Dallas center Mike Modano's injured wrist grabbed most of the attention going into Game 3 of the Stanley Cup finals, but when the puck finally dropped in front of a frenzied sellout crowd at Marine Midland Arena tonight it was teammate Joe Nieuwendyk's hands that made the difference in the Stars' 2-1 victory over the Buffalo Sabres.
Nieuwendyk scored both Dallas goals, including the game-winner midway through the third period, and the Stars took a 2-1 lead in the best-of-seven series. For Buffalo to remain competitive when the series resumes here with Game 4 on Tuesday, the Sabres will have to better tonight's 12-shot performance, a franchise playoff low achieved despite eight power plays.
"They gave us a darn good lesson there," Buffalo Coach Lindy Ruff said. "They suffocated us. We didn't skate well, but a lot of that has to do with how well they played defensively."
The sellout crowd, awash in stop-sign red from a T-shirt giveaway, let out a collective groan when the final horn blew, a resounding letdown after a day in which the entire city seemed engaged in frenetic buildup. Cars with cardboard signs in the windows reading "need tickets" were driving on the highways under massive electronic signs reading "Buckle up, Drive safely, Go Sabres." Many of those who couldn't gain entry into Marine Midland instead walked the mile over to Dunn Tire Park, the baseball field where the minor league Buffalo Bison play, to watch the game on the video screen and let out the frustration they had built up over the 24 years since this city last hosted a Stanley Cup finals.
Inside the arena, most of the crowd was standing from the moment Buffalo winger Miroslav Satan's fiance sung the Canadian and U.S. national anthems, only taking time out from their delirium to boo the announcement of Modano in the starting lineup.
There had been reports of Modano missing the rest of the series after a hard check into the boards injured his left wrist in Game 2. But Modano, who skated with a light cast and a heavy dose of painkillers, was there when the puck dropped. Teammate Brett Hull was not so fortunate; he missed the last two periods of the game with what the Stars were reporting as a strained groin.
Stars Coach Ken Hitchcock said he wasn't sure how severe Hull's injury was, although he said that "if we had to play tomorrow, he wouldn't be a player." Hull has been bothered by groin strains twice before this season.
"I'm pretty limited in what I can do," Modano said. "But at this time of year, you learn to live with it. This is the time of year to sacrifice your body."
Modano's injury is either a fracture or a ligament strain, depending on which team is doing the whispering. Either way, it was the cause of some heated words going into this game, and play was physical from the opening shift. Dallas bore the brunt of most of the confrontations with early penalties, but the Sabres couldn't score in the first period, despite four power plays. Two of the Stars' penalties overlapped to give Buffalo 1 minute 16 seconds of a 5-on-3 advantage before the first intermission, but the Sabres couldn't even record a shot.
Buffalo finally broke through at 7:51 of the second period, taking a 1-0 lead after defenseman Richard Smehlik fed Stu Barnes a pass across the slot. With goaltender Ed Belfour and many of the stars committed to defending Smehlik, Barnes had no trouble hurling the puck into the half-empty net.
Dallas responded just eight minutes later with Nieuwendyk's first goal, but it was his second which sent the Stars' bench into a wave of excitement. With 10:25 remaining in regulation, Jamie Langenbrunner fed Nieuwendyk a pass from behind the net. With no Sabres blocking his path to goaltender Dominik Hasek, Nieuwendyk stickhandled the puck for a moment before flinging a high wrist shot into the net for the game-winner.
"I think our lines are battling hard," Nieuwendyk said. "They are playing real well. It is just -- it's a war out there. Sometimes you get opportunities, and tonight the puck seemed to be bouncing our way."
CAPTION: Sergei Zubov, left, Joe Nieuwendyk and Jamie Langenbrunner celebrate Nieuwendyk's second-period goal against Sabres' Dominik Hasek (39).
CAPTION: Sabres goaltender Dominik Hasek drops to his knees to thwart shot by Stars' Pat Verbeek. Verbeek's teammate Mike Modano played despite wrist injury.