They had the three best records in the NHL this season, the only teams with more than 100 points. In pivotal playoff games, the Dallas Stars, Detroit Red Wings and New Jersey Devils looked like they deserved to be there.
That hasn't been the case throughout the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs this spring. On Thursday night, though, the Stars and Wings took 3-2 series leads and the Devils stayed alive against Ottawa.Mike Modano broke out of his scoring slump with two goals, including the controversial game-winner with 8:44 to play, as Dallas outlasted the San Jose Sharks 3-2.
"It was time to put up or shut up," Modano said. "Things hadn't been going my way. I had to start playing in-your-face hockey and just let the scoring chances happen."
They happened just often enough for defending Cup champion Detroit, which beat Phoenix 3-2.
"We played the way we're capable," goalie Chris Osgood said. "We're playing as a team again, with all four lines and six defensemen. That's the way this team is built. That's how we win games."
New Jersey got a stellar performance from its best player, goalie Martin Brodeur, who also set up the first goal with a long pass off the sideboards to Brian Rolston for a short-handed goal.
"Tonight was a gut check for us," said Doug Gilmour, who scored the clincher. "You've got to have fun, but you can't go out on the ice thinking that way. The whole thing is you have to stay focused."
STARS 3, SHARKS 2: Modano showed why he was awarded a $43.5 million contract for six years - beginning next season. He scored his second goal of the postseason on a perfect centering pass from Darryl Sydor, wristing the puck behind a sprawling Mike Vernon. Modano hadn't scored since an empty netter in the first game.
San Jose claimed Jamie Langenbrunner of the Stars was in the crease. The television replay seemed to back the Sharks' argument, but Langenbrunner might have been held in the crease by a San Jose player.
"It's the linesman's call," Vernon said. "If the linesman doesn't see it, he could check the replay. That's what it's there for. If you don't see it, don't guess. That's what the rule is for. He didn't see it."
RED WINGS 3, COYOTES 1: Spectacular goals by Vyacheslav Kozlov and Sergei Fedorov keyed Detroit's win. The Red Wings were sluggish in the second and third game and early in Game 4, but have looked like champions since.
Tomas Holmstrom also scored for the Red Wings, bidding to become the first team to repeat as Stanley Cup champions since 1992.
"They're a hungry team," Phoenix center Jeremy Roenick said. "When they see a dog down, they usually step on him. We have to be ready to play better next time, no question about that."
DEVILS 3, SENATORS 1: Brodeur got the Devils going with his long pass to a breaking Rolston. Lyle Odelein also scored for New Jersey, which must win Saturday night in Ottawa to force a seventh game.
Thirteen teams have rallied from 3-1 deficits in the playoffs, the last Pittsburgh against Washington in 1995.
OILERS 3, AVALANCHE 1: For the second time at Denver in the series, the Avs blew a third-period lead. They were up 2-0 in the opener and fell 3-2.