The Dallas Stars, one victory away from capturing the first Stanley Cup championship in franchise history, arrived here today cautiously confident that they could finish off the Buffalo Sabres in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup finals Saturday night. Dallas leads the best-of-seven series, 3-2; Game 7, if necessary, would be Tuesday in Dallas.
Stars captain Derian Hatcher acknowledged that Dallas doesn't want the series to go seven games, but said, "We know we're going to see a hungry and desperate Buffalo team."
That would be nothing different from the first five games of the series, which has featured plenty of physical play. There have been clean checks, cheap shots and near-brawls. Dallas's 2-0 victory in Game 5 Thursday night ended with Buffalo Coach Lindy Ruff scaling the Plexiglas between the teams' benches to engage in a shouting match with Dallas Coach Ken Hitchcock.
"They're probably the dirtiest team we've ever faced," Buffalo captain Michael Peca said today. "Part of their experience is they know how to hide the two-handed slash."
Said Ruff: "On offense they go with their soft sticks and on the defense they swing by the bench and pick up their hatchets."
Countered Hitchcock: "We can show video of cheap shots just as much as they can."
The Stars have been winning many of the battles, particularly with defensive play that Ruff called "suffocating" after a 2-1 loss in Game 3 in which the Sabres managed just 12 shots on goal.
Things will be even tougher for Buffalo on Saturday. Defenseman Rhett Warrener broke his right ankle while scuffling with Hatcher after the final buzzer of Game 5 and underwent surgery today. Darryl Shannon, who has not played since the Sabres' first playoff game against Ottawa on April 21, will take Warrener's place.
Hitchcock said he believes Warrener was sent on to the ice during a stop in play with six seconds remaining to go after the 6-foot-5, 225-pound Hatcher. Ruff denied that claim.
"The thinking was, let's get somebody out there in case something happened, but let's be realistic," Ruff said. "If we're going to go after somebody, are we going to go after Derian Hatcher? Come on. We'll go after [Guy] Carbonneau, we'll go after [Joe] Nieuwendyk, we'll go after [Mike] Modano. We'll go after somebody we can do some damage to."
Carbonneau said the Stars' play has been aggressive, not dirty. "I don't think we have tried to hurt players during the course of the game," said Carbonneau, who helped the Montreal Canadiens win Stanley Cups in 1986 and 1993. "But we will do anything to try to win the game. If they don't like that, well you know, that is too bad."
The one thing the Sabres, who lost to Philadelphia in six games in 1975 in their only other finals appearance, must do to avoid elimination is improve offensively. While Dallas goaltender Ed Belfour has received much of the credit for the Stars' postseason success, he has not been called upon to make many big saves.
The Stars have played tight defense all over the ice, limiting the Sabres' scoring opportunities. Only on rare occasions has Buffalo been able to mount consistent pressure in the offensive zone. The Sabres have scored just eight goals in the finals and are on track to set a finals record for fewest goals in a series that went at least six games. Toronto scored 11 goals in losing the 1940 finals to the New York Rangers, 4-2.
Dallas has done a particularly good job shutting down Buffalo's top scorers. Miroslav Satan, who had 40 goals during the regular season, is scoreless in the series, as are Joe Juneau and Curtis Brown, who had seven goals in the first three rounds of the playoffs. Only one Buffalo player, Stu Barnes, has scored more than one goal and the Sabres' leading scorer in the series is defenseman Richard Smehlik with three assists.
The Sabres have scored just three goals at even strength, two of which came off Dallas turnovers in Game 5. Other than that, Buffalo has mustered little offense except when it has taken more chances when trailing late in games. "We have a couple of guys that have got to come through for us, you know, that's the bottom line," Ruff said. "We've had some opportunities and we haven't finished. . . . It is going to take those players to create those chances and finish for us to give us the opportunity to win."
CAPTION: Sabres goalie Dominik Hasek is pulled to ice by referee Dan Marouelli and Stars captain Derian Hatcher is subdued by linesman during Game 4 melee.