The month of November 1998 for the Stars gave them much to be thankful for. Following a strong start to the season, the team was faced with a month that would see their travel tick up, playing five of their 10 games away from Reunion Arena. The Stars responded with a 6-3-1 record, with three of the victories coming on the road. Key wins against the Detroit Red Wings, Boston Bruins, and Washington Capitals highlighted the stretch.
The success in November pushed the Stars’ overall record to 12 wins, four losses. and three ties, sending them into December in first place.
December of 1998 was another successful month for the Stars, but it was undoubtably highlighted by one final trip to the last standing Original Six building in the NHL: December 23, 1998 against the Toronto Maple Leafs at Maple Leaf Gardens.
As the close of the twentieth century loomed on the horizon, so too did the reign of one of the great hockey buildings in the sport’s history. Maple Leaf Gardens had hosted NHL hockey since 1931, and the Maple Leafs did not disappoint in filling the walls of the building with history. The Maple Leafs had inaugurated the building with a Stanley Cup in its first season (1931-32) and would go on to decorate the rafters with 10 more. Not to mention the generations of players who graced the ice in Toronto, along with the fans who watched it all unfold.
As the first-place Dallas Stars rolled into their final game at Maple Leaf Gardens, their opponent was no slouch. The Maple Leafs featured a high-powered offense led by Mats Sundin. With past Stars’ foe Curtis Joseph in the pipes for Toronto and a 19-12-2 record of their own, the Maple Leafs were a stiff challenge. However, one future Hall of Fame player gave the Garden another masterful performance.
The first frame started rather abruptly for the Stars and their superstar center Mike Modano. On his first shift of the evening, Modano was looking to pick up speed through the neutral zone until he was met by Dmitry Yushkevich. Modano popped right back up after the hit, but it was obvious from the start that the Leafs looked to match the Stars’ physicality in their own building.
Respond the Stars did, but rather than the Leafs imposing their will on the game, Modano put his own stamp on the tilt. Following a great defensive stand by Richard Matvichuk on a two-on-one, the Stars transitioned through the neutral zone, where Jere Lehtinen found a streaking Modano. Modano entered the zone, cut to the left and snapped a wrist shot from the circle past Joseph to make it 1-0 Stars.
The game settled in for a moment, but the Leafs loaded up the Dallas power play at the 8:15 minute mark courtesy of a Garry Valk elbowing penalty. The Stars quickly made the Maple Leafs pay for their transgression. Darryl Sydor took control of the puck at the blue line and fired a shot towards the Toronto net, which sailed over the shoulder of Joseph for the second Dallas goal. Instant replay showed that Brett Hull had executed a high-tip play, giving him his 10th goal of the season.
From that moment on, the game slowed down for all of six minutes as the Leafs and the Stars traded goals less than two minutes apart. The Stars, up 2-0, surrendered their first goal of the evening to Sergei Berezin, to cut the lead to 2-1. Bad seemed to go to worse and momentum went back to the Leafs, when Pat Verbeek took a penalty right after the Leafs’ goal. As luck would have it, the Stars turned the disadvantage into a firm grip on the hockey game. Shorthanded, Modano won a neutral zone face-off back to Craig Ludwig, who then lasered a long pass back to him. Modano entered the zone and ripped a slap shot over the shoulder of Joseph for a 3-1 lead and his second tally of the evening.
Score: Dallas 3, Toronto 1
The majority of the offense occurred in the first period of this hockey game, and predictably, with a 3-1 lead and a style of hockey that suffocated opponents, the Stars settled in. Their defensive posture was superior to the Leafs’ offensive attack that night, which could not gain much traction as the period began. In fact, the Stars all but salted the game away when Lehtinen recorded his 11th goal of the season just six minutes into the period.
After the Dallas goal, emotions began to spill over for a frustrated Leafs squad, who were being outclassed in their own building. Tie Domi fought Grant Marshall, which earned them both a five minute major for dropping the gloves.
The rest of the second period plodded along without much action from either team. The Stars were still deploying their defense and able to completely implement their structure and game plan. It was quickly apparent that the Leafs were a good hockey team, but the Stars were a machine.
Score: Dallas 4, Toronto 1
In the final period of hockey for the Minnesota North Stars/Dallas Stars franchise at Maple Leafs Gardens, the Stars seemingly replicated their second period effort. Hull took a penalty late in the second that would bled into the start of the third, but the Stars’ special teams were able to kill it off with relative ease.
In an effort to give the penalty kill a little extra practice before the Christmas break, Mike Keane took an interference penalty right after the Hull call expired. The Leafs established some zone time on the man advantage, but once again the Stars’ PK was up to the task.
The period and the game itself led up to one moment it seems, as Modano firmly stamped his signature all over the Garden ice that evening. At the 12-minute mark of the period, Modano once again gained steam through the neutral zone, this time going in on a two-on-one advantage. The Maple Leafs defensemen rendered the pass unavailable, which left Modano with the shooting option. Shoot he did and net he did find, as he ripped a shot over the pad of Joseph for his third of the night and a 5-1 lead for the Stars.
The remainder of the game played out rather predictably given the lopsided 5-1 score, and the two teams bogged the game down with chip-and-chase hockey. The occasional shot by the Leafs was repelled by Belfour, who had hosted an outing on the Garden ice the night before with close friends.
At the final horn and for the final time, the Stars skated out of Toronto with a 5-1 victory and a special evening for Modano, as he recorded a hat trick in his final game at Maple Leaf Gardens.
The Stars finished December with a season best 11-1-3 record, which pushed their overall record to 23-5-6. The month and the record would earn the Stars a first place ranking in the overall league, conference, and division standings.
Modano would record three hat tricks in the 1998-99 season, with his first coming against Toronto in this December game. The hat trick was his first since 1997, when he recorded one against the Chicago Blackhawks at Reunion Arena.
That’s all for the look back at the 1998-99 road to the Stanley Cup for the Stars this month. We’ll see you back here in January with more on those trophy-bound Stars.