In one instant early this morning, Brett Hull scored the goal of his career, the Dallas Stars won their first Stanley Cup championship and the NHL was left to defend its rules while the Buffalo Sabres screamed foul.
Hull scored off a rebound at 14 minutes 51 seconds of the third overtime, with his left skate in the crease in apparent violation of league rules, to lift the Stars to a 2-1 victory over the Sabres in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup finals. The game, which began Saturday evening and ended around 1:30 a.m. this morning, was the second-longest in finals history.
The victory gave the Stars the best-of-seven series, 4-2. It was one of the most exciting finals this decade and Hull's goal undoubtedly will go down as one of the most controversial in recent memory.
While the victorious Stars paraded around the ice at Marine Midland Arena, the distinguished silver trophy held aloft, the Sabres argued that the league's video review system should have disallowed the goal. At the same time, the NHL and its supervisor of officiating, Bryan Lewis, attempted to quell the furor by saying the goal was legal.
"It was a hard playoff all the way through and this game in particular," said Dallas center Joe Nieuwendyk, who received the Conn Smythe Trophy awarded to the most valuable player in the playoffs. "We had nothing left. They had nothing left. Thank God it is over.
"There's no controversy here. The puck went in. The place went bananas. We got the trophy."
Lewis explained that after Buffalo goalie Dominik Hasek saved Mike Modano's shot, Hull gathered the rebound. His first shot was stopped by a sprawling Hasek and that rebound bounced back to Hull. At that point Hull kicked the puck with his left skate to his stick outside the crease, pivoting his left skate into the crease. Because Hull had possession of the puck before he entered the crease, Lewis said, the play was legal.
The Sabres did not agree.
"If they're going to beat us," Buffalo defenseman Jay McKee said, "at least beat us with a real goal."
Under normal circumstances, a video review judge in the press box would make certain the goal was legal. Lewis said that procedure was followed and that he, the review judge and a supervisor looked at the replay about six to eight times, from different camera angles, before deciding the goal should count. At that point, Lewis said, a call was made to the penalty box to tell the on-ice officials the game was over.
Normally, though, the public address announcer tells the crowd that the play is under review if the goal is in question. That announcement was not made after Hull's goal, leaving Sabres Coach Lindy Ruff irate and believing that the play had not been reviewed.
After seeing a replay of the goal following the game, Ruff stormed out of his team's locker room in search of NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman.
"I wanted Bettman to answer the question, why is that not reviewed?" Ruff said. "And really he just turned his back on me. He almost looked to me like he knew this might be a tainted goal and there was no answer for it.
"It's got to be the worst nightmare right there," added Ruff, who kept his team's locker room closed for several minutes beyond the 10-minute cooling-off period in an attempt to get an official explanation on the play. "They knew that they ran the risk of an overtime goal meaning a series Stanley Cup and pandemonium sets in and they can't go back to review it."
Lewis said the review process was completed quickly, so an announcement was not necessary.
Ironically, the league's Board of Governors will meet Monday in New York and is expected to amend the in-the-crease rule. Bettman has indicated he would like to see it changed to a no-harm, no-foul rule where reviews would not be applicable to determine if players are in the crease.
While the series will be remembered for the controversial ending, it was a tremendously emotional run for both teams. After four consecutive sweeps in the finals, the league had a dramatic series with several subplots.
Hull, 34, scored the game-winning goal late in Game 2, but missed most of Game 3 and all of Game 4 because of a groin injury, Stars Coach Ken Hitchcock had said. However, early this morning, Hitchcock disclosed that in addition to the groin injury, Hull had a torn medial collateral ligament in his left knee. He played sparingly in Game 6, but was considered enough of an asset that the Stars did everything they could to get him on the ice.
"I think the story on Brett Hull when the dust settles is going to be an incredible story," Hitchcock said. "What this man did to play hockey. . . . He might be rehabbed in time to start next season. He is in tough shape. He has a grade three, full blown torn MCL. He has a torn groin. And he came back and played."
The victory also provided a measure of vindication for Stars goalie Ed Belfour and center Mike Modano, each of whom had been labeled as good players unable to produce in big games. Belfour, who had played more playoff games than any other goalie (107) without winning the Stanley Cup, finished with 53 saves and allowed just one goal in the final 182:28 of the series. Modano, who suffered a broken wrist in Game 1 of the finals, had five goals and 18 assists in the playoffs; he assisted on both of the Stars' goals in Game 6.
"When you see the absolute joy and the raw emotions of the players, it's unbelievable," Hitchcock said. "You appreciate what it takes to get here."
Facts About the Stars' Stanley Cup Victory
At 114 minutes 51 seconds, including 54:51 of overtime, it was the longest Stanley Cup final game in which a champion was decided.
It was the 13th Stanley Cup championship decided in overtime, and the second decided in the third overtime.
Brett Hull, who scored the winning goal, entered the game with 76 career playoff goals, the most for a player who had never won a Stanley Cup.
The Stars are the fourth team to win a Stanley Cup in a game decided in multiple overtimes, joining Colorado (1996), Detroit (1950) and Chicago (1934).
CAPTION: Brett Hull's clinching goal was ruled legal by NHL, which said Hull didn't commit crease violation because he had possession before he entered.
CAPTION: The Stars pose with Stanley Cup. "There's no controversy here. The puck went in. The place went bananas. We got the trophy," says Joe Nieuwendyk.
CAPTION: Brett Hull's Stanley Cup-clinching goal was ruled legal by league, which said Hull did not commit crease violation because he had possession of puck before he entered.
CAPTION: Stars Coach Ken Hitchcock, right, revealed that in addition to Brett Hull's known groin injury, the team's Cup hero also was playing with a torn knee ligament.(Photo ran in an earlier edition)