The 1997-1998 season saw the Dallas Stars attempt to move forward as a franchise after a bitter first round loss to the Edmonton Oilers in 1997. The Stars once again boasted one of the more talented teams in the NHL and with Eddie Belfour between the pipes had one of the absolute toughest defenses teams would face that year. While the Stars had taken a gigantic leap in 1996-97 it wasn't until the following season that the Stars were suddenly regarded as a true NHL powerhouse.
The Stars were haunted by playoff failures of the past, however, and no amount of regular season success would be enough to erase the pain of that loss to the Oilers. Once again winning the Central Division with 109 points (49-22-11), the Stars would face the San Jose Sharks in the first round and easily dispatched their future division rivals in six games. In the conference semifinals the Stars would exorcise their postseason demons by beating the Oilers in five games, with Eddie Belfour allowing just five goals the entire series.
Unfortunately, those series would have profound effect on the team as Joe Nieuewendyk was lost for the postseason after a vicious knee-on-knee hit by Brian Marchment of the Sharks. The Stars were suddenly serious Cup contenders, especially with Belfour in net, yet faced a daunting task in the Western Conference Finals -- finding a way to beat the powerful Detroit Red Wings without their second-best player.
The power of the internet: Game 5 highlights, from 1998.
What's interesting about the Red Wings that season, despite what history leads us to believe, is that the Dallas Stars were technically the better team. The Stars won the Central Division that year (Detroit was 2nd with 103 points) and the Stars boasted a stronger goaltender and just as diversified an offensive attack. The Stars also boasted a roster with significant postseason success and experience, with Guy Carbonneau leading the way as the prime example of veteran leadership perfected.
The Stars also knew that what they had wasn't enough, and traded young forward Todd Harvey, Bob Errey and fourth round pick to the New York Rangers for Brian Skrudland, Mike Keane and a few conditional late-round picks. Keane was the centerpiece of the deal, a grizzled veteran with two Stanley Cup championships under his belt and a style of hockey that perfectly fit what the Stars were building in Dallas. Keane had just five points for the Stars in 13 games after the trade but would be a key part of the Stars attack against Detroit.
After two fairly easy series wins against the Sharks and Oilers, however, the Stars were faced with a grim reality: without Nieuewendyk, the team matched up very poorly against the aggressive and speedy Red Wings. Detroit would jump out to a 3-1 series lead, scoring 11 goals in those four games and absolutely dominating the Stars at Joe Louis Arena.
Facing elimination, the Stars traveled back to Big D with a chance to do what no team had ever done in a conference final, coming back from a three-games-to-one deficit to move on to the Cup Finals. The Stars needed a bare knuckles fight and that's exactly what they gave the Red Wings on that night.
The Stars showcased everything that made them great in those years, a gritty and aggressive attack that physically intimidated the Red Wings and pushed the pressure on the Detroit defense and goaltender Chris Osgood.
The first period would start spectacularly, with Mike Keane scoring a rebound goal midway through the period and giving the Stars a crucial 1-0 lead. In four games that series, the team that had scored first had gone on to win the game.
Detroit would fight back, scoring on a deflected shot from the point that snuck by Belfour in the final minute of the period and giving Detroit all the momentum moving forward in the game. In the second period, Igor Larionov would blast a shot from the far right circle on the rush that someone found it's way past Belfour, giving the Red Wings a 2-1 lead and a stranglehold on the elimination game.
The Stars would push back, with several close calls and hit posts building anxiety that the Stars would once again fall short. Osgood was spectacular in the third period, making save after incredible save and was matched by Belfour at the other end -- with under five minutes remaining, the Red Wings had three prime chances to put the game away but Belfour stone them each time.
With just under two minutes remaining in regulation and the season on the line, the Stars pushed the puck up ice in their classic dump-and-chase attack -- led by Guy Carbonneau. The 38-year-old veteran stormed his way into the zone and slammed the puck of a defender's stick, winning a puck battle along the boards while on his knees -- he was a one-man wrecking crew for 30 very crucial seconds.
His pass to the point and the subsequent shot would deflect off defenders and back to his stick, where he once again one a tough battle and fired a shot from an impossible angle -- the laser found it's way under the crossbar to tie the game 2-2 with 1:25 remaining. It was a controversial goal, with referee Kerry Fraser adamant the top of the twine moved with the puck and the Red Wings upset at the call. Nevertheless, the game would go to overtime.
If the Stars veterans were key in getting the team to overtime, then it was the young superstars that won it.
Jere Lehtinen would win a battle on a dump into the zone by the Red Wings, moving the puck up ice and to Jamie Langenbrunner. The young forward then fired a shot on net from just over center ice, a rocket that skipped it's way to Chris Osgood -- and into the net. It was the most improbable way to end the most important game for the franchise up until that point but it was certainly fitting. What's is even more incredible is that the shot was actually going wide; Osgood's stick deflected the puck into the net.
The Stars would lose Game 6 in Detroit, 2-0, and would have to wait another year to find themselves in the Stanley Cup Finals. Many would wonder just how the Stars might have fared had Joe Nieuewendyk not been injured, but it was clear the Stars were certainly on the right track.
Game 5 was an incredible moment in the history of this franchise, remembered for the late comeback and the impossible goal, but it was also a pivotal moment for the team -- they proved to themselves they had what it took to overcome adversity in a nearly-impossible situation.
The Stars knew that, for the team to truly contend, further changes were needed. The team struggled offensively in the postseason, especially without Nieuwendyk. If only there was an option available in free agency that summer, a player capable of taking the Stars offense to the next level....