When Brett Hull signed a three-year, $17.5 million contract last summer to play for the Dallas Stars, the move was questioned by some in hockey.

Could Hull, known for having one of the hardest shots in the game, play in Stars Coach Ken Hitchcock's defense-minded system? Or would Hull, whose 86 goals in the 1990-91 season are the second-most by a player in one season, struggle to fit in?

The results have been better than perhaps even Hull imagined. Playing on a line with standout center Mike Modano, who encountered similar problems when Hitchcock took over in 1996, Hull finished the regular season with 32 goals and 26 assists in 60 games; he also had a plus-minus rating of 19.

In the playoffs, Hull has five goals and seven assists entering tonight's Game 1 of the Stanley Cup finals against the Buffalo Sabres.

"I really took it upon myself as a challenge to be able to do this," Hull said. "I don't think 99 percent of people out there thought I could do it."

Hull is making his second appearance in the finals. As a rookie with the Calgary Flames in 1986, he played two scoreless games in the finals, which the Flames lost to the Montreal Canadiens in five games. While that was some time ago, Hull said he did not speak to his father, Hall of Famer Bobby Hull, for some advice prior to this series.

"That was a long time ago," Brett Hull said. "I don't know if he can remember back then."

Best of the Best?

After Hull called teammate Jere Lehtinen the best all-around player in the league, Buffalo's Dixon Ward felt the need to speak up for captain Michael Peca. Peca, 25, had 27 goals and 29 assists in the regular season and usually was matched against the opposition's top offensive line. The finals likely will be no different; Peca is expected to be matched against the Stars' top line of Hull, Modano and Lehtinen.

"I don't think there is a question who is the best all-around player in hockey right now. It's Michael Peca," Ward said. "Lehtinen gets to play with Hull and Modano, and Peca has to play with me. So you figure it out. That's about all I have to say about that."

Peca said he is looking forward to going against Modano, whom he considers the most difficult opponent to check.

"With Modano, you just want to make sure you are as physical as possible," Peca said. "I don't think he enjoys it very much. He'll give it back every once in a while, but their line in general isn't very physical."

Top Goalies Square Off

This is only the second time that two goaltenders who have won the Vezina Trophy, awarded to the league's best at that position, have faced each other in the Stanley Cup finals; Belfour has won twice, Hasek four times. The only other time that happened was in 1946, when Montreal's Bill Durnan opposed Boston's Frank Brimsek. . . .

Buffalo center Wayne Primeau, who missed the final two games of the Eastern Conference finals against Toronto because of a bruised knee, was cleared to play and was in uniform tonight. Sabres tough guy Rob Ray was a healthy scratch.