seven
Buffalo vs. Dallas
Game 1: Buffalo at Dallas, Tuesday, 8
Game 2: Buffalo at Dallas, Thursday, 8
Game 3: Dallas at Buffalo, Saturday, 8
Game 4: Dallas at Buffalo, June 15, 8
Game 5: Buffalo at Dallas, June 17, 8*
Game 6: Dallas at Buffalo, June 19, 8*
Game 7: Buffalo at Dallas, June 22, 8*