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'99 Stars Hit Mid-Month Blues in January

by Bob Matuszak / Dallas Stars

This season marks the 10-year anniversary of the Dallas Stars first Stanley Cup championship. What follows is the fourth of seven installments that delves into that magical 1998-99 campaign, from training camp all the way to Brett Hull's Cup-clinching goal in triple-overtime in Game 6 in Buffalo.

Mid-Month Blues
Following the impressive 15-game stretch, there was talk that the team would just have to start another remarkable run. It didn't happen.

After the Flames loss, Dallas was shut-out for the second consecutive game, this time by Vancouver's Corey Hirsch in the Canucks 2-0 win two nights later. The Stars also lost Nieuwendyk, who left the game with an inflamed knee.

The low-scoring affair featured only a handful of scoring chances combined for both teams. Dallas wound up with only 13 shots, including just two in the third period. The Canucks finished with 20 shots, and scored both of their goals in the final 8 minutes of the game.

Playing without Nieuwendyk, Hull (back), and Jamie Langenbrunner (shoulder) two nights later on Jan. 12, the Stars tied Edmonton 2-2 after failing to hold onto a 2-0 lead on goals by Verbeek (his 10th) and Lehtinen (14th).

Lehtinen's goal in the first period snapped Dallas' 133:01 scoreless streak that went back to his third-period goal in the win over Vancouver.

"Like anything there's a lot of peaks and valleys," Modano said. "We're just in a valley right now. So we have to dig deeper to get out of this valley."

The Stars finally snapped their three-game winless streak with a 2-1 win at San Jose the following evening. Defenseman Sergei Zubov's sixth goal of the season in the second period proved to be the winner for Dallas. The tally also ended Zubov's six-game goal drought.

But it was the play of Modano that caught Hitchcock's eye. Modano scored his 14th just 46 seconds into the game with assists from linemates Hull and Lehtinen, and then led the charge defensive charge the rest of the way.

With Nieuwendyk still on the shelf, Modano's offensive output, as well as his solid two-way play, was crucial if the Stars wanted to maintain their impressive success.

"Modano was the best player on the ice," Hitchcock said. "We talked before the game and we needed his line to really step it up."

Two nights later in Anaheim, the Modano-Hull-Lehtinen trio struck again, with Modano and Lehtinen scoring first-period goals to help lift the Stars to a 3-1 win over the Mighty Ducks. Modano finished with a goal and two assists, while Lehtinen and Hull added helpers.

"You have to play a little more solid game against them and make them earn their chances," Anaheim coach Craig Hartsburg said. "The three goals they scored, we made mistakes and guys like Hull and Modano are going to make you pay. If there's a better team in the league than that one, I'd hate to see it."

The back-to-back wins helped Dallas salvage an otherwise forgettable 2-2-1 road trip.

Things didn't get much better back in North Texas. Looking to finish strong before the All-Star break, the Stars took a nosedive into the Reunion Arena ice. First, the pesky Canucks took a 5-3 decision before Toronto left with a 6-4 win on Jan. 20.

Still, as Hitchcock, Modano, Sydor, Zubov and Ed Belfour headed to Tampa Bay for the All-Star game, Dallas led the league with 61 points despite limping into the layoff on a 2-4-1 stretch.

"I think where the break comes good for us is we've got some older guys who are maxed out," Hitchcock said.

At the break, Hull led the team with 16 goals, while Modano and Lehtinen had 15 apiece. Verbeek, meanwhile, was the only other forward in double figures with 11.

"It's going to be harder in the second half because teams are going to be shutting down Modano's line," forward Grant Marshall said. "Our other lines really have to produce more. There's no question we can bring energy and a scoring punch back into it."

Sunshine State Carryover
Coaching the North American team in Tampa, Hitchcock was able to secure his first win at any level in such an event in 12 tries thanks to Wayne Gretzky's MVP performance and Modano chipping in with a goal and three helpers in an 8-6 win over the World All Stars.

"I'm totally embarrassed," cracked World coach Lindy Ruff afterwards, not knowing he'd be butting heads with Hitchcock once again some four months later.

Belfour stopped all but two of the 12 shots sent his way in the third period, while both Sydor and Zubov each scored once.

"It was nice to have some fun out there," Modano said.

The fun was also about to begin again for the Stars, as the team beat Los Angeles, Tampa Bay and Florida by a combined 12-5 margin upon the resumption of the season to close out the month of January.

Against the Kings, Nieuwendyk scored in his return after missing five games because of his knee injury, Zubov and captain Derian Hatcher scored third-period goals to put away the last-place Lightning, and Belfour improved to 5-1-1 lifetime in the win against the Panthers that capped a 7-4-1 month.

"I think our team is focused into shutting people down," Hitchcock said. "That's
our game."

A game that helped them earn a 30-9-7 record through the first four months of the season.

NEXT: The face of the franchise hits the trifecta, while the surging Stars continue to enjoy the view from the top of the NHL mountain.


Author: Bob Matuszak
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