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Balanced, dangerous 'second line' proved tough to stop in Stars' Cup run

Led by Nieuwendyk and Langenbrunner, the unit flexed its muscle the most during the 1999 conference finals

by Mike Heika @MikeHeika / Senior Staff Writer

One of the biggest advantages the 1998-99 Dallas Stars could lean on was the fact their top two lines were both balanced and dangerous.

Mike Modano was flanked by Brett Hull and Jere Lehtinen, and that trio (backed by Derian Hatcher and Richard Matvichuk) often went against the other team's best lines and drew the opposition's best defense pairing. Joe Nieuwendyk, meanwhile, was teamed with Jamie Langenbrunner and an assortment of wingers, and often had Sergei Zubov and Darryl Sydor on defense.

That set-up was tough to stop, and it might not have ever been more important than in the Western Conference Finals. There, Dallas faced Colorado and its top two centers Peter Forsberg and Joe Sakic, and much of the series was determined by how those players competed against one another.

"It was on our minds heading into that series," Nieuwendyk said. "You've got Sakic and Forsberg and that was a huge challenge for Mo and I."

As FOX Sports Southwest reairs the wins from 1999, the victories the Stars had in Games 6 and 7 against the Avalanche might be the biggest. Langenbrunner had three goals in those two games and Nieuwendyk had two assists. Nieuwendyk finished the playoffs with 11 goals and Langenbrunner with 10, finishing 1-2 in that race. Modano led the team with 23 points and was second in overall playoff scoring.

 

[CUP CRAZY: How to rewatch the Stars' run to the 1999 Stanley Cup title on FOX Sports Southwest]

 

"It was great to have that balance, and I think it was hard for other teams," Stars coach Ken Hitchcock said. "They did a really good job of complementing each other."

Nieuwendyk gave a ton of credit to Modano, Hull and Lehtinen, and also said playing beside Langenbrunner was a huge help. He said the ability to forge chemistry with his young linemate was aided by the fact that the top line took a lot of the pressure.

"I really enjoyed playing second fiddle to Mo, because I think we pushed each other and made each other better," Nieuwendyk told DallasStars.com. "And Jamie, if ever there was a guy I would go to battle with, it was Jamie. He was competitive, he knew how to win, and he helped bring out the best in me."

Nieuwendyk and Langnbrunner remain friends to this day. Nieuwendyk lives in the Dallas area and has been spending a lot of time with his family. Langenbrunner lives in Minnesota and is director of player development for the Boston Bruins. Langenbrunner said Nieuwendyk has sent him some clips from the 1999 replays in recent weeks because he doesn't get telecasts up in Minnesota.

"I think, in some ways, we're closer now than we were then," Langenbrunner said.

Video: Joe Nieuwendyk won Cup with three different teams

And they were pretty close back then. Nieuwendyk was a veteran with a Stanley Cup who was acquired from Calgary in a 1995 trade. Langenbrunner was a 1993 Stars draft pick who played his full rookie season in 1996-97.

The timing was right, and the chemistry clicked.

"He's nine years older than me, so he's always been like my big brother," Langenbrunner said. "I was very, very fortunate to have the leadership group around me. I knew it at the time, and it's proven to be even more true looking back. There were so many big time leaders, and I just tried to soak it all in."

The fact that Nieuwendyk and Langenbrunner clicked is a big reason the team won its only Stanley Cup. Six of Nieuwendyk's 11 playoff goals were game-winners, while Langenbrunner in 23 playoff games almost matched the 12 goals he scored in 75 regular season games.

Nieuwendyk was a calm, smart veteran, and that helped Langenbrunner adapt his game. Nieuwendyk also made some incredible individual plays, and that simply earned the trust of the younger linemate. Nieuwendyk had a way of leaning away from a wrister and creating a lot of snap and misdirection, and it became a bit of a trademark in this playoff run. He would float to the right side, reach out his stick, and simply laser a puck past a surprised goalie from distance.

Video: Marshall, Ott and Severyn join Stars roundtable

"It's crazy to think how he did it," Langenbrunner said. "It's hard to beat a goalie from distance, and it's even harder if you can't shoot a slap shot, and I don't think he can shoot a slap shot. The fact that he was able to float across, slide the puck across his body and snap it from nowhere, it was pretty to watch."

And as for helping out his linemates?

"He was so easy to play with," Langenbrunner said. "His communication on the bench, the way he would make suggestions, it just made life pretty easy for me."

That helped challenge the Avalanche, which had an All-Star lineup of its own. Both players said they felt the trio of wingers who rotated in on the second line was also key. Benoit Hogue, Pat Verbeek and Dave Reid each took a turn with Nieuwendyk and Langenbrunner, and each was a good fit at times.

"I was so impressed with all of the veterans," said Langenbrunner. "We had so many good players who took whatever role they had to take. We had a 500-goal scorer (Verbeek) playing on the fourth line at times. For them to do that, it was amazing. I never remember anyone getting upset about anything. Everyone was positive and excited to be a part of this run."

Video: 1999: Brett Hull's 3OT goal gives Stars first Cup

Nieuwendyk would go on to win the Conn Smythe Trophy given to the MVP of the playoffs, but said he always saw that as a team award, and said goalie Ed Belfour could have won it.

"When I got the trophy, the first thing I did was skate over to Eddie and say, 'This just as easily could have been yours.' I felt that way about others like Mo and some others, too," Nieuwendyk said. "I'm proud of that trophy, but I'm much more proud of the fact that through two months of war, we were the last team standing, and we stood as a team."

Twenty years later, a lot of the friendships are still going strong. Both players help a great deal with sons who are trying to be hockey players -- and both are enjoying just being dads.

Nieuwendyk served as Stars general manager for four seasons and worked in the Hurricanes organization from 2014-18, but he's now happy spending time with his three kids during the COVID-19 lockdown.

"It's been good for us," he said. "I love to be able to see them and be around them. The pace of life has slowed down, and it's been good to spend time together."

 

[RELATED: Hatcher, Matvichuk were at center of Stars' chase for '99 Stanley Cup]

 

Langenbrunner is trying to play his part for the Bruins at the draft and also coordinate player development at a difficult time. He said he's been very happy working with the organization, and also has enjoyed getting some family time while everyone is in Minnesota.

And as for reliving some great memories from the past, that's fun, too.

"We were very fortunate to be a part of that group," Langenbrunner said. "It was a special team, and I know I learned so much. Joe was a huge part of that."

This story was not subject to the approval of the National Hockey League or Dallas Stars Hockey Club.

Mike Heika is a Senior Staff Writer for DallasStars.com and has covered the Stars since 1994. Follow him on Twitter @MikeHeika, and listen to his podcast.

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