The stars came out again last week, leaving the Detroit Red Wings blinded by the light, deafened by the crowd and dumbfounded by their predicament. The Wings, a flashy-skating, slick-puckhandling bunch who swaggered into the Stanley Cup playoffs with the third-best record in the NHL, were in danger of being fore-checked into oblivion.
Regular season, schmegular season. Who needs it? Not the Minnesota North Stars, who are making a habit of strong playoff runs. A year ago the Stars finished a distant fourth in the Norris Division with only 68 points. Yet they knocked off the first-place, 106-point Chicago Black-hawks in six games in the first round and weren't stopped until the Cup finals, when they lost to the Pittsburgh Penguins in six games. Minnesota improved by a scant two points this season and wound up fourth again, which meant another suicidal best-of-seven first-round series. Perfect!
In winning the first two games at Detroit's Joe Louis Arena, then splitting a pair in the crazed confines of the Met Center in Bloomington, Minn., the North Stars outworked and outmaneuvered the more talented Red Wings. Minnesota's hulking defensemen repeatedly made pretzels out of Detroit's darting centers, Steve Yzerman, Sergei Fedorov and Jimmy Carson. The Stars' forwards knocked the wheels and doors off Detroit goaltender Tim (Chevy) Cheveldae with selective and accurate shooting. Meanwhile Minnesota goalie Jon Casey was nearly as impenetrable as he had been in the 1991 postseason, when he put on a superhuman performance and simply refused to let the North Stars lose for three rounds.
Cheveldae redeemed himself somewhat with a shutout on Sunday night in Detroit. The 3-0 win proved the Red Wings still had a pulse, though they trailed 3-2 in the series as the scene shifted to Minnesota for Game 6 on Tuesday.
Even in defeat the Stars played with a powerful hunger. "We have a bunch of guys who have the ability to turn it up a notch," said Minnesota center Dave Gagner before Game 3. "We have some talent but not an abundance of it. Maybe we overestimated our abilities this season and underestimated the work ethic it takes to finish at the top of the division. But now that we're here, we're not going to say, 'Oh, O.K., these guys are better, and we're going to bow out.' We're going to try and win the Stanley Cup."
"We can divorce ourselves from mediocrity by having a good playoffs," said center Bobby Smith. "That's what happened last year, and we hope that's what will happen this year."
These North Stars aren't the same cute Cinderella story they were a year ago. They even look different. They have new uniforms, a new logo and a new primary color, which matched their mood for much of the season: black. The euphoria that lingered after they lost to Pittsburgh in the 1991 finals was blasted away by the team's sorry '91-92 regular season. In its place now is a kind of gritty determination. "The season didn't go as well as any of us wanted," said Casey. "We're trying to prove that we can still play the game."
He's not kidding. After signing a four-year, $3.8 million contract in November, Casey suddenly couldn't stop a beach ball. Indeed, he went more than a month without a victory, disgracing the hallowed patch of ice that was once defended by the legendary Gump Worsley. Casey's coach, the usually taciturn Bob Gainey, even ripped him in the newspapers. Casey fired back. Finally, on March 2, Gainey and Minnesota general manager Bob Clarke persuaded Casey to spend a week in Kalamazoo, Mich. No, Casey wasn't looking for Elvis; he was a full-fledged member of the North Stars' minor league team, the Kalamazoo Wings, and in his first appearance he lost an exciting duel with former U.S. Olympic goalie Ray LeBlanc of the Indianapolis Ice. Casey went 2-1-1 for Kalamazoo before being recalled on March 9. By the time the playoffs opened in Detroit, he had regained his touch.
Casey stopped 55 of 60 shots in Games 1 and 2, and he had the battered Red Wings looking forward to a road trip. Detroit fans, who traditionally celebrate the start of the playoffs by throwing octopuses onto the ice, couldn't stand watching Minnesota make suckers out of their team, and they let the Red Wings know it. "We get booed less on the road," grumbled forward Shawn Burr after the North Stars had prevailed 4-2 in Game 2.
Yes, but the Wings still found themselves dodging seafood. After Minnesota's Neal Broten deflected a shot past Cheveldae to give the Stars a 3-2 lead in the second period of Game 3 on April 22, a very big, very dead walleye came flying out of the stands and flopped onto the ice. The Red Wings, though, were not ready to sleep with the fishes. Their second goal, a slap shot from the point by defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom, had broken an 0-for-11 postseason power-play drought, not to mention an 0-for-25 streak against Minnesota dating back to Jan. 9. The North Stars, by contrast, had scored on four of nine—44%—of their power-play opportunities in Games 1 and 2. During the regular season they made good on only 17% of their chances.
Cheveldae, who played in 72 of 80 regular-season games, was benched when he failed to stop a routine shot by Brian Bellows that put Minnesota ahead 4-2 eight minutes into the second period. "That's a stop you have to have in the playoffs," said Detroit coach Bryan Murray afterward. "You can't win if you don't get that stop. I had to make a change."
This is how desperate things were for the Red Wings: Murray turned to Vincent Riendeau, who had been in goal for the St. Louis Blues when they fell to Minnesota in last year's division finals. Riendeau bore most of the blame for the upset and was traded to Detroit last October. Injured for most of the regular season, Riendeau saw action in only two games for Detroit. But he was hardly tested in Game 3 by the North Stars, who became conservative and allowed the Wings to tie the game 4-4 and send it to overtime.
One minute and 15 seconds into the extra period, Detroit defenseman Yves Racine silenced the crowd by firing a slap shot past a screened Casey to win the game. The Wings rushed out to mob Racine, who had scored only two goals all season. "I was scared," he said. "I had forgotten how to celebrate." The relief in the Detroit dressing room was palpable.
Gainey was ready to make the next move in this chess match. In the first three games the North Stars—as they had done to the opposition in last year's playoffs—provoked the Detroit players into taking unnecessary penalties. If a Red Wing took a swing, the North Stars would then turn the other cheek. The strategy had helped neutralize Detroit's aggressive forward Bob Probert, who wasn't quite sure what to do when, in Game 3, Minnesota defenseman Mark Tinordi glared at Probert after colliding with him along the boards and shouted, "Come on, hit me." Probert caressed Tinordi's face with his glove and was called for roughing.
However, before Game 4 last Friday, Gainey decided that the Stars needed to get tougher. He didn't take the goons off the shelf (Shane Churla remained scratched from the lineup, and Basil McRac couldn't play because of a broken right leg suffered before the playoffs), but his regulars did take off their gloves. Little more than three minutes into the game, North Star defenseman Jim Johnson grabbed Fedorov near the Minnesota net, pushed him over Casey and onto the ice, then jumped on top of Fedorov and began punching away. The ensuing brawl included everyone on the ice except Riendeau, who was making his first start of the playoffs. It ended with Murray shouting at Gainey across the Plexiglas that separates the benches, and the North Stars down a man. Forward Ray Sheppard promptly scored a power-play goal to put Detroit in front 1-0, and by the end of the first period the Wings held a 3-1 lead.
The Stars, though, chipped away until Bellows batted his own rebound past Riendeau to tie the score at 4-4 late in the second period. Twelve minutes into the third. Minnesota center Todd Elik tipped the game-winner past Cheveldae, who had relieved Riendeau at the start of the period. The Red Wings hit the post a couple of times down the stretch, but Casey shut the door, blocking flurry after flurry.
"Jon's been unbelievable," said Minnesota forward Mike Modano. "All the pressure is on his shoulders, and he's doing just what he did last year."
"Money players," said North Star owner Norm Green. "They know when to crank it up. Bellows, Broten, Casey—they're veterans. They know."
Green could hardly conceal his glee. The North Star franchise, which was dying when he bought it in the summer of 1990, was revived by last year's springtime success. Attendance nearly doubled this season, to more than 13,000 per game, and Friday's game drew an SRO crowd of 15,434. To top it off, Green got another bit of good news last week. "Did you hear?" he barked into a portable telephone while watching the Stars practice from the stands. "We just signed a Jewish goalie named Levy!" That would be Jeff Levy, late of the University of New Hampshire. One thing, Norm: You may be Jewish, but Levy isn't.
Although Gainey won't make excuses for Minnesota's poor regular-season record, Green, a Canadian real estate magnate and former minority owner of the Calgary Flames, has no such reservations. He points to a rash of injuries that exposed the team's lack of depth. The main reason that Minnesota is thin is that a number of its top prospects were confiscated by the expansion San Jose Sharks as part of a complicated agreement between the Sharks and the North Stars. George and Gordon Gund, the former owners of the North Stars, had schemed to move the North Stars to San Jose, but the Gunds eventually settled for an expansion team stocked with Minnesota prospects. "We're depleted," says Green, a shameless booster who walks the stands gladhanding fans.
North Star fans are boisterous but not terribly demanding. They seem to understand that the players give maximum effort in the playoffs, and the fans respond in kind. Their decibel level could cause nearby Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport to issue a noise complaint.
Gainey, 38, who's cut from the same quiet cloth as Twins manager Tom Kelly and former Viking coach Bud Grant, played on five championship teams for the Montreal Canadiens. He knows what it takes to win the Stanley Cup. "Total commitment," says Gainey in a typical burst of loquaciousness.
Gainey's basic plan—the defensemen concentrate on defense, the role players play their roles—worked in the '91 play-oils, so he's holding to it. "Players accept this type of strategy better during the playoffs," he says. "They know everything will be over in a few weeks, so they're willing to do what's asked of them without any conditions attached." And as Casey points out, there's another secret to Minnesota's success: When you're No. 4, you really do try harder.
The Red Wings, stunned as they are, have developed a healthy respect for their tormentors. "They are a well-coached team." says Carson. "Well-coached and extremely disciplined. They know they're outmatched talentwise, so they're trying to set the tone of the game."
Murray, however, is getting tired of the story line. In live of the past seven years, the team that finished fourth in the Norris Division beat the division champ in the first round. "I'm not sure why we play the regular season," he says.
Smith, though, doesn't offer any apologies. "Hey, hockey has always been a playoff sport," he says. "We don't make the rules. We just play by' em."
Barring a big Detroit comeback, Murray will miss another chance to drink from the Cup. He's becoming the Gene Mauch of hockey. This is his ninth trip to the playoffs—he took the Washington Capitals into the postseason every year between 1982-83 and '88-89 before becoming general manager and coach of the Red Wings last season—and he has yet to reach the conference finals. "I haven't won the Stanley Cup, so no. I haven't done everything I want to do as a coach," says Murray. "That's how we measure success. But nobody ever mentions that I've never missed the playoffs [when he has coached a full season] and that my teams have never finished lower than third."
Maybe Murray should finish fourth once in a while. It works for the North Stars, who were beginning to cast a curious eye ahead to a divisional showdown with the winner of the St. Louis-Chicago series. "We're guardedly optimistic," says Smith. "It's very late for Detroit."
For the Stars, the night is young.