Brett Hull, signed by the Dallas Stars last summer to boost their offense, scored on a slap shot from just inside the top of the right faceoff circle with less than three minutes remaining, lifting the host Stars to a 4-2 victory tonight over the Buffalo Sabres in Game 2 of the Stanley Cup finals, evening the best-of-seven series at one game apiece.
On the winning play, seldom-used Tony Hrkac, skating in Mike Modano's absence after Modano suffered what Coach Ken Hitchcock said is a wrist injury, passed to Hull cutting in from the right point. Hull's slap shot beat goalie Dominik Hasek to the short side, bouncing off the inside of the post and into the goal to break a 2-2 tie with 2 minutes 50 seconds remaining.
"He recognized with Modano out, he had to step ahead," Hitchcock said of Hull's seventh goal of the playoffs and second of the series.
"We're back in the series," Hitchcock added. "It's a [great] series. Every game is going to be like this and is going to be this strong."
Buffalo right wing Dixon Ward called Hull's goal amazing. After spending the past 10 seasons with the St. Louis Blues, Hull signed a three-year, $17.5 million contract with the Stars last summer.
"Not too many guys in the game of hockey can make that shot from where he was," Ward said. "Give Brett Hull one opportunity and it is usually in the net. Kudos to him."
Said Dallas defenseman Craig Ludwig, whose first playoff goal since 1988, a span of 102 games, had given the Stars a 2-1 lead early in the third period: "It's something special to watch. The guy shoots the puck so well. . . . Any time you get a guy like Brett from that range, he can beat a world-class goaltender like he did."
The series, which has grown increasingly physical and confrontational, goes to Buffalo for two games, with Game 3 Saturday night at Marine Midland Arena. The Sabres are 7-0 at home in the playoffs.
"We're in good shape going home," Ward said. "We feel good about the way we were playing the last two games. We'll go home feeling better."
Still, a 2-0 series lead was within the Sabres' reach. They led 1-0 for much of the second period on Michael Peca's power-play goal and after falling behind 2-1 early in the third period following goals by Jamie Langenbrunner and Ludwig, tied the game at 2 on a power play goal by Alexei Zhitnik.
And after killing off two penalties, including a 43-second 5-on-3 advantage for the Stars, Buffalo appeared in good shape. Modano, arguably the Stars' best player, had injured his wrist when he was checked into the boards by Jay McKee with 9:28 left. He was wincing in pain as he returned to the dressing room. The severity of his injury is unclear.
Even after Hull's goal, the Sabres had a great chance to score when Stars defenseman Derian Hatcher was called for high-sticking with 2:29 left.
But the Sabres, who were successful on two of their first three power-play opportunities of the game, were unable to convert, even while Hasek was pulled for a sixth skater in the final minute.
Hatcher scored into an empty net with 25.8 seconds remaining for the final margin as the Sabres lost for just the second time in 12 playoff games when scoring first.
"Obviously the teams are very close," Buffalo Coach Lindy Ruff said. "[But] we are disappointed, we thought we had an opportunity, and an opportunity got away from us."
Perhaps sensing the desperation of facing a 2-0 deficit if they lost, the Stars were noticeably more physical tonight than they were in Game 1. They made a consistent effort to play the body and also knock Hasek whenever possible. In the first period alone, Dallas's Brian Skrudland was penalized for charging into Hasek; Joe Nieuwendyk crashed the goal, was checked into the goalie and knocked off his blocker; and Langenbrunner and Hasek got into a shouting match, their faces inches apart, as the scoreless period ended.
Things calmed down somewhat in the second period, with the teams trading goals and setting up the emotional third period.
Ludwig gave the Stars a 2-1 lead with 15:35 left. It was one of the shakier goals allowed by Hasek, a soft flip from the outer edge of the top of the right circle that squirted through Hasek's pads.
However, the lead lasted just 71 seconds. After Dallas defenseman Daryl Sydor was penalized for high sticking, Buffalo scored its second power-play goal of the game. Zhitnik made a nice check to keep Dallas from clearing the zone and Curtis Brown skated with the loose puck to the slot. His shot was stopped by Stars goalie Ed Belfour, but Richard Matvichuk cleared the puck directly to Zhitnik. His shot from the right circle went over Belfour's glove and into the far side of the net to make it 2-2 with 14:24 left.
CAPTION: Dallas's Derian Hatcher, left, knocks Game 1 star Jason Woolley to the ice during Game 2 victory over the Sabres.