Ask the Dallas Stars today about facing the Buffalo Sabres Tuesday in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup finals at Reunion Arena, and they will answer diplomatically. Dallas center Mike Modano, however, was not as sensitive to the Sabres' feelings last week.
"I think everybody is anticipating a little bit of a letdown going into the finals," Modano said Friday. "Once you saw teams like Philly, New Jersey and Ottawa go down, it was kind of disappointing. To be the best, you want to go through the best."
Modano, whose team was the top seed in the Western Conference, was referring to three of the higher-seeded teams in the Eastern Conference. The seventh-seeded Sabres beat Ottawa, Boston and Toronto to get to the finals.
"Nobody has handed us anything; nobody gave us a free ride," said Buffalo right wing Dixon Ward, who has six goals and five assists in the playoffs. "We beat three very good hockey teams to get here . . . so whatever people's perceptions are of the way things have gone, that is up to them. For us, this is an exciting thing that we have worked toward the entire year; and for most of us, we worked our entire lives to get a chance at this."
As Ward's comments might suggest, the Sabres arrived here this morning with plenty of bravado. During an afternoon news conference, Coach Lindy Ruff and center Michael Peca accused the Stars of cheating to win faceoffs by not being in a proper position, then Peca mentioned the possibility of rattling Dallas goaltender Ed Belfour.
Buffalo has reason to be confident going into the best-of-seven series. The Sabres have the best postseason record (12-3) and the game's best goaltender. They have had eight days to rest while the Stars didn't eliminate Colorado until Friday's Game 7 in the Western Conference finals.
Buffalo's only previous appearance in the finals was in 1975, when the Sabres lost to the Philadelphia Flyers in six games. The Stars are making their first appearance in the finals since 1991, when they were the Minnesota North Stars and lost to the Pittsburgh Penguins in six games. The only players remaining from that team are Modano and defenseman Shawn Chambers, who was traded to the Washington Capitals and played with Tampa Bay and New Jersey before returning to Dallas.
Modano has since backed off his Friday comments and said they were taken out of context.
"Grade me the way I play, not the way I talk," Modano said.
Regardless, his line with Brett Hull and Jere Lehtinen will draw plenty of scrutiny from the Sabres, who might counter with their checking line led by Peca, the team captain.
But the players who will be most-watched are goaltenders Dominik Hasek of Buffalo and Belfour, former teammates with the Chicago Blackhawks when they lost in the finals to the Penguins in 1992. Their relationship was somewhat combative back then, with the temperamental Hasek trying to earn playing time and the moody Belfour trying to keep his starting role. However, both players played down the significance of their time together.
"I don't even remember it, it was so long ago," Hasek said, noting that he and Belfour shake hands and say hello when they see each other at all-star games.
Eventually, Hasek was traded to the Sabres and he has shined in Buffalo. Hasek has won the Vezina Trophy, awarded to the NHL's top goalie, four of the past five seasons. He led the Czech Republic's stunning run to the gold medal at the Nagano Olympics last winter and has the unofficial title of "best goalie in the world." He has a .938 save percentage and a 1.82 goals-against average in the playoffs.
But the Stars say none of that matters. They point out that they scored on Colorado's Patrick Roy.
"All you can do is get your chances and shoot the puck," Hull said. "Nobody is that good where you are not going to score."
The key will be creating traffic in front of the net and getting second chances, they said.
"We didn't try to beat [Roy] with a perfect shot last series and we're certainly not going to try to beat Hasek with a perfect shot," Stars right wing Pat Verbeek said. "Our team is more focused on second and third shots. If we are intense and focused enough to get those, we can score goals."
Meanwhile, Belfour is only a tick behind Hasek with a 1.83 GAA. Previously, the knock on Belfour has been an inability to stand out in big games. In the 1992 finals, he had a 3.53 GAA and was yanked just seven minutes into one game, replaced by Hasek. Peca said the Sabres will try to rattle Belfour, who is known for being high-strung.
"You certainly look for any advantage you can get," Peca said. "In the past, whether it was previous to this year or even parts of this year, he has shown the tendency to get off his game a little bit. He is a very focused, competitive individual. Our team is not looking for anything dirty, it is just looking to get any sort of edge you can."
CAPTION: Dominik Hasek, who has .938 save percentage and 1.82 goals-against average in playoffs, gets some words of advice from Sabres Coach Lindy Rugg.
CAPTION: Miroslav Satan was leading scorer in regular season for Sabres, who are in first Cup finals since 1975.