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Tuesday, April 15

Updated: April 15, 1:55 PM ET

Oilers intent on breaking Stars' stranglehold

By Mike Heika
Special to ESPN.com

EDMONTON, Alberta -- Visitors to New York are often told to avoid "the old confidence game."

Visitors to Edmonton might be wise to do the same thing.

The East Coast version is, of course, a scam that costs rubes a little of their money. Out in Western Canada, the stakes could be much higher.

Because, when the Dallas Stars wander into Skyreach Centre on Tuesday night for Game 4 of the best-of-seven Western Conference quarterfinals, the investment of a $66 million season is on the line.

The Stars, trailing the Edmonton Oilers 2-1, can ill-afford to lose and go down 3-1. Not only would a loss make the task of coming back that much more difficult -- it would force the Stars to win three games in a row -- it would feed the confidence of the young Oilers, who seem to be drinking up the elixir-like cases of Molson these last few days.

And that's a huge factor in this series, which has become somewhat of an NHL tradition. The Stars and Oilers are meeting in the playoffs for the sixth time in the last seven years. The only time they didn't meet was last season when both missed the postseason.

And while the series has been one of the closest around, with 17 of the last 23 games decided by one goal, the Stars have held the clear advantage. After losing in seven games in 1997, Dallas reeled off victories in five games, four games, five games and six games.

So confidence has been a huge player in 2003. While the Stars had it entering the series, the Oilers had to fight to earn it. They accomplished that feat with a huge third period in Game 3 that led to a 3-2 victory.

Down 1-0, the Oilers appeared to be headed toward another one-goal loss when Georges Laraque made a super-human bull to the net to tie the game. That jacked up the Skyreach Centre crowd and gave the rowdy fans hope until 40 seconds later when Dallas' Jere Lehtinen chipped in a fluky goal off the back of Oilers defenseman Scott Ferguson to give the Stars the lead and send waves of doubt throughout the arena.

It was the old "here we go again" feeling that has existed in Edmonton. Fans and players had to be thinking -- just for a minute, anyway -- that no matter what happened, the scrappy Oilers could not beat the big-time Stars. In every meeting between the two, the Stars had been a No. 1 or No. 2 seed. In every meeting, the Oilers were seventh or eighth.

That's just the way it went. The Oilers had hard work and hustle. The Stars had millions of dollars more in talent. The doubt was there, whether anyone in Edmonton wanted to admit it or not, that hustle couldn't overcome financial muscle.

But that all changed a few minutes later when Stars goalie Marty Turco let in a weak wrister by Fernando Pisani to tie the game. In that moment, the Oilers gained all of the confidence they needed. Like Popeye downing a can of spinach, the team sprang to life and flashed huge biceps with oil derrick tattoos.

"We know we can beat them now," said Radek Dvorak, who scored the game-winning goal in Game 3. "If we play like we did (Sunday), we have a great chance to go to the second round."

Teammate Georges Laraque added: "It doesn't matter about budget. Nothing matters right now except hard Oilers hockey. We know we can beat anybody in our building."

The Oilers are jazzed and ready to go in Game 4 because they have a different feeling than in the past. Dallas has controlled the last four series, never putting its backs truly against the wall. This time, they've done it with alarming regularity.

Edmonton coach Craig MacTavish sees the series like a faucet -- and the Stars have always been the ones with their hand on the tap, getting the big goal at just the right time almost as if by willing it.

But, he said, that's changed this year.

"We've got their hand off the faucet," MacTavish said. "We feel like we're close to being in a position where our best is good enough."

And that confidence can change everything moving forward.

That said, the Stars aren't lacking any confidence either. They lost Game 3 with captain Derian Hatcher sitting out a one-game suspension. He'll return for Game 4. What's more, the Oilers also might see a little more from the Stars' top players, who been a tad bit inconsistent so far.

One reporter told Mike Modano on Monday that the Oilers finally feel that if they play their best game, they can beat the Stars. Modano coolly replied: "Well, we feel if we play our best game, we can beat any team."

OK, so maybe they don't have their hand completely off the faucet just yet. But if the Oilers can get one more win, the Stars might start to show a few cracks in the foundation.

Mike Heika of the Dallas Morning News is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.

Oilers
Edmonton
36-26-11-9

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Stars
Dallas
46-17-15-4

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