Dallas Stars center Mike Modano, playing despite a wrist injury suffered in the first game of the Stanley Cup finals, set up both of his team's goals in a 2-0 victory over the Buffalo Sabres in Game 5 tonight before 17,001 at Reunion Arena.
Modano's performance, along with Ed Belfour's 23 saves and third shutout of the playoffs, gave the Stars a 3-2 lead in the best-of-seven series and brought the Stars within one victory of the first NHL championship in franchise history.
Modano had received a phone call at home the night before from Coach Ken Hitchcock, who asked what kind of player Modano would be in perhaps the biggest game of his career. His performance tonight left no doubt about his response.
"He just plain and simple asked me what kind of player I was going to be tonight," said Modano, who has not scored a goal in the past 10 games but has a career-high 21 points in the playoffs.
"I told him I was going to be a player that is very involved in every aspect of the game," Modano said. "I felt I got away from that a little bit in Game 4 and really wanted to mentally be a little stronger. The hand has been coming around and everything has been starting to feel good."
The Stars, the best team in the regular season for two consecutive seasons, can finish off the Sabres by winning Game 6 on Saturday in Buffalo. Game 7, if necessary, would be here Tuesday.
The Stars were particularly strong on their penalty kill, holding Buffalo without a shot on its only two power plays in the first two periods. Meanwhile, the Stars took advantage of their first chance with the man advantage, early in the second period.
With Buffalo's Curtis Brown in the penalty box for cross-checking, the Stars scored their second power-play goal in as many games. Modano skated with the puck up the left side of the ice, then waited patiently in the offensive zone along the boards. He sent a cross-ice pass to Darryl Sydor cutting in from the left point.
Sydor controlled the puck and wristed a shot two feet off the ice toward the far side of the goal. Buffalo goalie Dominik Hasek (19 saves) tipped the puck with the top of his catching glove, but it went just inside the post and crossbar, giving Dallas a 1-0 lead at 2 minutes 23 seconds of the second period.
"The forwards got attracted to [Modano] and I found a lane on the outside," Sydor said. "Mike made a great pass and I just waited a little bit and tried to go upstairs."
Pat Verbeek, playing on the Stars' top line in place of Brett Hull, added his third goal of the playoffs with 4:39 remaining in the game to give Dallas some breathing room. Hull, returning from a groin injury that forced him to miss Game 3, played sparingly on the fourth line.
Modano tied up a defenseman and kicked the puck to teammate Richard Matvichuk to start a 2-on-1 break. Matvichuk passed across the ice to Verbeek in the slot. Verbeek put Hasek on the ice with a deke to the backhand and lifted the puck over Hasek's right pad to make it 2-0.
"I thought going into the game tonight that we had an X-factor, and Modano was our X-factor," Hitchcock said. "I think for us to win this series, Mike had to be a player of significance, whether he scored a point or not in the game. He made a big step in that direction today."
Both teams focus on defense and tonight was no different; both clubs combined to limit scoring chances. The Sabres, who finished the season with the seventh-best record in the Eastern Conference, put pressure on for a few minutes prior to Verbeek's goal, but the closest they came to scoring was when Curtis Brown's deflection of a shot from the point by James Patrick tipped the edge of Belfour's glove and scooted inches outside the right post.
"We played well defensively [and] Eddie made some big saves as well," Dallas defenseman Derian Hatcher said.
In addition to their defensive focus, both teams have tried to be as physical as possible in the series. Tonight, the tension started building before the game started. After the teams concluded their pregame skate, about 30 minutes before game time, two players from each team remained on the ice; for Buffalo, tough guy Rob Ray and backup goalie Dwayne Roloson and for Dallas, reserves Jon Sim and Brad Lukowich. Ray and Sim turned the goals at their respective ends of the ice so that their opponents could not shoot a puck into the goal.
As Roloson skated through the Dallas side of the ice toward the locker room, Sim shot a puck between the goalie's stick and his skates. As Sim skated away, Roloson hit Sim in the leg with a shot. Sim responded by zinging a hard shot that Roloson caught just before stepping off the ice.
Lukowich also left, leaving Ray and Sim about 20 feet apart along the boards. The two exchanged words, but nothing more materialized.
Though Ray, Lukowich and Sim were scratched and Roloson was Hasek's backup and did not play, the physical play continued once the game began. The teams nearly came to blows 20 seconds in when Buffalo's Miroslav Satan checked Matvichuk just after Matvichuk had touched the puck for an icing call.
Notes: Buffalo defenseman Rhett Warrener injured his right ankle when he and Hatcher got into a wrestling match after the final buzzer. A spokesman said Warrener's right ankle was placed in a cast for precautionary reasons.
CAPTION: The Stars' Darryl Sydor finds a hole in the armor of Sabres goalie Dominik Hasek, notching this second-period goal.