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Langenbrunner First Tasted Stanley Cup Success as a Member of the 1999 Stars
The Dallas Stars were a team that was hovering on the periphery of greatness during the mid-to-late 1990's. The Stars made a healthy habit of finishing 1st place divisionally each season but ultimately fell just short of reaching the Stanley Cup Finals. In the summer of 1999, that stigma was erased as Dallas reached hockey's mountaintop by defeating the Buffalo Sabres in a thrilling six-game series as they raised Lord Stanley's Cup.

The Western Conference of that era was full of heavyweight teams such as the Detroit Red Wings who were just coming off of winning two consecutive Stanley Cups with their group of legends that included Steve Yzerman, Nicklas Lidstrom, Sergei Federov, Brendan Shanahan and Igor Larionov.

Another dominant team of the era was the Colorado Avalanche who tasted Stanley Cup success in 1996 and regularly figured prominently in heated Western Conference contests. Superstars like Patrick Roy, Peter Forsberg and Joe Sakic were joined by youthful talents like Milan Hejduk and Chris Drury. The St. Louis Blues had their own formidable group with the likes of Al MacInnis, Chris Pronger, Grant Fuhr, Piere Turgeon and a young Pavol Demitra.

Everywhere you looked out West, it seemed that every team was loaded whether it was the Phoenix Coyotes with their fearsome duo of Jeremy Roenick and Keith Tkachuk or the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim who boasted the offensive talents of Teemu Selanne and Paul Kariya. Needless to say, the competition was intense and the road to the Stanley Cup Finals was paved in blood, sweat and relentless battle.

Legendary former Dallas Stars' playoff hero and current club General Manager, Joe Nieuwendyk kindly took time out of his busy schedule to share his memories of the 1999 Stars.

Dallas General Manager Bob Gainey already had assembled an impressive core of players in their prime with Mike Modano, Joe Nieuwendyk, Sergei Zubov, and Ed Belfour as the team's spine to build around. The Stars also possessed a roster that from top to bottom was one of the strongest in the NHL as veterans Guy Carbonneau, Craig Ludwig, Pat Verbeek and Dave Reid not only provided leadership but gave Dallas tremendous depth. Jere Lehtinen and Jamie Langenbrunner were flourishing as their roles with the Stars increased as each became more heavily depended on.

"He knew how to go about adding the right characters to the locker room environment. Bob was excellent at putting the team together. He wouldn't speak often but we felt his presence. Everyone had a lot of respect for him and he was a real class individual. We had a great collection of front office staff and our owner Mr. Hicks helped us get over the edge," Nieuwendyk explained.

The Stars were a mostly veteran filled-team but Langenbrunner quickly endeared himself to his teammates in his early years in Dallas. Nieuwendyk recalled his own similar experiences with the Calgary Flames, "When I was in Calgary I had the advantage as a young player to learn under a lot of great veterans around me. Jamie was surrounded by guys like Guy Carbonneau, Mike Keane, Dave Reid and Pat Verbeek. There were a lot of great people he could learn from."

"There aren't too many guys I'd rather go to war with than Jamie. He learned to work hard early in his career and picked up on things quicky. We had a great relationship off the ice and all the players respected him in Dallas," he continued.

Head coach Ken Hitchock preached a style of hard-hitting, "defense first" responsible hockey. No player better represented the Stars' brand of hockey better than their bone-crushing captain Derian Hatcher. "Hatch was a high-energy guy. He was always our leader in minutes played and a shutdown guy on defense. Derian was a really good captain for us and the right fit the role by the style of hockey we played," Nieuwendyk recalled.

Hitchcock also prided himself on being a renowned Civil War buff who studied the history of legendary battles and the famous generals who led them. His idea was to build an ethos of togetherness and camaraderie within his ranks in the Stars' locker room.

Nieuwendyk spoke of the effect Hitchcock had on the team, "Ken was the best coach we could have had at the time. Hitch pushed everyone towards being more responsible defensive players. He pushed Mike Modano hard to become more well-rounded and responsible defensively."

When interviewed, Hitchcock would speak about the belief of his team operating as a solid unit defensively and that doing so would lead to offensive chances. Like a general studying the troops on a map, he saw his players performing as a tight unit on the ice. For the 1999 Dallas Stars to achieve the ultimate victory, he demanded that his players sacrificed their own personal accomplishments for the good of the team.

"We had a real good mix of players that trusted in one another. Dave Reid was a guy who did the unselfish things to allow us to do what we could do. There were a lot of players like Pat Verbeek, Guy Carbonneau and Craig Ludwig who performed their roles very well," Nieuwendyk told.

Gainey had already built a very capable roster but one more piece was needed to put Dallas over the top. Free agent sniper Brett Hull was signed to the delight of Stars' fans though some skeptics were unsure whether Hull would buy into Hitchcock's system and sacrifice his offensive tendencies. Hull quickly erased such doubts by performing at a high level on both ends of the ice and quickly becoming a vital piece for the Stars.

Nieuwendyk spoke about Hull's influence, "Brett was an important piece. He gave us a personality and definitely brought a swagger to the team. Brett helped form our identity but he didn't receive enough credit for his game intelligence and passing ability on the ice. It's easy to call him a top scorer but he brought us so much more."

The road that brought Dallas to the finals went through three goalies that have each been referred to as all-time greats in Grant Fuhr, Patrick Roy and Dominik Hasek. The Edmonton Oilers of Doug Weight, Bill Guerin and Mike Grier presented the first hurdle for the Stars in conference quarterfinals but Dallas was able to complete a four-game sweep.

Next round against the St. Louis Blues was an extremely hard-fought series as four of the six games were decided in overtime. As Game 6 progressed into overtime, Hull cut behind the Blues' net and found Modano who opportunistically put away the series-clinching goal as the Stars moved on to the Western Conference finals.

Awaiting the Stars was the high-powered Colorado Avalanche who dispatched the mighty Detroit Red Wings in six games. Colorado had gained an early stranglehold over the Stars as they were up 3-2 in the series and looked to close the door on any hope of a comeback. Dallas found themselves with their backs against the wall as they entered a pivotal Game 6.

The Avalanche and the hostile Pepsi Center crowd were looking for blood as they knew that Colorado was just a period away from reaching the finals. As the third period began, the score was knotted at 1-1 after Lehtinen had cancelled out Claude Lemieux's first period opener. The Stars summoned their fighting spirit as Langenbrunner provided two unanswered goals and Richard Matvichuk added another late in the game to secure a 4-1 victory. Hitchcock later revealed he considered the game to be "the defining moment of the franchise."

Dallas returned home for a deciding Game 7 as the pendulum swung back in their favor. Their dominance in the closing act of Game 6 had given the Stars new life as their blue-liners shutdown the Avalanche superstars by holding them to just 19 shots all game. The Stars outgunned Colorado 4-1 as Keane twice found the net before Langenbrunner and Lehtinen again beat Roy.

The Reunion Center was in frenzy as Dallas marched on to the Stanley Cup finals. Nieuwendyk remembered the crucial victory, "Getting past a powerhouse team in Colorado with guys like Joe Sakic, Peter Forsberg, Theo Fleury and Chris Drury… it meant a lot. Down in the series going into Game 6, Colorado got out in front that game and we showed a lot of fight to come back. We were able to beat a real elite team."

The final challenge that stood in the way of the Stars and lifting the Stanley Cup was the Buffalo Sabres and their back-to-back Hart trophy-winning goalie Dominik Hasek. The Sabres were coming off an impressive elimination of the Toronto Maple Leafs and superstar Mats Sundin in five games.

In the opening game of the Stanley Cup Finals, Buffalo drew first blood in a back-and-forth affair thanks to Jason Wooley's 3-2 overtime winner. In Game 2 at Reunion Arena, Dallas tried everything in the book to get Hasek off his game. Hull's go-ahead goal late in the third period proved to be the winner. Their constant pressure on Hasek worked as they came away 4-2 winners.

The series shifted to Buffalo for Game 3 as Modano persevered through the pain resulting from a wrist injury but it was Hull who was forced to leave the game due to a groin injury. Nieuwendyk rose to the occasion by scoring the tying and game-winning goals as the Stars won 2-1. Despite Lehtinen's power play goal, Dallas were downed in Game 4 2-1 as Dixon Ward scored the winner for Buffalo.

The Stars returned home for Game 5 and a statement was needed for Dallas to regain the momentum. Darryl Sydor struck on the power play before Verbeek's goal sealed the win. Belfour had an outstanding game in net as he shutout the pesky Sabres 2-0.

Game 6 would go on to be an all-time classic and typified the style of hockey that was played during the era. In the first period, Lehtinen threw a puck on net that somehow fooled Hasek to score the opening goal. Stu Barnes countered in the second period with a wrister that beat Belfour as the game turned into an all-out grudge match.

Like a heavyweight prize fight, the two teams kept exchanging physical blows until only one was standing. As the game entered overtime, legs became weary as the players were playing on pure adrenaline.

Along with millions of hockey fanatics across America and Canada's east coast, I was on the edge of my seat swaying back and forth in an effort to keep my eyes open. I knew that history could be made as the Stars hadn't won the Stanley Cup in their history going back to their Minnesotan expansion in 1967. No matter what it took, I had to see the game live. Settling for SportsCenter highlights the next morning wouldn't suffice and I was proved right as the classic encounter stretched into triple-overtime.

After 1:30 AM EST and into the sixth period of play, Mike Modano and Brett Hull crashed the Buffalo net as the latter scored the famous or infamous goal that would forever go down in history as "The Crease Goal." Although the NHL rulebook was modified shortly after the 1999 finals, some fans still consider the goal to be illegal despite both NHL Director of Officiating Bryan Lewis and Wayne Gretzky deeming the goal legitimate. Lewis later explained that even with ruling enforced, the goal did not violate the "crease rule" because Hull already had control of the puck when his skate entered the crease.

Nieuwendyk gave his own verdict, "The league changed the rule right away but I could understand where the fans were coming from. We'd go back to their building and hear it all the time. The important thing was that we won it and I immediately went to celebrate with my teammates."

Ed Belfour's stellar play in net was a big reason why the Stars were able to become champions as he saved 53 of 54 shots in Game 6. He had out-dueled both Roy and Hasek along the way and Nieuwendyk spoke of Belfour's importance, "Eddie is the best 'big game' goalie I've ever played with and I've been on a lot of teams with top goalies. He did a great job for us and raised his game during the Cup run. He's a definite Hall-of-Famer in my book."

It was especially sweet for Nieuwendyk who was awarded the Conn Smythe trophy as a year earlier he missed almost the entirety of the playoffs due to injury. "It was really special. I couldn't be a part of it the year before because of my knee but everything happens for a reason. Individual awards are always nice but it was the team's accomplishment that mattered most," he said.

At the age of just 23, Langenbrunner was fortunate enough to accomplish what many all-time NHL greats have missed out on by winning the Stanley Cup as a member of the 1999 Dallas Stars. Hall-of-Famers such as Marcel Dionne, Gilbert Perrault, Peter Stansy, Mike Gartner, Dale Hawerchuk, Brad Park, Jean Ratelle, and Pat LaFontaine were never able to etch their names on the elusive trophy.

Langenbrunner's play was crucial to the Stars winning the 1999 Stanley Cup as he led the team with 4 power play goals during the playoffs and contributed 3 game-winning goals. He only trailed Nieuwendyk with 10 total playoff goals and was only behind Modano and Nieuwendyk in postseason points at 17. It was a sign of things to come for Jamie as he again lifted Lord Stanley as a member of the 2003 New Jersey Devils.

"It was a good run for Jamie. He raised his game when we needed someone to step up. Being part of that team paved the way for the rest of his career. He learned a lot of valuable lessons that he passes on to his teammates today. Jamie's a great captain now for the Devils and did terrific leading the USA during the Olympics," Nieuwendyk reflected.
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