The food wasexquisite, the evening historic. On the March night that Mike Modano became thesecond U.S.-born player to score 500 goals, several Stars congregated for acelebratory supper in a swank Dallas restaurant. While Modano dined with someteammates and friends at a long table in the center of the room, the Stars' No.1 goalie, Marty Turco, who hadn't played in the game but had thumped theplexiglass behind the bench with gusto after the milestone goal, sat at asatellite table with his wife, his agent, his sister and her husband. "Youshould send a bottle of wine over to Mike," said Turco's wife, Kelly. ¬∂"[No], we're planning a big party when he [breaks Joe Mullen's mark of502]," replied Turco. The jovial mood could not be spoiled even when talkturned to the looming NHL playoffs and someone uttered a word that should neverbe part of polite dinner conversation--especially at Turco's table.
The Stars' mostvoluble player was not fazed. "I can say this about choking: A lot of greatathletes we put on pedestals have choked, in the common definition ofchoking," Turco said. "Have I choked? Who knows. By my definition, Idon't think I have."
The 31-year-oldTurco is a two-time All-Star. In his first season as the Dallas starter, in2002--03, he set the modern record for goals-against average, 1.72. He was amember of Canada's Olympic team in Turin. In a perfect world, Turco, asself-aware as he is gifted, would be a playoff god; in fact, the goalie with anunimpeachable regular-season record--"Regular season, he's a machine,"Modano says--has been irredeemable in the playoffs. After falling in the secondround in '03, he has been outplayed by the hardly distinguished David Aebischerand off-the-radar José Théodore while losing to Colorado in the first round oftwo straight postseasons.
When goals are ata premium and save percentages trend upward--in 2005--06, the playoff averagewas half a goal lower than in the regular season--Turco's have tended to dip:from .913 to a woeful .849 in 2003--04 and from .898 to .868 last year. Turco'smisadventures, of course, don't exist in a vacuum. The Stars' inability to nettimely goals has shortened their springs. "If Marty didn't have to playuntil four o'clock every morning," says Dallas G.M. Doug Armstrong, whoseteam lost three overtime playoff games in 2006, "maybe we wouldn't behaving this conversation." Says forward Brenden Morrow, "Marty's takenthe brunt, but I was plus-30 in the regular season and [minus-1 last spring]. Itook a dumb penalty in Game 3 at the end. Lots of mistakes out there. Martymakes them. I make them." Excuses are readily available--life, after all,is context--but Turco rejects them, saying simply he is "almost 100 percentsure it won't happen again." He might not be a clutch player, but he isn'ta crutch player, either.
If misery lovescompany, Turco runs with a fast crowd. With the playoffs starting next week,several elite players are at a juncture at which another inconsequentialpostseason might define their careers. Those on the hot seat are hardlyingenues. They are old enough (in their late 20s or 30s), playoff-tested enoughand significant enough that they should be able to carry a team for a week, aseries, maybe even two months. "Expectations are so high," Turco says,referring to himself and the other top players under scrutiny, "butobviously there's a reason people expect a lot."
Along with Turco,here are the other NHL stars with their reputations at stake thispostseason.
The right wing's79 playoff games constitute every one in Ottawa's ill-fated postseason history.If the Senators had had competent goaltending, they might have won multipleCups, but the 34-year-old Alfredsson, the captain and longest-serving Senator,has been the scapegoat. Since Ottawa lost Game 7 at home to the New JerseyDevils in the 2003 Eastern Conference finals, Alfredsson has scored three timesin 17 postseason games, despite averaging 34 goals over the last three seasons.Last year Alfredsson was playing the point on the power play when the BuffaloSabres' Jason Pominville waltzed around him in Game 5 to score the short-handedgoal that ended the second-round series. He didn't try to impede Pominvillebecause he didn't want to take a penalty, a laissez-faire play that beliesAlfredsson's typical playoff attitude. "I remember watching him before Itook the job here, and my observation to Daniel was, 'You internalizeeverything,'" says Bryan Murray, in his second season behind the Senators'bench. "'You do everything for everybody instead of just playing the wayyou play. You overhandle the puck. You over-backcheck.' Last year againstBuffalo he tried to do everything for the team and be the perfect captain, andhe let it affect his overall game. He tries so damn hard that it exhausts himby the end of a series."
THE WILL TO slogthrough an eight-week Stanley Cup campaign isn't an issue for the Red Wings'Russian-born center who was weaned on the Olympics. When Detroit won in 2002,his rookie year, Datsyuk likened the experience to watching a beautifulsunrise. Sunrise. Sunset. After netting three goals in 21 playoff games thatyear, he has not scored in his last 21, despite assuming a more centralregular-season role and developing into, roughly, a point-per-game scorer.Datsyuk had a note from his doctor for last year's shocking first-round loss tothe Edmonton Oilers--he had missed nearly three weeks because of a severecharley horse before returning for Game 2--but he thinks it's his approach thatneeds rehabbing. "I try to pass too much," says Datsyuk, 28, whothrough Sunday led the Wings with 84 points this season. "Maybe this yearin the playoffs I'll shoot more and go harder to the net." Says coach MikeBabcock, "In my opinion he's a dominant player. But you've got to gothrough [the playoffs] a few times and maybe not have much success [before]you're prepared mentally and physically."
AT 6'4" and235 pounds--and as the reigning Hart Trophy winner--the San Jose Sharks' centeris an especially big target. He had 125 points in 2005--06 but had just twogoals and seven assists in 11 games last spring as the Sharks were upset byEdmonton in the second round. Thornton has underwhelmed with eight goals and 19assists in 46 playoff games, including the seven in '04 in which he wentpointless as the Boston Bruins blew a 3--1 series lead to Montreal in the firstround. Although Thornton played through broken ribs, he was, in San Jose coachRon Wilson's opinion, "thrown under the bus in Boston," where hisreputation took a hit. "To be honest," says Thornton, "that feelslike ages ago."
Now 27, Thornton,the Western Conference leader with 109 points, has yet to prove he can be thefulcrum of a champion. Indeed, he has done some of his best work as an ordinaryJoe, the shutdown checking center for Canada in the 2004 World Cup. Wilsonwants Thornton to make adjustments. "In the past he's beenpredictable," the coach says. "He sets up in his office down low. Andif he wants to be stubborn and stay there ... well, what works in the regularseason doesn't always work when all the focus is on stopping you. He'll beeliminated from the game. He has to make adjustments and be a physicalforce--punish people."
SINCE THE ATLANTAThrashers mortgaged their future (four high draft picks) to get the 6'2",225-pound, power forward from St. Louis in February, he had scored seven goalsin 15 games through Sunday while filling a chasm at center for a team about toenter the playoffs for the first time. "It's not about Keith Tkachuk,"says coach Bob Hartley. "He isn't here in the role of messiah." Theirascible, penalty-prone Tkachuk hasn't been the most solid rock upon which tobuild a playoff church. His overall postseason numbers aren't awful--27 goals,26 assists in 81 games--just subpar. More damning: Tkachuk's teams have wonjust three of 14 playoff series, and in 2001, when the Blues reached theconference final, he had two goals in 15 games. "A lot of things getfactored in," says Tkachuk, 35. "[But] I don't mind the pressure. If Ihad a problem with it, I wouldn't have waived my no-trade clause to comehere."
urco's pedigreesuggests he should also welcome pressure. The winningest goalie in NCAA historytook Michigan to two national titles and two other Frozen Fours in the 1990s."He's shown that big-time situations don't fluster him," saysArmstrong. "But it's been a long time since Michigan. We can't keep playingthat trump card." In other words, ancient history. To prevent a repeat ofmodern history, Dallas has a 6'3" Plan B in Mike Smith, the Stars' firsthomegrown goaltending talent since Turco. Smith has played his share of theless vital games, but coach Dave Tippett has also started the rookie againstconference powers Vancouver, Nashville and twice each against Detroit andAnaheim. (Smith is 4--2 in those pressure starts, with two wins over the Ducks.He is not the type of guy who looks as if he will need the AnaheimlichManeuver.) As Tippett said, "One rested. The other ready. One of theconcerns in the past is [Marty had] played too much. That won't be a questionthis time." (At week's end Turco had appeared in 64 of 78 games.) If Dallasdraws Detroit in the first round, Turco might have an even slimmer margin oferror; he has defeated the Red Wings once in 15 games.
The past might notbe prologue--Turco skirted Shakespeare at Ann Arbor--but it is this pro's log,at least until he can edit his personal playoff history. He enters thepostseason with a clear head if not a clean slate. "[Playoffs failure]doesn't eat me up," Turco said. "It's motivating, but I know what I dothis time has nothing to do with what I did before.... I want to play almostinstinctively. Foundation and fundamentals are huge parts of my game. For me,thinking, or lack of thinking, is also huge. The past only induces thinking,and I've learned to eliminate a lot of that."
Turco's newformula: shallow in thought, deep in the playoffs.
AMONG ACTIVEPLAYERS with at least 35 playoff appearances, these are the ones whosegoal-scoring rates have increased the most from the regular season to thepostseason. Except for Patrick Marleau, all have taken a team to the finals.
|MARTIN ST. LOUIS, RW, Lightning||183||523||.350||20||39||.513||+.163|
|PATRICK MARLEAU, C, Sharks||219||713||.307||28||62||.452||+.145|
|JAROME IGINLA, RW, Flames||322||775||.415||19||35||.543||+.128|
|BRAD RICHARDS, C, Lightning||132||487||.271||15||39||.385||+.114|
|RICHARD ZEDNIK, LW, Islanders||168||621||.270||16||43||.372||+.102|
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Daniel Alfredsson 17 GAMES, 3 GOALS
Pavel Datsyuk 21 GAMES, 0 GOALS
Joe Thornton 46 GAMES, 8 GOALS
Keith Tkachuk 3--11 SERIES RECORD