There are plenty of things the Edmonton Oilers would rather do than face the Dallas Stars in the playoffs, such as chew on balls of tinfoil or bushwhack naked through a brier patch. "It's painful, it's difficult, and it can get seriously frustrating," says Oilers coach Craig MacTavish. "They're physically committed, and they confine you to small areas of play. Yes, you could call them miserable."
Move over Kathy Bates. In taking a 2-1 series lead against Edmonton on Sunday, Dallas abided by a tenacious, thorny and misery-inducing style that wore down the Oilers. The Stars, ever so slightly more intent on puck possession than they've been in recent years, controlled the play along the walls and in the corners to dominate Edmonton at even strength. That Dallas was, as usual, better by the thinnest of margins on the score sheet only worsened the Oilers' pain. It won Games I and 3 in overtime—by scores of 2-1 and 3-2, respectively—and raised its playoff record against Edmonton to 14-3 over the past four postseasons. Eleven of the Stars' victories have been by one goal. "Every time, every f———time, they find some way to win," said Oilers defenseman Tom Poti after a goal by center Benoit Hogue, who played only because Joe Nieuwendyk had suffered a knee injury in Game 2, won Game 3. "It's getting hard to take."
Edmonton's solace lay in its strength with the man advantage. The Oilers scored three power-play goals in their 4-3 victory in Game 2, and in Game 3 they rallied from a 2-0 deficit in the final 1:03 of regulation, scoring twice after pulling goaltender Tommy Salo. Dallas remained unbowed by that impertinence and stuck stoically to its ways in sudden death. "We prepare all season to play the hard, unhappy style you need in the playoffs," says Stars forward Kirk Mullen "No one in this room feels the privilege to play any other way."
Dallas still relies on its trademark throttling defense, but this season coach Ken Hitchcock has ordered up a new aggressiveness, urging players to fight for the puck even when that means taking a calculated risk on defense. The dedication to this style runs from superstar center Mike Modano to fourth-line wing Ted Donato, and while the Stars are driven by what defenseman Daryl Sydor calls "team pride," they're also a bumptious lot. That, as much as anything, explains why they overwhelmed Edmonton in last week's one-on-one battles.
Not long ago Dallas devised a practice drill called the Piranha Game. In it, a forward takes the puck into the corner, and four teammates surround and attack him, throwing their elbows high and cracking their sticks against his shins. "The idea is that whatever happens, you don't lose the puck," says winger Mike Keane. "If you get hit or you get knocked down, it doesn't matter. When the puck is on your stick, you keep it. The Piranha Game hurts, no doubt, but it helps us win."