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Dancing with the Stars

This is the third of three excerpts from Rob Ray's book, "Rayzor's Edge," to be published by Sports Publishing LLC this month and to be available at area bookstores. Today's excerpt deals with the 1999 Stanley Cup finals.

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If you compared Dallas' roster to our roster, it was easy to think we were going to get killed in the series. They had all the stars. But everybody on both sides was nervous. There weren't many guys on either team that had been in the finals before. We didn't know what it was going to be like. We hadn't played in Dallas since the first game of the season way back in October, so the opening games provided a stage for both teams to feel each other out.

We won the first game in overtime when Jason Woolley scored. Once that was over, the whole idea that they were better because they had Brett Hull, Mike Modano and Ed Belfour went out the window. We proved to ourselves that we could play with them. We also played well in the second game but lost, so we came home feeling pretty good. The intensity on the ice in the finals is amazing. Every time you're on the ice, you give it every drop you've got to try to make a difference. For most guys it's the biggest thing in their lives to get to that point.

They grew up watching the finals. Every person wants to be the guy to make that difference. He wants to be the guy who people talk about. Each player does every little thing on the ice that he can to help his team win. It's not like the middle of the season, when guys just float through the game on some nights. The guys that play a lot of minutes in the finals have nothing left by the time the game is over.

In fact, playing four rounds in the postseason -- two months -- is an incredible grind. I could never have imagined what it was like until I experienced it. It could go on for 28 games, but they weren't like 28 games in the regular season. Teams play every other night. There's travel all the time. Bodies don't have time to recover. Everyone takes a beating because the intensity level is so much higher. You just don't have time for those bruises to come out. They just get deeper and deeper over time. Bad knees get worse. Everyone plays hurt in the finals when they normally wouldn't. If there's something wrong with you in the regular season, you don't play. In the finals, you ice it down, freeze it, and go. It's not as if the coaches have to push you to get out there, either. Every player knows what he has to do at that point. You only get so many chances, so you do what you have to do to get there.

We came home for Game Three, and we sat back a little too much. I think we were a little nervous. I don't believe home-ice advantage in the playoffs means anything. Sometimes it's better to start out on the road, go and win a game, and then play at home. When you play at home, all the pressure is on the home team. It's your crowd and your media there. Plus, there are things you have to deal with away from the rink that can be distractions. You have people coming in for games, trying to get tickets set up. You have family staying at your house. When you're on the road, it's just hockey. You just go play. I think after the third game, we realized we couldn't sit back, we couldn't be tentative, we couldn't be nervous. We had to play our game, and that's what we did to win Game Four. We were happy to come out of there 2-2. It was a whole different story than if we had been down 3-1.

Back in Dallas, we didn't play well in Game Five and lost. To make matters worse, Rhett [Warrener] broke his ankle right at the end of the game. That was a big loss. Rhett was the guy who cleared people from the net. On Hull's goal in Game Six, a guy like Rhett would have had him cleared out of there. All of a sudden Darryl Shannon had to go into the lineup, and he hadn't played since the first couple of games in the Ottawa series. I think some of the guys were saying to themselves, "Oh, no, Rhett's gone." They realized how big a part of it he was. But then everyone thought, "We've won without Dom [Hasek]. We've won without other people. So we can win without Rhett."

I don't think we played that badly in Game Six, but we couldn't get to the net. They played great defensively. That's what Ken Hitchcock, the Dallas coach at the time, is known for -- good defense. Still, we were confident we could play with them, and we proved it.

We got some chances. [Stu] Barnes tied the game in the third period, and we went into overtime. Once that happens, the game changes. Obviously we had to be careful because we didn't want to give up any scoring chances, but we couldn't sit back and let the Stars come to us. Sometimes Lindy [Ruff] is more selective on who goes out on the ice after regulation, and everyone holds his breath on every shot because anything can happen. It never seems like a nice goal is scored in overtime; it's always an ugly goal.

And the intensity level that's already high during the game goes even higher in overtime. Guys work even harder. Any little mistake can cost your team the game, and you don't want to be the person who makes it. Guys squeeze the stick a little tighter and make sure they make the right play.

Game Six went on and on, and as a scratch I watched most of the overtimes from the dressing room, although I was out in the tunnel at times, too -- back and forth. I couldn't stay still.

Everyone watching remembers how it ended, as Hull scored the game-winning goal with his foot in the crease. OK, it happened. The officials' view was that it was a goal. But according to the rules, it was not a goal.

I was with some of the other guys who weren't playing that night. We saw the replay in the dressing room, and so we came out and yelled that Hull's foot was in the crease. By that time, Lindy was tying to argue with the ref. But 30 seconds after the goal went in, there were a hundred people on the ice. The Cup was there in a minute or two. And because it was so late -- 1:45 in the morning -- I think they were trying to get it wrapped up and over with. We never had an opportunity to argue. It was called, the game was over, and we were told not to be such sore losers. But the league officials knew that it shouldn't have counted after looking at it; anybody would have known.

By the time the replay officials realized what was going on and could have said, "What are you doing?" everyone who could have changed the ruling was gone. They just disappeared, probably because it was so late. That's the part that bothered me. Lindy yelled at NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, who gave him a look that said, "Shut up and get in the dressing room." We were dumbfounded. Nobody on our team knew what to do. Nobody paid any attention to what we had to say. What were they going to do, take all of those people off the ice and resume play? We knew we were done.

It's funny that a goal like that decided the Cup. There had been arguments about the discretionary rule all year, which made it all the more terrible to lose that way. If it had been a normal goal, well, so be it. We all look back at it, and people still talk about it. We should have had another chance.

The NHL never admitted it made a mistake. If they had known how much it meant to so many people, someone would have checked the play more closely. Who cared if it was 5 in the morning? Check it. It wasn't Game Three. We didn't have any nights left to redeem ourselves. The players on that team still just shake their heads thinking about it -- it could have been us. We could possibly have won the Stanley Cup. I'm not saying we would have won -- who knows? But to lose the right way would have been much easier to stomach.

A couple of days later, the city had a rally for us downtown, and that was pretty cool. In fact, it was a total surprise. We just knew we had to go to the rink that day, but when we got together, we were told we were going to the rally. At first everyone thought, "This is kind of stupid. I want to go home. I want to see my family." But it was neat to see the fans in Niagara Square and see the support involved. Guys still talk about that.

That rally showed that Buffalo is a town that respects what it has. People say that it doesn't matter if you win or lose as long as you show up and play hard, and I think the fans were showing those feelings. Sure everybody would have liked a championship, but they respected us for leaving everything we had out there -- just like they did the Bills in football during all of their losing Super Bowl years.

Lindy ended the rally by saying, "No goal." It was a time to say his piece. I think everybody understood what had happened. But they knew there was nothing we could do, and after a few months the anguish died away. The emotion only comes back at certain times.

It was great to play for the Stanley Cup, but the way it ended spoiled the feeling a bit. Even today it's tough to talk about it, because we came that close.

"Rayzor's Edge" will be published by Sports Publishing LLC this month and will be available at area bookstores.

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