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No sweeping fashion this year for tight Stanley Cup series

DALLAS -- At last, there's a competitive series in the Stanley Cup finals.

Tied 2-2 going into Game 5 tonight, the Buffalo Sabres and Dallas Stars have made it the best championship round in many years. The previous four seasons ended with 4-0 sweeps in the finals."This is as tight a matchup as you'll find," Stars forward Brian Skrudland said. "Both teams deserve a lot of credit for where they are."

Not since the New York Rangers and Vancouver Canucks went seven games in 1994 has there been a Stanley Cup final that has lasted more than four. The New Jersey Devils, Colorado Avalanche and Detroit Red Wings (twice) have all swept the finals.

Since the best-of-7 format began in 1939, only 10 finals have gone the limit. But no one is betting that this one won't go right down to the end.

The Stars and Sabres have each split games in each other's arena, and the teams have been tied or had a one-goal difference for all but 26 seconds of the first four games.

Both teams feature a defensive style that has resulted in low-scoring games. Their 17 combined goals (Stars 9, Sabres 8) are the lowest four-game total in Stanley Cup finals history since the Montreal Canadiens outscored the St. Louis Blues 12-3 in 1969.

The last game of the Stars-Sabres series was typical, the Sabres winning 2-1 at Buffalo. The Sabres are 8-1 in one-goal games, and the Stars are 7-6 in this year's playoffs.

"Both of these goaltenders are playing so great," said Stars defenseman Craig Ludwig, referring to Dallas' Ed Belfour and Buffalo's Dominik Hasek. "One break here or there makes a difference."

Hasek has the better stats between the two, having allowed only eight goals on 127 shots, but Belfour was the more spectacular in Tuesday night's victory for Buffalo.

"We just see this as two really competitive teams trying to win," Stars coach Ken Hitchcock said. "(Stars general manager) Bob Gainey said to us last night on the airplane this is such a great series. You've got two teams with so much passion and character going at it. It's so good for the game of hockey."

With their victory on Tuesday night, the Sabres cast an entirely new light on this series. A Stars victory in Game 4 would have given them a 3-1 lead in the best-of-7 finals, making it a tough job for the Sabres to win.

Only one team since 1939 has come back to win the Cup after losing three of the first four games -- the 1942 Toronto Maple Leafs.

Tuesday night's victory was also important for another reason as far as the Sabres were concerned: They admittedly played their worst game of the playoffs in losing Game 3 by a 2-1 score.