Unstoppable in shootouts and unmatched in come-from-behind wins, Dallas isprimed for the pressure of the playoffs
Before JussiJokinen became the NHL's shootout king (he'd scored nine times in 11 attemptsthrough Sunday), the confident Stars rookie had already made a strongimpression on his teammates. Less than a month into the season, the 22-year-oldfrom Kalajoki, Finland, pulled aside several veterans, including captain MikeModano and three-time All-Star Sergei Zubov, and led them to a whiteboard,where he drew up plays. "He'd tell us what he wanted us to do on a powerplay. He'd say, 'Give me the puck here, and you do this,'" says right wingBill Guerin. "We were a little taken aback, like, who is this kid?"
It didn't takelong for his teammates to find out. Dallas is a remarkable 11-0 in shootoutslargely because of Jokinen's league-best success rate, and the speedy left winghas also fit in neatly on the Stars' top line alongside center Modano and JereLehtinen. On March 22, with the Stars trailing Minnesota in the third period,Jokinen fed Lehtinen for the power-play goal that tied the score. Lehtinen'sgoal was one of three that Dallas, the Pacific Division leader (48-20-3),scored in the period en route to a 4-2 win.
No team has pulledout more come-from-behind victories this season than the Stars. Dallas has wonan NHL-record 11 games in which it trailed after two periods, and the Stars'record in games they trailed at any point in the third is best in the league(14-20-1). "We don't panic. It's something we learned from Day One when wecame back from a 4--0 deficit [against L.A. on Oct. 5] in the first period [towin 5-4]," says defenseman Philippe Boucher. "We thrive on thecomeback."
So does theirstar, Modano. Coming off a career-worst season in 2003-04 (14 goals, 30assists), he nonetheless landed a five-year, $17.3 million contract, andthrough Sunday led the team with 27 goals and 43 assists. On March 11 againstVancouver, Dallas was down a goal when Modano scored twice to lift the Stars toa 2-1 victory. Says coach Dave Tippett of Modano's season, "I knew Mike wasgoing to rebound."
What Tippettcouldn't foresee was how easily the 5'11", 190-pound Jokinen would adaptand excel. Taken with the 192nd pick in 2001, Jokinen--a methodical player whostudies power-play footage from every Dallas game--had 16 goals and 35 assistsat week's end. And he does his best work with the game on the line. SaysJokinen of his shootout scoring, "I really enjoy it when 20,000 people getup and cheer me or boo me."
Like their rookie,the never-say-die Stars seem primed for the playoffs. "That'll be the realtest," Guerin says. "We've been in a lot of pressure situations thisyear. We're going to have to try to use that to our advantage."
Nothing but a Charade
Although the NHLappeared to crack down on excessively curved sticks when it decided in Februaryto measure the blades before shootouts, league hockey operations vice presidentMike Murphy told SI that it was a "Band-Aid solution." In fact, the NHLhas seized the moral middle ground. While use of illegal goalie equipment costsa netminder a two-game suspension without pay and carries fines to the team andits equipment manager, an illegal stick costs a skater only two minutes duringregulation or disqualification from a shootout. Perhaps the ambivalencereflects a growing sentiment among general managers to allow unlimitedcurvature--a logical extension of the league's efforts to boost scoring. TheG.M.'s will revisit the stick curvature issue next summer, and will either haveto get serious or return to the banana-blade era of the 1960s. --MichaelFarber
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