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New role, similar success for Stars' Modano

by Larry Wigge

The Dallas Stars' Mike Modano has registerd points in six of his last seven games. Mike Modano highlights
When I look at Mike Modano now, I still see the strong-skating, slick-passing and always dangerous center. Skill. Speed. Leadership. The face of the Dallas Stars.

I don't just compare Modano to the best U.S.-born players. No, his career accomplishments are gold. They're global.

And now, it's playoff time. It's be-like-Mike time, in spite of the fact that, at 37, his role as No. 1 center has changed during the course of this season to, uh, third-line checker.

Role or no role, the former first-overall pick in the 1988 NHL Entry Draft, is still the face of the Stars' franchise -- and he's still gold in the playoffs, having produced four goals and four assists in eight games including two game-winning goals and the Game 2 clincher at San Jose last Sunday. And all of that came after Modano had 21 goals and 36 assists during his 18th NHL season, even though the strength up the middle for Dallas started with Mike Ribeiro and Brad Richards.

"You can see by his body language that he's taken his role seriously. I think he's enjoying it," captain Brenden Morrow said. "He's checked hard and gotten big goals. He relishes that aspect of the game now more than he would have maybe 10 or 15 years ago."

I'll never forget the story that Modano told me back in June of 1999 after Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Final, after he assisted on both goals in a 2-0 victory against the Buffalo Sabres and before he added two more assists in the Cup-clinching 2-1, three-overtime triumph.

"I had pasta on the end of a fork and was just taking a bite when the telephone rang," he recalled. "I hear; 'Hi, Mike. It's Hitch."

The phone call came the night before Game 5 from then-Dallas Stars coach Ken Hitchcock, who had a clear message for his leader, who was fighting a goal-scoring slump as well as a wrist injury.

What do you do?

"You don't tell the coach your pasta is getting cold and you'll call him back later, right?" Modano said, with a chuckle.

After having a few feathers ruffled by the marquee-to-third line-demotion earlier this season, some might have balked and asked for a trade. Not Modano.

You see that phone call from Hitchcock, asking him for more in Game 5, was not the first time a member of the Stars’ hierarchy asked him to change something about his game. In the early years in Dallas, G.M.-coach Bob Gainey brought Modano into his office and ran and re-ran tapes of players like Mario Lemieux, Brett Hull, other 50-goal scorers who were constantly getting into the high-traffic areas in front and around the net to get their goals.

Still, asking the leading scorer in Dallas Stars history to be a checker is like asking LaDainian Tomlinson to block for someone else. But Modano knows he's in the twilight of his career and he's even considered what’s next on more than one occasion, so, obviously, he can cope with almost anything.

"It took some time ... but I think I understand things better now," Modano said. "Getting older ..."

He paused to consider his next words ... then continued, saying, "You look forward to these playoff opportunities, where every situation is important. Who knows, this could be that one final run at the Cup."

Modano may have been caught by surprise that Richards joined the team at the trading deadline instead of the scoring winger he had been hearing about since last December. But, he's OK with the fact that the Stars’ strength up the middle -- with Ribeiro, Richards, and Modano double shifting of late -- compared to Modano, Joe Nieuwendyk, Guy Carbonneau and Brian Skrudland back in 1999.

"Those three centers have embraced their responsibilities," coach Dave Tippett said. "The team trumps everything. Actually, we've used Mike in a two-way role here for a long time, because he's so good at all facets of the game at both ends of the ice. I mean when you go through our whole group, who's better than Mike there?"

Skill. Speed. Leadership. Team guy all the way through those Livonia, Michigan, native's veins. Adrenaline pumping no matter what his role is.

"I think you just have to do what's best for the team," Modano explained after Dallas' 2-1 overtime win against San Jose in Game 3. "It's not something new to me. You make the most of every opportunity you get.

"One thing is certain: With that role, a lot of offensive chances can develop, especially if you do your job of shutting the other team's top offensive players down and create turnovers. It's amazing how many times those turnovers turn into great scoring chances against them."

Two things we'll always know about Mike Modano: He's always going to be a center of attention ... and we also know that the pasta never gets cold when Modano is on his game.

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