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Stars, Leafs long to be one with The Cup
Some players given a second opportunity

DALLAS -- Pat Verbeek was 17 years old the first time he was in the same room as the Stanley Cup. His father urged him to get closer to hockey's most cherished prize, put an arm around it and pose for a snapshot.

No thanks, he said. He'd rather wait until he earned that right.Now 35, the Dallas Stars forward is four wins from finally touching his sport's holy grail. The Stanley Cup finals between Dallas and the Buffalo Sabres begin Tuesday night at Reunion Arena.

"I've spent 16 years trying to get this far," said Verbeek, who had been stopped twice before in the conference finals. "You've got to make the best of it when you're here because you may never get another chance."

Verbeek is one of many Dallas players whose career resumes are filled with impressive honors yet lack the most important of all -- an NHL championship.

That void is especially large for top Dallas players Ed Belfour, Brett Hull and Mike Modano. Each has a lengthy list of personal kudos, yet they're each 0-1 in the finals.

For them, winning a title would validate their individual glory and certify them as great team players as well.

"You can turn in all the All-Star appearances and personal accolades for this moment to play for the Cup," Modano said. "People grade guys on how many championships you win nowadays. One would be fine with me."

The Cup represents a similar stakes game for Sabres goaltender Dominik Hasek. Already the consensus choice as the world's top goalie, Hasek can enhance that status by leading seventh-seeded Buffalo to a title.

"As a child I didn't even know what a Stanley Cup was, but it is my focus right now," said Hasek, who led the Czech Republic to the 1998 Olympic gold medal. "It takes a couple of years to understand what it means to the players and fans to win the Stanley Cup. That's why I am here today in Buffalo."

The Stars have eight Cup winners and four others who have been to the finals and lost. Six Sabres have been to the finals and between them they've won one game.

Craig Ludwig, one of three Dallas players who won the Cup with Montreal in 1986, said he thinks players who have felt the joy of winning are as motivated or even more than those who haven't.

"There's a lot of us who know what it's like at the end of the rainbow and we want that back," the 38-year-old defenseman said. "For a few of us, we know we don't have many kicks of the can left. To us, this is very important."

Dallas, the top-seeded team in the West, comes into the finals on a roll, having beaten second-seeded Colorado twice while facing elimination. Some viewed that series as the true finals, noting the Western Conference champion has won the last three Cups, each with sweeps.

Modano upset several Buffalo players by saying Dallas "is anticipating a bit of a letdown in the finals" because the Sabres are the East's seventh-seeded team.

He clarified his stance Sunday and praised Buffalo for "deserving to be there."

"I think everybody else was saying that there was going to be a letdown; I didn't think there would be," he said. "I think that's a lot of the hockey geniuses around the NHL predicting that, considering Colorado and our series was a pretty good series."

The Sabres, however, are still treating Modano's initial comments as bulletin board material.

"I don't think a team that's really on a mission is going to have one of their leaders saying that the team's going to have a letdown after the conference final," Buffalo center Michael Peca said. "If a team's on a mission, those kind of statements aren't made.

"They're already setting up excuses, saying that the Western Conference was their Stanley Cup. But he may say things that he doesn't realize he's saying."